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The Daily Tar Heel

Triangle's Latino Population Grows, Builds Community

He comes to the restaurant every Friday night for cultural events like Latin dancing and bluegrass music night.

Sanchez came to Durham 15 years ago when a friend said he would be able to find a good job in the Triangle.

He is just one of many in a wave of Latino newcomers to North Carolina

U.S. Census information indicates that the Latino population in Orange County grew from 1,279 to 4,342 between 1990 and 2000 -- a 239 percent increase.

North Carolina saw a 439.9 percent increase of Latinos in the past decade.

The effects of this influx can be seen throughout the Triangle.

In Carrboro, where 12 percent of the population is Spanish-speaking, community officials have instigated a push for cultural and educational programs to help integrate the influx of almost 2,000 Latinos into the community.

Local service organizations also started El Centro Latino, a nonprofit resource center for Latinos.

"Report after report from the local Latino task force, Los Ninos and by Orange County said there was a need for such a center," said John Herrera, a newly elected Carrboro alderman who is the first first-generation Latino immigrant to hold a municipal government position in North Carolina.

"Everyday we got calls from social service agencies, the police, hospitals and individuals," Herrera said.

The Orange County Partnership for Young Children and other social service organizations like the United Way help fund El Centro Latino. "(It's) a grassroots organization because it acts on a daily basis with the local community," Herrera said. "Everyone from different levels -- Hispanic clergy, local town and state and national government representatives all got involved."

The diverse Latino population, which immigrated places like Peru, El Salvador and Costa Rica, can go to the center to find help in areas such as housing, employment and child and health care. At the beginning of September, the center hosted a health fair where doctors from UNC Hospitals and the private sector administered various treatments.

Volunteers are an integral part of the center's success, said Executive Director Alex Asbun. "We are blessed to be in a community with such a large pool of ready volunteers," Asbun said.

In addition to various aid programs, volunteers help instruct English as a Second Language and Spanish classes that are offered to the public. "In order to really know another culture you need to know the language," Asbun said. "It's more than just a language but about discovering a culture and a history."

El Chilango also offers English and Spanish classes, taught by restaurant employee Ranulfo Franco.

Saul Benegas is a participant in the programs at El Chilango and El Centro Latino. He goes to Latin dance classes Friday nights at the restaurant. At El Centro Latino he uses the day care, attends the free ESL classes and learns how to save money on health care.

"If you want to open the door for opportunity but don't know how to go about it, El Centro Latino helps open the door," said Banegas, who recently moved to Carrboro from Mexico.

"They can help you find clinics that don't charge as much or charge according to how much you make." Banegas also receives help in translating and completing job applications at the center.

Another problem the Latino population faces, Herrera explained, is banking. He said a nationwide trend shows that more than 50 percent of Latino immigrants don't open bank accounts because of language and cultural barriers.

Herrera helped found the Latino Credit Union in Durham to break down those barriers. The first Latino-run institution in North Carolina, it was created to improve the banking situation for Latino families, he said.

The range of programs offered in the community not only aids Latinos but non-Latinos as well.

Franco explained that he teaches at El Chilango to help English and Spanish speakers understand and appreciate one another. "If Americans are helping me, then I want to help them."

Sofia Vallila contributed to this article.

The Features Editor can be reached at features@unc.edu.

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