Opinion

Women of LatinaCon Signal Rising Sway of Hispanic Voices in the South

Latino vote seen as pivotal in a complicated political year

Hillary Clinton greets supporters and takes selfies after a March campaign event at Hillside High School in Durham, N.C. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the importance of the Hispanic vote is dissected, states such as Nevada, New Mexico and Florida always make the list. North Carolina, a battleground state both sides crave to win, hardly gets a mention. But in a region still thought of as black and white, the Hispanic voice and voting population are growing.  

That was clear at a recent gathering in Charlotte of more than 400 Hispanic women — representing all ages and professions, women who have been in America for generations and those newly arrived. What everyone who attended the fourth year of LatinaCon had in common was a desire to be an active part of the community, or as one workshop declared in its title: “What Latinas Need to Do to Be Successful in the United States.”  

Politicians cannot ignore the strength and commitment that the women at LatinaCon represented. Recent Salem College graduate Maria Camila Isaza, 21, has been listening to campaign-year rhetoric about Hispanic Americans. "When they shed negative light on our culture, it feels oppressing,” she said. “But it's also a challenge to defy the stereotypes." After earning a degree in communications and marketing, she is headed to a job in client relations for a major financial firm.  

The Hispanic population in North Carolina ranks 11th in the nation, at about 890,000, or around 9 percent of the state’s population, according to the Pew Research Center . Latinos overall make up about 2.1 percent of the state's 6.5 million registered voters. That's up from 0.2 percent in 2004.  

Donald Trump started his campaign disparaging Mexican immigrants and has recently been attacked by his own party for questioning the objectivity of an American-born judge of Mexican ancestry who is presiding over a case against Trump University. In North Carolina, recent polls show a close November race, with Trump slightly ahead of his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton. With gubernatorial candidates on either side of the state's so-called “bathroom bill” for transgender people, changing congressional district lines, and complicated voting restrictions, North Carolina voter turnout was already expected to be robust. Hispanics could prove to be a crucial constituency.  

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Hilda H. Gurdian is the publisher of the Spanish-language weekly newspaper La Noticia , which organizes LatinaCon and has about 300,000 readers, Gurdian said. La Noticia hosts a number of other events throughout the state, including the Latin American Excelente Awards, an annual gala created in 1998 to celebrate the outstanding achievements of Latino business people and their supporters and community service activists, and also to award college scholarships to outstanding students.  

The LatinaCon participants were most interested in networking and seeking advice — in English and Spanish — on topics from health issues to financial freedom. The “success” workshop panelists illustrated the different backgrounds, experiences and paths of Latinas in America.  

Carolina Pulido, director of learning and development at Delhaize America, grew up in Colombia. She talked about “legacy,” and said she asked herself, “What do I want to be proud of, to leave my kids.” She emphasized the need to “start with the end in mind,” and said that Latina women can stay true to themselves while also learning from different cultures — from southern to corporate.  

Wendy Pascual moved to Charlotte from the Dominican Republic in 2003 — knowing only the words “thank you” and “hungry” in English, she said — when her husband’s work brought the family here. With a commitment to help others, she threw herself into volunteering, and is co-founder and executive director of the Camino Community Center, with a mission to help others lead healthy, hopeful and productive lives. “It’s important that we find our purpose in life,” she said, and not let fear of failure stop you.  

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Edith Valladares McElroy is the dean for the Levine campus at Central Piedmont Community College, a host for 13 seasons of a Charlotte-produced, Spanish-language talk show, and an award-winning teacher and administrator. She was born in Venezuela and has lived around the world. Her advice? “If you prepare for everything that may come to you, nothing will surprise you.”  

Keynote speaker Maria Petrea, with a father from South Carolina and a mother from Panama, said “Embracing bilingualism and biliteracy” is necessary for success in a global economy. “A second language needs to be perceived as an asset,” said Petrea, who has been recognized with helping create the first successful dual language program in North Carolina, accredited by the Spanish government.  

The diversity of the women at LatinaCon and the growing Hispanic population in the South thwarts the notion of Hispanics as a monolithic group and challenges any politician who would treat them as such, either as scapegoats or as a source of votes.  

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.