Terence McEnally saw the gaggle of politicians queing to take the stage at La Fiesta del Pueblo on Sunday as Exhibit A in the rising influence of Hispanics in North Carolina.
“Twenty years ago, no one paid them any attention,” said McEnally, a Raleigh lawyer whose law practice caters to Spanish-speaking clients. “They were the most politically ignored group in the state, and now the pendulum has begun to swing.”
Despite the gray skies that threatened a rainy afternoon, thousands of people gathered in downtown Raleigh for La Fiesta, a celebration of Latino culture, food, music and dance.
The elected officials, from U.S. Rep. David Price to Raleigh Councilman John Odom, waited as a scantily clad Brazilian dance troupe, resplendent in feathered headdresses, shook mightily to a propulsive samba beat. After the politicians took the stage and were on the verge of being introduced, a light rain swept down Fayetteville Street, temporarily clearing the streets and pushing the elected officials to seek the sanctuary of the bandstand.
Two representatives of Gov. Pat McCrory read proclamations in Spanish and English declaring Sept. 15 to Oct.15 as Hispanic Heritage Month. Mayor Nancy McFarlane read a similar proclamation on behalf of the city of Raleigh, thanking the Hispanic community for its positive economic and cultural impact.
According to the 2010 census, North Carolina’s 828,000 Hispanics make up 11 percent of the state’s population. But according to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics make up only 3.1 percent of the State’s voters.
George Lozano, a long-time volunteer for El Pueblo, the advocacy group sponsoring Sunday’s fiesta, said the festival has come a long way since it was first organized around a soccer game at Chapel Hill High School.
“We need to get our youth and the community more involved in politics,” Lozano said.
Lozano listed some of the issues he’s concerned about: In-state tuition for undocumented students at University of North Carolina and community college campuses; and restricted drivers licenses for undocumented workers.
That latter issue has been active at the General Assembly this session. House Bill 328 would allow for restricted driving permits for undocumented immigrants.
Iliana Santillan, a community organizer for El Pueblo, said she is worried that the bill has become stalled at the legislature, which is scheduled to wind up its session this week.
Bob Etheridge, a former Congressman and state representative, posed for pictures and worked the crowd in his current role as North Carolina director of the federal Farm Service Agency.
Etheridge pointed out that North Carolina’s farmers depend on Spanish-speaking workers.
“We couldn’t plant the seeds or harvest the crops or put food on the table without their hard work,” said Etheridge, who learned the challenges of agricultural labor growing up on a Johnston County tobacco farm. “They are coming here to work hard and improve their lives and the lives of their children.”
Rep. David Price said he’s been a regular at El Fiesta since its modest start in Chapel Hill. Price bemoaned the lack of progress of immigration reform in Congress. The Senate passed a bill last year but it has never come up for a vote in the House.
“You could get comprehensive immigration reform passed tomorrow if it was put to a vote in the House,” Price said. “All Democrats and a good number of Republicans would vote for it.”
The impending resignation of House Speaker John Boehner could provide an opportunity if Boehner decided to push forward contested legislation in his last weeks in office. Price said it’s possible, though it would infuriate the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.
“Will he do it this month?” Price asked. “That would be something.”
Neff: 919-829-4516, @josephcneff