It was culture shock when this Arizona gal moved to North Carolina in 2000. The accent, pace of life, and outright friendliness of Southerners shook me, but what most threw me off was the lack of Mexican food. For the first years I was in North Carolina, every couple of weeks my dear mother would send me a FedEx package with my comfort foods–Villa’s flour tortillas, cans of chipotle chiles, pulparindos, and avocados (though I don’t know how legal it was to send produce). But by year three I let my mom know that while I appreciated the packages I didn’t need them anymore, because I had found some tienditas.
Not surprisingly, the growth of tienditas closely tracked the Latino population explosion. It started with a trickle of Latinos in the early 1990s and ramped up to a wave in the 2000s. Between 1990 and 2000, the growth of Latinos in the largest metropolitan regions grew by over 600 percent. For example, in the Raleigh-Durham area where I lived, Latinos grew from fewer than 10,000 to more than 70,000. And this growth only continued, as reflected in the 2010 Census. From 2000 to 2010, the Latino population doubled in North Carolina, an increase of 111 percent. While the rate of growth was not as high as that of the previous decade, keep in mind that in the 1990s the growth reflected the relative lack of a Latino population to begin with. This growth accounted for over one-quarter of the state’s population growth and helped place North Carolina as the sixth fastest-growing state in the nation.
A Latino population surge took place across the South starting in the late 1990s. The traditional immigrant destinations of Los Angeles or Houston were replaced with Macon, GA and Greensboro, NC. There are a number of reasons why these new destinations emerged, but they can be boiled down to the economic pull of the New South and the push factors away from the West as a result of California’s 1990s recession and stiffer border enforcement.
But in the context of the 2012 presidential election, North Carolina, stands out. Unlike the rest of the South, with the exception of Virginia, North Carolina is a swing state. In 2008 the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, won the state by a mere 14,177 votes. North Carolina had not gone blue since 1976. And in this electoral season President Obama and Romney have been locked in a statistical tie. As a result of the continued Latino population growth, and in particular registered voters, Latinos could help the Democrats once again claim the Tar Heel state.
Today Latinos in North Carolina make up slightly less than three percent, or 182,000 of the electorate. At first sight this may seem insignificant, but given that the presidential candidates are within three percentage points of each other, Latinos voters will be critical to swaying the election one way or another. For months President Obama has trailed Romney in the state, but if his campaign can maximize Latino voter mobilization and turnout, then he just might again win North Carolina by the skin of his teeth.
Most eyes are on the big Latino swing states such as Nevada or Florida, but the importance of Latinos is just as big in the smaller state of North Carolina. And looking into the future, the electoral importance of Latinos in North Carolina and the rest of the South will only grow. Like the rest of the country, Latinos are a younger population, which means that looking beyond 2012 Latinos will become even more pivotal in securing states such as North Carolina and turning deep red states such as Georgia to a lighter shade.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.