MONROE — On North Charlotte Avenue, signs of change are written in Spanish. "Fabiola's," "La Tienda Mexicana," "La Cueva."
But a different kind of sign arrived in the fall.
"Honk if you hate Spanish," read plastic lettering on an A-frame placard in front of Earl Brown's used-furniture shop.
"Honk if you loath Mexico & its flag," it said later.
Brown's neighborhood, like others across North Carolina, has been transformed by immigration. Latino-owned businesses flourish around him, and Brown is among a diminishing number of English-language stores.
He said the sign was a way to take action when others only complained.
But Matilde Gomez, who owns Tienda Mexicana Juquilita, a convenience store across the street, considers the sign racist. She understands that illegal immigration infuriates many Americans. But she says Brown's display is wrong. "I can't put a sign out that says, 'I don't like black people,"' she said.
As Congress considers overhauling the immigration system, the debate heats up nationally. Anti-immigrant sentiment can be particularly acute in small or economically depressed communities, experts say.
In Monroe, population about 32,000, demographic change in the past 10 years has been stark. Chicken plants and booming construction have drawn thousands of workers from Latin America. Hispanic enrollment in Monroe elementary schools has climbed from 11 percent a decade ago to almost 50 percent today.
Problems both ways
The new, intercultural relations can be tense. Locals complained about noise at a recent Mexican-themed rodeo in eastern Union County. Hispanics are often targeted for robberies, according to a Monroe police detective.
Brown's first anti-immigrant sign elicited a range of reactions: surprise, quiet complicity and outrage. And it had consequences Brown didn't expect.
Brown's Spanish-speaking neighbors wondered how he could take Hispanic customers' money and shun them at the same time.
A local newspaper, the Enquirer-Journal, editorialized about Brown's sign: "When you peddle hate ... you should expect to be repaid in kind."
When Brown's shop opened in 2001, no Latino businesses were on his part of the street, he said. Since then, he has watched two furniture stores close and two Latino shops open on the quiet stretch of road leading into downtown. A Mexican grocery replaced a cabinet shop. Residents have shifted, too.
Brown first erected the sign after someone broke his shop windows on Halloween. Neighbors suggested Hispanic teenagers were responsible, he said, which added to his frustration.
He was "not understanding a single word my customers said," he said.
His wife said the first sign was too harsh. So he took out "hate Spanish" and wrote, "Honk if you're tired of hearing Spanish."
His longest-standing sign said "Pardon agents Ramos and Compean," a reference to two border patrol officers convicted of shooting a Mexican drug smuggler.
Eventually, he said, Hispanic customers in his store declined from about 25 percent to 15 percent. He said he got few complaints and a lot of support from U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.
"In a way, it kind of voiced the opinion of a lot of middle-class white Americans -- and blacks," he said. "... A lot of people are downright frustrated because there's nothing they can do."
But on March 31, Brown heard a clear objection. He argued with a Latino customer who warned him that something would happen if he didn't take down the sign. Two weeks later, a vandal bashed the store's windows.
No arrest has been made.
Brown wears a pistol and now locks the shop door during the day. A note tells customers to knock.
His latest sign sends two messages. In English, it advertises a sale. But in misspelled Spanish, it says the store is closed.
Brown said the controversy did not drive him out of business, but the vandals "convinced me to get out of town quicker."
He said he plans to continue selling furniture -- on eBay.
Meanwhile, an Ecuadoran-owned sports complex is expanding next door.