South Carolina Subway Map

Latinos in South Carolina in the Late Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

Despite the long-term Latino presence in South Carolina and the ongoing connections between South Carolina and Latin America, it was not until the late twentieth century that the state saw the arrival of large numbers of Latino migrants. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, South Carolina’s Latino population increased by 342 percent between 1990 and 2005 (from roughly

30,000 to 135,000).2 As a smaller state, South Carolina has not attracted the number of Latino migrants seen by the neighboring states of Georgia and North Carolina, but their numbers are nonetheless increasing: South Carolina is among four states with the most rapidly growing Latino populations in the country, according to the Census Bureau. Census estimates indicate that between 2000 and 2005, Latinos’ numbers increased by 9 percent, compared to a 1 percent increase for non-Latinos. Between 2004 and 2005, South Carolina’s Latino population grew 7.1 percent, which represents the third-fastest growth rate in the United States. Roughly 60 percent of the state’s Latinos were foreign-born, according to the American Community Survey (ACS) 2005.

Most observers conclude that the census undercounts Latinos. The reasons include migrants’ complex household makeup, cultural differences in defining households, individual and family mobility, legal (authorized versus unauthorized) status, fear or distrust of government, and language barriers. Those who work with Latino communities in the state estimate that the population is at least double the census count.

The arrival of Latino migrants in South Carolina is part of a larger trend: migrants’ movement into new settlement areas in the United States outside traditional gateways in Texas, California, New York, Chicago, and Florida. Since the early 1990s, six states in the U.S. Southeast (Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee) have seen an increase in their Latino populations that greatly exceeds that of the nation as a whole: between 1990 and 2005 (the last available census data), the Latino population in these states increased by an average of 447 percent while growing by 85 percent nationwide. The Census Bureau reports that 73 percent of Latinos in these six states were of Mexican origin (compared to 63 percent nationally).

This migrant movement to the Southeast occurred for a variety of reasons, the most salient involving economic factors. The South’s newly diversified, dynamic

economy of the 1990s provided jobs at a higher rate than the country as a whole. In addition, some southeastern companies made the strategic decision to enhance their competitiveness in the face of global economic competition by remaining in the region and hiring low-cost migrant workers. Some migrants were pushed from traditional Latino settlement areas in the United States by competition over jobs and housing, high crime rates, and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. Another critical factor associated with the movement of Latinos to the Southeast is their social networks. New migrants spread word of the region’s plentiful jobs, mild climate, and low cost of living to friends and family in their place of origin, spurring further migration especially from countries with severe economic crises (including Mexico and several Central American countries) or with political or social strife (such as Colombia).

The 2000 census, 2005 American Community Survey, and in-state research reports offer a profile of Latino migrants: ACS data suggests that those of Mexican origin constituted more than 60 percent of Latinos in South Carolina, followed in number by those of Central American origin (11 percent), Puerto Ricans (10 percent), and South Americans (7 percent). Hondurans and Guatemalans outnumber other Central Americans in the state, and Colombians constitute the largest component among South Americans. Most migrants are working-class males (56 percent of all Latinos are male, according to the ACS), and most have relatively little education: the ACS 2005 reports that 42 percent of Latinos 25 years old and older have less than high school education, and another 29 percent graduated from high school. A University of South Carolina study of Mexican migrants in 14 South Carolina counties revealed that the average education level of both males and females was 8.5 years.3 Some of the state’s Latinos are well educated, however: the ACS reports that in 2005, 27 percent had at least some college, and 10 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Prior to the 1990s, the majority of Latinos living in South Carolina had Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Colombian roots. The Puerto Rican presence in the state is the result of military postings, business opportunities, and social networks. Several hundred Cuban refugees were relocated to South Carolina after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and in the 1960s thousands of Cuban expatriates trained at Fort Jackson to lead a strike against Cuba, an exercise that was subsequently aborted. Like many Puerto Ricans, some Cubans retired to South Carolina after a stint at military bases in the state. More Cubans arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, largely as result of additional emigration from Cuba, social networks, and professional opportunities. Large numbers of Colombians relocated to South Carolina from New England textile towns in the 1970s, and as political and social conditions worsened in Colombia, social networks directed new emigrants to the state, many of whom also labored in upstate textile mills. Such social networks and professional and educational opportunities have continued to attract Colombians and other South Americans to South Carolina.

Few Latinos of Mexican origin lived in the state before the 1990s, but many passed through as migrant agricultural workers. In the 1990s, 94 percent of workers in the East Coast migrant stream were Mexican-born.4 South Carolina’s economic restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s led to increasing numbers of low-paying service-sector jobs in the state, and a number of these workers settled out of the migrant stream to take year-round jobs. Plentiful jobs, a mild climate, the relatively low cost of living, and a population generally tolerant of migrants attracted an increasing number of Mexican and Central American workers to the state, particularly after the mid-1990s. Most Mexican migrants come to South Carolina directly; the majority arrive from southeastern states, including Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Chiapas new sending states in that country.

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