MONROE—When Flora Lopez moved to North Carolina in the mid-1990s, the grocery stores didn’t sell the kind of cornmeal used to make tortillas. Now, a little more than a decade later, tiendas are sprinkled throughout the town of 28,000—and not only in Hispanic neighborhoods.
At Wal-Mart, pallets are stacked high with Maseca cornmeal, Mexican candies and other imports. Across the highway, a car dealership advertises “Credito Facil”—easy credit. A furniture store’s sign reads: “Se Habla Espanol.”
But ask Lopez and her husband, Claudio, if they feel a tie to the region, if they feel like “Southerners,” and they respond with blank looks and expressions of confusion. They’re here because this is where the work is, offering a chance at a better life.
“What you want is a job,” said Flora Lopez, whose ability to speak English and Spanish makes her a valuable employee at a CVS pharmacy. “You want to work and get better money than in Mexico.”
In towns such as Monroe across the region, the South’s long economic boom has attracted tens of thousands of new neighbors like the Lopezes over the past 15 years: Spanish-speaking immigrants, primarily Mexican, many here illegally.
Interviews and studies suggest most of them don’t yet feel a cultural tie to the region. But some scholars say it’s only a matter of time before Hispanics stop seeing themselves as outsiders and start making an indelible mark.
“Increasingly, Moon Pies will be replaced as a cultural icon by fajitas,” predicted Bill Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC Chapel Hill.
A recent Associated Press/Ipsos poll was consistent with an analysis of 10 years worth of surveys by UNC Chapel Hill, both finding that barely half of Hispanics living in the region identified culturally with it. In fact, in the UNC studies there was a 20-point drop in the percentage of Hispanics who identified themselves as “Southern” from 1991 to 2001—the largest of any ethnic group in the region.