College Stories

College Stories 

Becoming Latino: From Miami to Carolina Del Norte
by Ron Bilbao

It was the first thing my mother mentioned when she dropped me off on Franklin Street three and a half years ago and the first question my best friend asked when he came up to visit one year later:

“Where are all the Hispanics?”

Naturally all that asked were indeed Hispanic themselves and from Miami no less, the Latin American capital of the United States. We’re known for a few things in Miami: the beach and Will Smith. We’re also known as one of the only cities in the U.S. where Hispanics are the predominate ethnicity and rank first in the world in terms of cities with percentage populations born outside of their own country (59% according to the United Nations Development Program, 2004).

For an eighteen year old born and raised in Miami by Venezuelan and Colombian immigrant parents that spoke no English and never went to college, going to a high school with a Hispanic population of over 90%, in a city where it is common to be asked “Can I help you?” in Spanish first and then in English, going out of state for college was no big deal. My first-year roommate from the rural one-stoplight town of Beulaville, NC (1,200 residents) and I had more in common than we thought when we first arrived in Chapel Hill, NC: we were both in a state of culture shock.

For him, he had never seen so many people from so many different places with so many different stories. For me, I had never seen so many white southerners from so many rural areas with so many generations lived in the U.S. For him, UNC was the Flagship University of the State, the school his father went to and the one all his friends aspired to. For me, it was a reputable public school with unmatched financial assistance that was far away from home. He loved it for its tradition. I loved it for its value.

While I was only one of two hundred eighty one male Hispanic students at UNC in 2006, I was part of a larger trend happening both nationally and locally. The U.S. is seeing an unprecedented rise in the Hispanic population and much of it is happening right here in North Carolina – the state with the fastest growing Latino population (Pew Hispanic Center). UNC Chapel Hill has similar growth more than tripling its Hispanic student enrollment over the last eight years and projecting a four hundred percent increase over the next ten years (College of Arts and Science Growth Study, 2007).

So where were all the Hispanics then? Eventually I found them – in Lenoir. The dining hall staff was overwhelmingly Hispanic and most spoke little to no English. I found them in housing – cleaning the bathrooms and mopping the hallways. I found them on Franklin Street – in the backs of restaurants cooking or washing dishes. I found them on street corners in Carrboro – at 7am hoping to be picked up for work. The truth was Hispanics were everywhere. It’s just that they were nowhere to be seen.

Why were there so few Hispanics in my classes, teaching classes, holding Administrative positions, managing others? I often found myself the sole Hispanic voice on University committees, student groups, and focus groups. I admit that at times I felt I was purposefully placed on certain committees to be that voice, to represent my people so to speak. I remember being asked in a committee meeting once how other minority students would feel about a particular proposal. For the first time in my life, I realized, I was actually a minority.

I had never felt underrepresented until I came to North Carolina. I met people who were in an unfamiliar place, frightened, and who had no right to speak up for themselves. These were neither the strong-character Cubans I knew from back home nor the fiercely passionate Puerto Ricans that I had grown up with. They were the rest of us, the Hispanics that were underrepresented, the invisible Latinos.

Recognizing the opportunities I had at a place like UNC, I took action. I helped found the North Carolina Coalition for College Access – a state-wide, grassroots, student-led movement dedicated to ensuring access to higher education for all students regardless of immigration status. I urged the Chancellor in 2007 to consider the creation Latino Center to represent our community on campus and in the state and  in April 2010, the Carolina Latina/o Collaborative will be formally inducted at Craig North Residence Hall on south campus at UNC. I’ve mentored a Latino high school student from Siler City for the past three years and have tutored university workers in the English language. To me this was the very least I could do at a place that gave me the power to stand up and do it. I became the voice of a population like I had never imagined.

Growing up in Miami showed me that the world is a comfortable place when people have so much in common. Coming to UNC showed me that it’s a much more realistic world when you have to figure out what it actually is you have in common. My goal has been to show the people of this state that we are not so different and that our values are closely aligned: family, religion, prosperity for our country.

In Miami I was Hispanic – a term coined by the U.S. Census in 1970. When I moved to North Carolina I became Latino – a similar meaning yet self-imposed by our community as a form of empowerment. I have been and always will be an American – whatever that means to you.