More Hispanic females moving into region, Census data shows

CHARLOTTE -- A steady stream of customers flowed into a small east Charlotte convenience store Wednesday past stacks of Jumex brand juice, plantains and habanero chile-flavored potato chips. Many were like the owner behind the counter: Hispanic and female.

Beatriz Hernandez Lorenzo, 28, and her customers represent a fast-growing segment of the burgeoning Latino population in the Charlotte region.

In Mecklenburg County, the number of Hispanic females almost doubled from 2000 to 2006, from 17,633 to 33,915 last year. The male Latino population grew by 69 percent in that time.

Altogether, Latinos made up nearly 10 percent of Mecklenburg County's population as of July 2006, according to new Census data released today.

Experts and advocates say the increase in Hispanic women means Latinos are creating more stable communities. It also is prompting social service agencies, schools, hospitals and businesses to change their strategies for reaching out to the newcomers.

In recent years, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte has begun marriage preparation classes and retreats specifically for Latinas. A domestic violence counseling program expanded this summer. Support groups and social networks have formed in the past year for both recent Latina immigrants and longtime Charlotteans.

In the Charlotte area, the bulk of the initial wave of Latino immigrants in the 1990s were men, a typical immigration pattern.

By 2000, women made up only 39 percent of Mecklenburg County's Latino population. Six years later women made up 42 percent of the population.

The balancing of the genders shows Latino immigration patterns are maturing, said Owen Furuseth, UNC Charlotte associate provost for metropolitan studies and extended academic programs. But he and other experts said it also shows a side effect of U.S. immigration and homeland security policies.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. borders have tightened, discouraging illegal immigrants from returning home for holidays or for off-season stretches in the agricultural or construction industry. Instead of losing the chance of coming back, many are choosing to stay.

"Families don't know if the opportunity is going to close permanently," said Heather Smith, a UNCC associate geography professor who studies immigration. "Families are forced to make very difficult decisions."

Some immigrants are sending for their wives, girlfriends or children. That means more Latinas entering the workplace, more Hispanic kids attending local schools, more hospital visits.

The influx can help the community at large, experts said, expanding the labor pool and forming more stable family units where children are not separated from their parents by borders. But additional people also means more pressure on municipal and government services.

Some social service agencies have already addressed these changes. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department formed an International Relations Unit years ago, Smith said, well before it had the diverse population of bigger cities.

Now, she said, hospitals are working on how to reach Latinos and research their health needs. Schools have already expanded their English as a Second Language programs.

Hernandez , the store owner, moved to Charlotte from Mexico City seven years ago, like many immigrants looking for opportunity and education.

She now co-owns the east Charlotte convenience store and three of her siblings have joined her in the city. She's taken English-language classes at Central Piedmont Community College and hopes to do more.

But she said she feels a pull to her parents back in Mexico. She's not sure whether she'll try to stay here long term or go home. She is single, and it's even been hard to meet female friends.

Last year, Charlotte's Latin American Coalition formed a support group for Latinas where women could learn how to parent, open a checking account, cope with stress and save money.

"It's a really scary feeling to be in a totally different country, your husband working 12 to 15 hours a day," said Angeles Ortega-Moore, who leads the coalition.

After the first program, Ortega-Moore said, women clamored for more. So they continued the "Women in Progress" course. The next 10-week session begins Tuesday.

But Charlotte's Latina community isn't just made up of recent immigrants. Some have been here for decades, others for generations.

Even longtime residents such as Ortega-Moore, who has lived in the U.S. for 28 years, can find the cultural differences isolating. About a year and a half ago, she and other established Latinas formed a chapter of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, a seven-year-old group started in Austin, Texas.

The local chapter of about 25 women now gather for a potluck every few months. For Ortega-Moore, it's an energizing event. They all understand one another.

COUNTY2006 pop.% White% Black% Asian% Hispanic% Female of Hispanic

Cabarrus 156,395 83%14%1.5%8%46%

Catawba 153,784 87%8%2.9%8%42%

Gaston 199,397 83%15%1.1%5%45%

Iredell 146,206 85%13%1.6%5%45%Lincoln 71,894 92%6%0.4%8%46%

Mecklenburg 827,445 64%30%3.9%10%42%

Union 175,272 86%12%1.3%9%44%

York 199,035 78%19%1.2%3%44%

The numbers do not add up to 100 percent because Hispanics can be any race. The racial data show those of only one race.

-- Charlotte Observer analysis of U.S. Census population estimates.

County 2006 pop. White Black Asian Hispanic Female of Hispanic

Cabarrus, N.C. 156,395 83% 14% 1.5% 0.8% 46%

Catawba, N.C. 153,784 87% 0.8% 2.9% 0.8% 42%

Gaston, N.C. 199,397 83% 15% 1.1% 0.5% 45%

Iredell, N.C. 146,206 85% 13% 1.6% 0.5% 45%

Lincoln. N.C. 71,894 92% 0.6% 0.4% 0.8% 46%

Mecklenburg, N.C. 827,445 64% 30% 3.9% 10% 42%

Union, N.C. 175,272 86% 12% 1.3% 0.9% 44%

York 199,035 78% 19% 1.2% 0.3% 44%

The numbers do not add up to 100 percent because Hispanics can be any race. The racial data show those of only one race.

-- The Charlotte Observer