Commentary

DeCock: Siler City's economy erodes, but its newest residents choose to stay

Immigrants who came for work will stay for atmosphere

ldecock@newsobserver.comSeptember 30, 2012 

— There’s nothing but gravel left where the Pilgrim’s Pride plant once stood on the south side of town, just a vacant expanse surrounded by “no trespassing” signs. The giant poultry processor, and the 830 jobs it provided, are gone forever.

Over on U.S. 64, the Townsend plant sits ready and waiting, the trucks parked in their bays, empty cages awaiting deliveries of chicken that may never come. It was shuttered in 2011, and though it has been mothballed, not demolished, the 550 jobs may never return.

The migrant workers who came to Siler City to work in those plants provoked a dramatic demographic swing in the town beginning in the mid-’90s, making it 49.8 percent Hispanic by the 2010 census. The children of those workers would, in 2004, make up the first predominantly Hispanic high school soccer team to win a state title in North Carolina.

Eight years later, the economy may be withering, but the Jordan-Matthews High School team is thriving. More than 40 athletes tried out for 26 spots. Twenty-five of the players are Hispanic; one, a freshman goalie, is white.

If the mere creation of the team reflected one demographic shift, its enduring character later reflects another. When the jobs left town, many of the Hispanic workers who once filled them didn’t.

So even though his mother lost her job when the Townsend plant closed, junior Dennis Leiva is still playing for Jordan-Matthews. She found another job at a processor in Sanford, about 30 minutes away, but the family had put years of work into renovating and expanding their house in Siler City. It made too much sense to stay.

“Our house, we’d been there for a while already,” Leiva said. “She didn’t want to move to a new place.”

Making a home

When furniture and textile plants closed years ago, white and black families stayed in Siler City, 35 miles southwest of Chapel Hill in Chatham County. They liked the quality of life and community atmosphere; the population now is nearly 8,000.

The Hispanic workers put down similar roots. Many have stayed as well. The future of small-town North Carolina remains uncertain, but these are the people who will write it, all races and ethnicities, finding their way in the new economy together.

The players identify themselves as Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran, but practices are conducted entirely in English, as are conversations in the stands at games. This reflects the evolving Hispanic community in Siler City, which is undergoing a conversion from “migrants” to “settlers,” as described by the soccer coach, Paul Cuadros.

“It’s a bedroom community,” Cuadros said. “Some people have left, a lot of people have stayed. ... Moms and dads are working outside of Siler City, working in other towns but living in Siler City. That means that there’s something here that they like. There’s something about Siler City they enjoy calling home.”

Cuadros started the team in 2002 after moving here on a fellowship to write about migration and poverty and finding there was no organized opportunity for Hispanic kids to play soccer – at any level. He ended up writing a well-received book, “A Home on the Field,” about his experiences and observations.

Eleven years later, now a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, he’s still coaching, even driving the bus – something he said he’d never do – because of budget cuts.

The first few Jets teams were largely first-generation immigrants. Their parents came to Siler City to find work. There are fewer of those immigrants now, because there are fewer jobs. The majority of players on the current team were born in the United States, and many of their parents work elsewhere – Ramseur, Burlington, Sanford, Greensboro, Charlotte.

Jose Martin Carrillo Jr. was born in Chapel Hill and is now a junior at Jordan-Matthews. His father has worked at a Siler City sawmill for more than 20 years, while his mother, Amalia, drives about a half-hour to Ramseur, where she’s a seamstress in a textile factory. This is the only home he has ever known.

“We were thinking about moving to another place, but Siler City is calm,” Carrillo said. “There’s not a lot of troublesome people. Everybody knows each other here. My mom doesn’t really care if she has to drive for an hour. She just wants me to be OK in school.”

The demographic changes pose new questions for a small town such as Siler City. As industry moves out, tax revenue drops, but as people move in, they expect bedroom-community amenities. Siler City has an additional issue: It took on a $14 million debt to build a reservoir to ensure fresh water for the poultry plants. They’re gone. The payments are not.

“We’ve probably hit our basement,” said Siler City Mayor Charles Johnson, a real estate broker. “We still have some companies expanding. ... But they’re not going to have 600 employees, like a poultry plant. More like 50 employees.”

More than a team

In the stands on a Wednesday night in early September, Jorge Mejia sat with Mario Tobar, debating tactics, substitutions and expectations. Mejia graduated in the spring; he was a team captain last fall. Tobar’s wife, Virginia, works at Jordan-Matthews and his daughter, Michelle, played soccer there; both would later join him at the game.

There were some exasperated grumbles in the stands as Eastern Randolph, another team composed almost entirely of Hispanic players, took an early 2-0 lead. When one scoring chance went for naught, Jordan-Matthews sophomore Rosaura Escobar, the team’s most fervent and vocal fan, yelled out, “!Vamos! That was a good try!”

