The reaction to recent waves of Latino migrants arriving in West Virginia has not always been positive. In fact, many West Virginians have advocated for restrictionist measures in the state that are aimed mostly at Latino newcomers. In part some of the reaction is due to the influx of Mexican contract laborers brought into the state. In the mines, for example, contract Latino workers from Peru and Mexico are often exempt from established bylaws, and they may also be used as strike breakers.
The Latino presence in agricultural orchards and other occupations within the state has affected relations between Anglo and Latino workers as a consequence of labor recruitment practices. Ironically, Latino newcomers have come to the state at a time when West Virginia’s economy is one of the most tenuous in the nation. In fact, the state ranks among the lowest in per capita income, according to the Census Bureau. In such a vulnerable economic climate, it is not surprising that Latinos have become targets of reactive and nativist responses that blame them for taking jobs away from poor Anglos, especially in regions that have become gateways for Latino migration. Thus Latinos face discrimination not only in their jobs, but also in schools and their communities at large.
Latinos in various educational settings have reported acts of discrimination on behalf of administrators and students alike. In communities throughout the state, West Virginians have advocated for legislation efforts to control the working conditions of Latino contract laborers in the state, calling for English literacy stipulations. More broadly, many of the state’s residents have advocated for an English-only measure, aimed mostly at Latino newcomers. In response to these efforts, in 2005, West Virginia became the 28th state to approve English-only legislation. Though this piece of legislation was later rescinded, it sent a message to Latinos living within state boundaries. Surely, identifying as a racial or ethnic minority in an overwhelmingly demographically homogenous state can be intimidating.9
Despite any obstacles they might face, recent arrivals to West Virginia have made tremendous strides and are thriving throughout the state. In the southwestern counties, like Cabell, and in eastern panhandle counties, like Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson, the Latino population has experienced significant growth since the 1990s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos account for 3.3 percent of the population in Jefferson County, as compared to 1 percent in Kanawha County,
2.7 percent in Berkeley County, and 1 percent in Morgan County, and in comparison to an estimated 0.9 percent overall Latino population in the state. The significant influx of Latinos into West Virginia did not go unnoticed by the Mexican government. In 2003 the Mexican consul general visited the state, paying homage to Mexican migrants living there.10
Today, Latinos in West Virginia are strengthening their communities throughout the state. As was true of Spanish and Mexican migrants early in the twentieth century, at the new millennium, Latinos are building social networks at both individual and collective levels and spanning across state and national boundaries.
Earlier waves of Latino migrants depended on few existing social groups, like the Ateneo, for support. In recent years, however, numerous advocacy groups have formed in response to a growing population among them the Eastern Panhandle Hispanic Advocacy Coalition (also known as UNIDOS), an organization founded to improve the quality of life among Latinos in West Virginia. The Latinos’ success in business and in higher education within the state also attest to their greater accomplishments. Certainly there remains a need to create more support to incorporate Latino migrants into the state, but if the present is any indication of the future, the Latino population will continue to grow and integrate itself into the state’s social fabric.