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Virginia Regional Contrasts and Diverse Latino Communities

Diversity and contrasts define the Virginia Latino experience. Whether settling in suburbia, midsize cities, or rural communities, newcomers have radically

reconfigured long-established communities. Despite far less dramatic Latino growth than in states such as Georgia or North Carolina, Virginia has become, in a matter of a few decades, home to the sixteenth-largest Latino population in the country.4 Today’s 448,000 Virginia Latinos include both native-born and naturalized U.S. citizens, as well as foreign-born residents from all over the world.5 As the Virginia Latino Advisory Board Web site proudly states, the Latino community represents a diversity of cultures and languages, unique needs and skills, countless contributions, and endless potential for the Commonwealth.6

Around 60 percent of all Virginia Latinos (or at least 290,000), reside in northern Virginia, an area that presents remarkably unique features compared to the rest of the state. First, the area boasts some of the largest Latino communities across the state, as well as across the Washington metropolitan area, with localities such as Arlington County, Bailey’s Crossroads, and Seven Corners in which migrants outnumber natives. In Manassas Park City and Manassas City, Latinos represent respectively 28.72 percent and 25.60 percent of the total population. Similarly, in the city of Alexandria, Prince William County, Arlington County, and Fairfax County, Latinos’ share of the population is 13.71 percent, 18.04 percent, 16.10 percent, and 12.52 percent, respectively. Second, the foreign-born portion of the population is significantly larger across the northern Virginia region (19 percent) than across other regions of the state (10 percent). This is due in large part to north Virginia’s proximity to the nation’s capital, with its broad array of diplomatic, international, and development agencies as well as cultural amenities. Consequently, the northern Virginia Latino population draws from a more diverse group of nationalities when compared with counterpart populations scattered across other Virginia localities.

Yet, the Latino presence has become manifest in other regions across the state as well; for example, communities along the Shenandoah valley have recently experienced equally dramatic increases in their Latino populations. Seasonal agricultural employment in fruit processing in Rockingham County and the city of Winchester, along with year-round employment in the recently consolidated poultry industry across the Shenandoah valley, has provided strong incentives for permanent Latino settlement. Industry giants such as Cargill, Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson Foods, and Perdue have made this region a major manufacturing center with high demand for cheap migrant labor. In Winchester, the Latino population grew approximately 600 percent between 1990 and 2000, whereas in Harrisonburg, the growth neared 650 percent. On the border with North Carolina, the city of Galax (famous for its Old Fiddler’s Convention) grew from 46 foreign-born residents to almost 600, or one-tenth of its total population.7

Nevertheless, despite the populations’ burgeoning numbers, no Latino group dominates the Virginia demographic landscape in the same way that Mexicans do in California or Cubans do in Miami. Salvadorans constitute the largest Latino

population, followed by Mexicans, Guatemalans, Bolivians, and Peruvians. Virginia Latinos are fragmented along national lines precisely because no significant numerical dominance exists for any one group.8 Whereas Central and South Americans dominate among northern Virginia localities, Mexicans have a numerical dominance over Latino communities in Richmond, Harrisonburg, Winchester, and Galax.

Contrasts between northern Virginia and other regions of the state also include distinctive regional economies with differentiated labor demands. In particular, the northern Virginia economy offers a wider array of high-tech, professional, and managerial jobs in defense contracting and federal government, as well as less skilled jobs in retail, construction, and personal services. Conversely, the Winchester and Harrisonburg labor markets employ a disproportionate share of Latino migrants who speak limited English, documented and undocumented, in the manufacturing, construction, and agricultural sectors.9 Therefore, the northern Virginia labor market attracts a workforce that is far more heterogeneous in terms of class, including a substantial share of more skilled and more urban Latino migrants who leverage better wages, wealth creation, and mobility structures.

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