George McDaniel, American Renaissance, February 2004
“The Divide”, PBS Television, directed by John Valadez.
Frances Bavier, “Aunt Bee” of the old Andy Griffith television show, is buried in Siler City, North Carolina, where she spent the last 17 years of her life. The Andy Griffith Show chronicled life in Mayberry, an idyllic Southern village, a place where time seemed to have stopped. In the words of Richard Kelly, author of The Andy Griffith Show, “Mayberry is totally conservative and . . . is guided by its traditions and rituals and resists change of all sorts.”
When the series ended, Miss Bavier retired and set out to look for the town in America most like Mayberry. She ended up in Siler City, which had been mentioned frequently on the show. “I . . . came here looking for a fairyland,” she explained. And for those 17 years, she found it.
Now, in the years since Miss Bavier’s death in 1989, that fairyland has taken a monstrous turn. What had been a quiet town of 5,000, of whom about 71 percent were white and 27 percent black, has now nearly doubled in size and consists of three uneasy racial groups — white, black, and Hispanic — each about a third of the population. The local elementary school is at least 50 percent Hispanic. With the population of the rest of the surrounding Chatham County figured in, at least 10,000 Mexicans now live in the area, virtually every one of whom arrived in the last ten years. More come every week.
The rapid changes that have come to Siler City and Chatham County have brought the region much publicity, and the town was the subject of a September 2003 PBS documentary called “The Divide.”
What accounts for Siler City’s dramatic change? At various points in the program, the area is called a “magnet,” as though illegal aliens are irresistibly drawn there, like so many iron filings. It is true that Mexican peasants did not choose Siler City on their own. They are actively recruited, primarily by chicken processors like Townsend Poultry, eager to pay low wages for dirty, disagreeable work. Management appears to think only of profits, and finds the immigrants’ rustic naïveté to be an advantage. According to Mother Jones magazine, one local poultry executive has said of the illegal employees, “I don’t want them after they’ve been here a year and know how to get around. I want them right off the bus.” Although the government has investigated firms such as Tyson Foods for recruiting illegal workers, the meatpacking industry and many others continue to flout the law.
If white businessmen are ultimately responsible, the white townspeople and civic leaders are no better. In the program there are short interviews with residents. Predictably, the blacks and Latinos speak out for the interests of their own race, without apology or compromise. Of the three whites interviewed, only one — National Alliance member Will Williams — speaks for whites, and is presented, as we shall see, in the worst possible light. The other two whites, a county commissioner and a Baptist preacher, talk about how important it is to seek “understanding” and “celebrate diversity.”
The county commissioner, Rick Givens, has not always been so agreeable. In August 1999, he wrote to the INS asking for help with the flood of illegals, and suggested they might need to be “routed back to their homes.” The letter caused a stir, and it seemed that Mr. Givens might be on the verge of becoming an anti-immigration crusader. But then came a chance politicians-on-the-make crave: a political junket.
In Mr. Givens’s case, it was an all-expenses-paid trip in 1999 to Puebla, Mexico, birthplace of many of Siler City’s new residents. Along with 25 other state and local officials, Mr. Givens was sent by a group called the North Carolina Center for International Understanding, which is sponsored by the University of North Carolina. After touring rundown homes and schools, and seeing the conditions in which his new neighbors used to live, he decided he had to make it easier for them to come to Siler City. According to salon.com, “Givens felt humbled by the experience and changed his position.”
“I still say illegal is illegal,” he said on his return, but apparently some illegal is less illegal than others. “I found out it wasn’t just a simple black-and-white issue,” he added. He came home with a new calling: to decide “how we can work with the people that are here to help integrate them to our way of living.”
The other pro-immigrant white on the program is Reverend Neal Kight, who has a quickly-growing Hispanic congregation. Rev. Kight has made it his mission to convince the white people of Siler City — at least the whites still in his congregation — to accept and welcome their new neighbors. Although at one point he appears to speak with great authority about the evils of life under segregation, he later admits that that he arrived only recently. For 14 years, he was a minister in New Mexico, where he and his wife were the only whites. The current complexion of Siler City makes him feel quite at home.
