Latinos Face Hurdles in Old South Workplace

By Dave Bryan, AP, Los Angeles Times, Sunday 12 November 2000

Labor: Tension caused by ethnic diversity hasn’t slowed down the growth of the Spanish-speaking population in the region.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Lillyvette Montalvo started out in Birmingham as just another small-business owner. But as more and more Latinos move to the area, she finds herself speaking to more and more business people about ethnic diversity.

The pursuit of jobs is bringing increasing numbers of Latino workers to Birmingham and other cities of the Old South. The trend is diversifying towns once primarily black and white—and it𔃏s also raising tensions between locals and newcomers.

Case in point: When a car dealership in suburban Pelham used Montalvo𔃏s voice in a Spanish-language television commercial, it was pelted with up to 20 phone calls a day for a month by viewers complaining about having to hear Spanish in their homes.

In the face of that reaction, part of Montalvo𔃏s message in speeches to business groups is that more Spanish-language advertisements—on local television and radio and in local newspapers—is inevitable in Birmingham.

Birmingham is not a black-and-white city any more, she said, adding that some Birmingham stores and restaurants display Spanish-language signs and some businesses use Spanish in their advertisements in local newspapers.

As many as 75,000 Latinos live in Alabama, a fifth of them in greater Birmingham, according to Don Bogie, director of the Center for Demographic and Cultural Research at Auburn University at Montgomery. The Latino population is the state𔃏s fastest-growing ethnic group.

The more visible presence of Latinos in communities in Alabama and throughout the South is creating some friction, said Jim Leloudis, a professor of Southern history at the University of North Carolina.

Leloudis said the negative reaction to the auto dealership𔃏s Spanish language ads arises from racial stereotyping and a fear of losing jobs to the newcomers.

More employers have begun to turn to Latino immigrants to build their work forces, particularly for low-paying positions, such as those at food-processing plants.

There are ways in which this feeds in a very kind of potent and dangerous way into race-relations issues that have existed for a long time in the South, Leloudis said.

Joshua Rothman, professor of Southern history at the University of Alabama, said the influx of Latinos into Southern states—particularly North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama—has resulted in social and economic stresses similar to those in the mid-19th century as Irish immigrants flooded into northern U.S. cities.

All too often, he said, concern about employment turns into racial tension.

There𔃏s a lot of concern about economic mobility and people getting jobs they couldn𔃏t get before, he said. People are worried about losing their jobs.

For Montalvo, 36, who moved to Birmingham five years ago, the video voice-over and Spanish-language translation work is just a sideline.

In 1997 she started Star Capital Inc., which helps entrepreneurs around the country secure financing for their business ventures. This year she and a partner began an executive-training firm whose services include helping managers better understand and communicate with Latinos and other minority workers.

Montalvo𔃏s voice-overs are done for Boutwell Recording Studios in Birmingham.

Richard Bass, Boutwell president, said last year the studio did just three radio commercials in Spanish. Already this year, it has done close to 20 for clients throughout the South.

Although the Spanish-language work makes up less than 1% of the company𔃏s revenues, Bass said the studio is positioning itself for a dramatic increase in the next decade, in part by hiring Spanish speakers like Montalvo.

This is something that advertisers are becoming more and more aware of, Bass said. It suddenly occurred to the advertiser, 𔃎Oh, these people have money, they buy products.𔃏

Still, as the auto dealership ad evidenced, many in the Birmingham area are uncomfortable with the notion that their city could take on the characteristics of a Miami, where Spanish on television, in newspapers and on billboards is part of everyday life.

Montalvo sees educating people about Latino culture as one of her primary tasks.

When you go somewhere, you can𔃏t concentrate on the negative, she said. You have to find similarities.