By Stephanie Caplan
A voice from 30 yards away, down a dusty road lining a make-shift soccer field called out to a North Carolina farmer who was far from home.
“Richard!” The call came again, louder and closer, “Richard!”
This was a special meeting. For 16 years, Isaias, known as “Easy,” had traveled to North Carolina to work on Richard Whitaker’s tobacco and produce farm in Guilford County. One of an estimated 150,000 migrant farmworkers in North Carolina during each growing season, Easy makes the arduous 6,400-mile round trip trek each year for planting and harvesting in order to provide for his family in Mexico.
On this day, it was the North Carolina employer who crossed the border.
Richard Whitaker was among a group of 37 members of the N.C. Farm Bureau Board of Directors who traveled to Mexico with Go Global NC (formerly the Center for International Understanding) in February 2016. Their learning journey was part of Go Global NC ‘s Latino Initiative program.
The Latino Initiative was established in 1998. Between 1990 and 2000, North Carolina had the fastest growing Latino population of any state in U.S. and the program was created to foster greater understanding of these changing demographics and to help weave Latino immigrants into the fabric of North Carolina communities. The nearly 800-member Latino Initiative alumni network has shared time on-the-ground in Mexican communities, learning about the people, culture, history of the country. They spend time with families whose sons, fathers, and brothers come to the U.S. to find work and hear personal stories of the impact – positive and negative – of crossing the border to build better lives for their families.
Several Farm Bureau officials called the short-term immersion program “remarkable” and said it helped erase stereotypes they’d carried for years. Many were impressed with Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 21 million people. Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten said, “It’s vibrant, it’s clean, and the people are courteous. Commerce is the order of the day and everybody seems to be going on about their business with a sense of purpose.”
The program introduced them to the contrasts of scholars have termed “the Many Mexicos.” Delegates saw great wealth and extreme poverty as they traveled from urban to rural settings. One farm leader commented about the strong sense of community he observed: “Everybody is working together, whether they have a little or a lot.” Others were struck by the show of deep faith and pride in Mexican heritage.
North Carolina Farm Bureau Directors returned home positioned to serve as ambassadors, striving for better relationships with Mexicans living in the U.S. That confidence to reach out to their new North Carolina neighbors and “never look at an immigrant the same way” is a common theme expressed by alumni. North Carolina county commissioners, school teachers, law enforcement officers, judges, foundation leaders, farmers, and health care providers are just some of the many fields represented among Latino Initiative alumni. The professional and personal changes resulting from their global experiences are deep and varied. Sample Latino Initiative outcomes include a police chief reporting stronger community policing practices built on establishing relationships with the Latino population his department serves; improved parent-teacher relationships with targeted bi-lingual communication; expanded medical interpreter services; and successful health prevention, nutrition, and vaccination programs.
North Carolina is among the states with the highest growth rate of its Latino population, and changing demographics call for informed leadership. The Latino Initiative program for the Farm Bureau was designed specifically for agricultural leaders with a focus on farming practices in Mexico and gaining a better understanding the push-pull factors that keep laborers returning to work on their North Carolina year after year. It is a cross-cultural leadership development program designed to positively integrate Latino residents into the fabric of North Carolina communities.
This year’s North Carolina delegation spent one week touring small- and large-scale farming operations and sharing conversations with farmers. They met with federal and state government officials and spent a day with members of a rural community to hear about the impact of immigration on families left behind.
One of the most impactful days was spent at a school in Lindero de la Petaca, a rural community near San Miguel de Allende. The humble community was accessible only by dirt road and had just one teacher at a school for children in grades 1-7. During the visit that drew mothers and grandmothers, grandfathers and toddlers to the school, students surprised one of the Farm Bureau directors with a birthday cake, hugs, high-fives, and a chorus of Cumpleaños Feliz (Happy Birthday). At the school, one delegate said, “It makes you look at your life a little differently.”
North Carolina agriculture generates more than $10 billion in annual income and is heavily dependent on migrant labor, much of it from Mexico. “We couldn’t do it without them,” said one delegate.
“They are like family,” Richard said, describing his relationship with Easy. The month was February and Easy, who had journeyed six hours by car to greet his North Carolina employer, was relishing time with his wife Gloria and sons. In five short weeks, he would be back in Guilford County preparing tobacco for the 2016 growing season.
Stephanie Caplan is the Communications Director for Go Global NC. Go Global NC connects North Carolina to the world and the world to North Carolina. Its global education and training programs empower North Carolina leaders with the skills, understanding, connections, and knowledge to succeed in a global community. Go Global NC (formerly the Center for International Understanding) is part of the world-class, 17-campus University of North Carolina system.