The Reverend does concede that when his daughter reached school-age, he passed on the local elementary school (the one that is 50 percent Hispanic) and sent her to a newly-formed charter school. This had “nothing to do with race, not at all,” he emphasizes. It was a question of class size, student-teacher ratio, that sort of thing.
Rev. Kight recently helped put on a “Siler City Racial Unity Rally,” to banish the specter of David Duke, who had spoken at an immigration-control rally. Rev. Kight’s purpose was — what else — to “celebrate our diversity,” but judging from the scenes in “The Divide,” most Siler City residents apparently decided to celebrate by staying home.
National Alliance activist Will Williams no doubt appeared on the program only because he invited David Duke to Siler City in April 2000. As Mr. Williams explains, as soon as he began to hear the town referred to as “Little Mexico,” he had to do something. The program portrays the Duke rally as a unifying event for blacks, Hispanics, and “good” white people. Although the rally was about the problems brought on by the influx of immigrants, the program highlights the emotional response of blacks to a “former Klansman.” At the same time, it gives the impression that anyone who opposes the transformation of Siler City is, at heart, a night rider.
Although Mr. Williams is allowed a few statements here and there, and Rev. Kight and Mr. Givens speak of the difficult “adjustments” whites have had to make, “The Divide” glosses over substantive complaints about mass immigration, and suggests anyone who preferred the town the way it was, is either ignorant of the benefits Latinos are providing or downright bigoted and hateful. The program is silent on drug use, gangs, school violence, overtaxed services, plummeting test scores, an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, underage drinking, domestic violence, traffic accidents, noise violations, unsanitary housing, livestock within the city limits — all problems created or exacerbated by Hispanic immigrants.
One of the commentators in the program is Ruben Martinez, a musician and writer. He is, of course, sympathetic to the immigrants and approves of the adjustments Siler City has made to welcome them. “The Divide” does not, however, go into Mr. Martinez’s views on how the Mexican invasion has affected Mexico, which he described in his book Crossing Over:
“A cholo [gangbanger] from the Purépecha Plateau in Michoacán strolls down the main street of Nahuatzen . . . He’s wearing his Oakland Raiders cap backwards and his head is shaved East-L.A. style. He’s got his Nikes on and his baggy pants. He’s wearing a sleeveless T-shirt to display the tragicomic mask tattooed on his shoulder, with the slogan ‘la vida loca [the crazy life].’
“He goes into a video arcade with his buddies and spends an hour killing ninjas, blacks and Arabs. Each time he kills a bad guy he screams: ‘En la madre [any reference to a Hispanic’s ‘mother’ rather than ‘mommy’ is an insult], motherfucker!’ Then he climbs into his ranfla [low rider], a broken-down ‘79 Datsun with North Carolina plates, and he goes cruiseando through town singing the refrain from a golden oldie: ‘My angel baby, my angel baby/oooh I love you, yes I do . . .’”
America is poisoning Mexico but Mexico is enriching America.
“The Divide” ends with a visit to a young Hispanic woman bustling about her Siler City home, sort of a youngish, Latinized Aunt Bee for the 21st century. In sad Spanish phrases accompanied by a strumming guitar sound track, she says that while Mexico is her country [“Mexico es mi pais”], Siler City — Mexico pequeño [Little Mexico] — is her home.
As I watched “The Divide” again on videotape to write this review, the tape ended and the television switched automatically back to the news. There, in his best pidgin Spanish, President George Bush was rolling his Rs before a Hispanic crowd. It was “con nosotros” this and “este es” that, as he schmoozed and oléd with his hermanos. Such a performance no longer seemed surreal.
Meanwhile, back in Siler City, new Hispanic families arrive each week on North Chatham Avenue, while Aunt Bee’s house on Elk Street has been put on the market again. Even the ghosts are leaving Mayberry now.