The Jets scored before halftime, then piled on the goals for a 5-2 win. The crowd was delighted. This is what they have come to expect. Going into this weekend, the Jets were 8-4-1, 4-2 in the Mid-State Conference.

“A lot of people are always talking about the state championship and asking why we can’t do it again,” said Darwin Ramirez, a junior forward. “We have good players, but they always expect a lot from us. We try our best.”

Since that 1A soccer state title in 2004, Hispanic students have won class awards and elections, joined other sports teams – one member of the undefeated girls’ basketball team that won the 2A state title last winter was Hispanic – and generally continued to integrate into the student body at Jordan-Matthews. Last year, despite having 58 percent of the student body classified as “economically disadvantaged,” Jordan-Matthews was ranked the No. 4 high school in North Carolina by U.S. News & World Report.

Since Principal Martin McDonald arrived three years ago, graduation rates have risen, from 68.1 percent to 76.9 percent in 2012 – Jordan-Matthews also graduates Hispanic students well above the state average – as the high school has purposefully added clubs, intramural sports and other activities designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of the changing student population. The soccer team already existed, but could hardly serve that purpose any better.

“The best dropout prevention program anywhere is high school athletics,” McDonald said. “What athletics does for young men and women is it keeps them focused, gives them a reason for being in school and an extra set of hands and eyes upon them to maintain and work on their eligibility. It gives them a better sense of self and worth and they feel more a part of the school and the community.”

These Jets grew up watching the original Jets. They have never really known life without a soccer team. They were 8, 9, 10 years old when the team first started, a beacon of promise for a Hispanic community trying to find its way in its new home. The Jets haven’t been back to the state title game. But they continue to win conference titles, three straight and counting, even after moving up to the 2A classification in 2009.

“For a Hispanic player, it means a lot,” senior Ivan Barsurto said. “It means you’ve made it. Around school, or when you play out of town, people are like, ‘He plays for the Jets.’”

A community adjusts

While a mostly white crowd gathered at the Jordan-Matthews tennis courts for a match one Tuesday night, in a parking lot across the street, both former and current Jets set garbage cans out as goals for street soccer.

Friday night football remains the big event, but this generation of players has also found the community more receptive to their sport.

There were places the players used to try to play, like a set of lighted tennis courts, where they’d invariably get chased away. Now, they’re free to play until the lights go out, there and elsewhere.

“It has changed,” said senior defender Bayran Lopez, who moved to Siler City from Honduras when he was 9. “You see people playing everywhere now. We used to have to look for places to play.”

Cuadros pulls into the parking lot, where the pickup game is just getting started. The ex-Jets wave and call out “Cuadros!” He beckons one over to his window, asks him what he’s doing. Adrian Vasquez is working with an electrician in Siler City, he tells Cuadros, who presses him about his education. Randolph Community College in January, Vazquez tells Cuadros, who nods. The taking of a mental note is apparent.

Many of Cuadros’ original players, who were here illegally, couldn’t go to college because they couldn’t afford the required out-of-state tuition. They also had trouble staying eligible as they were immersed in the American school system for the first time. For their successors, many more doors are open.

Jordan-Matthews has three alumni playing college soccer on scholarship now, at Richmond, Greensboro College and UNC Pembroke. Others are in four-year schools or community colleges as students. A few have participated in the AVID college-prep program or UNC’s Scholars’ Latino Initiative, which pairs high school students with college students. (Cuadros serves on the SLI program’s board.)

“If I don’t do my work, I’m not on the team, so that helps me keep up. Always,” Carrillo said. “I think, if I don’t do it, there goes next year.”

Many former players, though, remain in Siler City. Maico Ignacio, a freshman on the 2004 team, comes by practice to help with the goalkeepers and to assist Cuadros at games, at least on the days he doesn’t get called into work in Burlington, where he’s a mechanic at a plant that packages plumbing parts. Nights, the 23-year-old works at McDonald’s.

Ignacio now has two sons, and the oldest, 4-year-old Miguel Angel, is getting ready to start playing soccer. Cuadros is working with the Chatham Soccer League to provide more opportunities for youth soccer in Siler City, where many families can’t afford the fees associated with organized soccer and facilities are lacking.

“There’s a lot of baseball in Siler City. There’s a lot of traditional sports,” Cuadros said. “But the most popular sport, because of the population change, is soccer, is futbol. We need more soccer stuff for the kids to do.”

It was only 12 years ago that David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, spoke at an anti-immigration rally in Siler City. Now, as the town continues to adjust to its changing population, Johnson, the mayor, said the city is pursuing a grant to build a soccer facility with a regulation field. “We’re very optimistic about soccer,” he said.

Maybe that facility and new youth leagues will be up and running in time for Ignacio’s son. Maybe they will not. Either way, Miguel Angel Ignacio will grow up with a dream his father never had, hoping one day to play for the Jets.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDecock, 919-829-8947

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