Mexican Ways, African Roots
Most of the city's Hispanic residents are natives of a region populated by descendants of black slaves
Bobby Vaughn, who has studied the Afro-Mexican people, observes life among Afro-Mexicans living in Plantation Park Apartments in Winston-Salem. (Journal Photo by Ted Richardson)
quote:A single pioneer
Patterns of Mexican migration to specific cities in the United States often can be traced to a single pioneer. By most accounts, the story of how Afro-Mexicans arrived in Winston-Salem begins with Biterbo Calleja-Garcia. In 1978, Calleja-Garcia was working in Tejas Ranchos, Texas, when a coyote, a guide who helps illegal immigrants cross the border, told him that there was more money to be made in North Carolina.
"Who knows how he knew to bring me here, but he knew," Calleja-Garcia said. "He said, 'You're gonna make a lot of money there.'"
In fact, he began earning $3.35 an hour working 17 acres of tobacco with his two sisters off Union Cross Road. They lived in a trailer on the farm and worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. May through November. They returned to Mexico during the off-season.
Calleja-Garcia spread the word to friends and relatives back home in Cuaji and to many who were already working in Santa Ana, Calif. In Winston-Salem, he told them, there is work.
For 10 years, Calleja-Garcia had the same boss in North Carolina. In 1988, he got his papers to work legally in the United States. He stopped annual returns to Mexico in 1989 and took a job in roofing. Soon, he switched to a construction job, pouring cement for a company in Kernersville, earning $4 an hour, then $6. He started renting a two-bedroom house in the Waughtown section of Winston-Salem with about 12 others who came from California.
"After that, many that I didn't know began to come," he said.
Most, like Calleja-Garcia, crossed the border illegally. Some are paid off the books; others get fake work documents or work under false names. Others come legally on a temporary work visa. And some, again like Calleja-Garcia, attain legal working status at some point after they get here.
In Winston-Salem, the immigrants moved into jobs in construction, into factories packaging T-shirts and toiletries, and assembling window frames and drainage pipes for swimming pools. They moved into bakeries and the kitchens of restaurants. They opened their own restaurants and shops, hiring family members and friends.
Calleja-Garcia stuck with construction. In 1992, he found a job pouring concrete for a company in Archdale. His starting pay was $9.50 an hour, and he wound up helping build megastores such as Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart along Hanes Mall Boulevard. By the time he was laid off in 2002, he was earning $18 an hour.
He found work with a construction company in Greenville, S.C., and returned to Winston-Salem on the weekends. The travel was worth it. In Cuaji, a day laborer might earn 120 pesos, or $10 a day, half of what he was earning per hour in North Carolina.
quote:On a Saturday in March, a black baseball coach, Arthur Green, went door-to-door in the apartment complex, recruiting players for Little League tryouts later that day at a nearby park. He did not speak Spanish, and the Mexicans greeted him with suspicion as he explained why he was there. Suspicion is a constant for those here illegally when an American stranger knocks on the door. None of the Mexicans sent their children to the tryouts.
One night, Tequilla Wilson, a young black woman attending Winston-Salem State University, met some of her Mexican neighbors one night in a desperate effort to complete her Spanish homework. She wandered around the complex, searching for anyone who could help her out. Some Mexican neighbors kindly obliged.
For the most part, the blacks and Mexicans keep to themselves. The apartment complex, once named Columbia Terrace, was built about 1950 as the first low-income housing project in the city. For years, its residents were predominantly black, but in the 1990s Hispanics began to move in. The process has accelerated in the past four years, and today the complex's 169 units are about evenly split between blacks and Mexicans, mostly from the Costa Chica.
In this and other neighborhoods around the city, Mexicans and blacks live side by side, a condition that can create tension.