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Amid Racist Harassment, Many In Rural North Carolina Town Vow To Fight Back

Latino residents in Greenville
Jess Clark

Reports of racially-motivated harassment continue to pour in across the country after Donald Trump's election as president. One community in North Carolina just held an emergency meeting to try to find solutions to address the harassment Latinos are experiencing there.

Juvencio Rocha-Peralta, who leads the Eastern North Carolina Latin American Coalition, seemed to like what he saw as he greeted people at the doors of Greenville's Unitarian Universalist church Tuesday night. The crowd was white, black, Latino and Asian ... retirees, moms, kids, teachers and elected officials. Since Donald Trump's victory, the diversity of this college city is now a source of tension.

"I think it's our own responsibility as citizens to come together, united, and talk about what's going on," Rocha-Peralta said.

Greenville resident Leo Otero read the testimony of one local Latina mother who could not attend the forum. She wrote that, since the election, her son's classmates have taunted him about his race.

"Today when I picked up my son from school, he seemed sad, and was about to cry, and he asked me, 'Mom, am I going to be deported?' " Otero read. "I said 'No, why?' And he said 'Because almost every kid in school was telling me that I was going to be deported in Mexico. And I told them no, I was born a U.S. citizen. But they said, "Yes you are, 'cause you are Mexican — just look at your skin color'."

The Southern Poverty Law Center says it has collected more than 400 reports of harassment or intimidation around the country since last week — including one at East Carolina University, where "build that wall" was spray-painted across a pillar. And Rocha-Peralta said employees at a local pharmaceutical company circulated a petition to ban Spanish. He said the community has to figure out how to address racism.

Latino residents in Greenville
Credit Jess Clark / WUNC
Latino residents in Greenville gather for an emergency meeting to discuss recent racist harassment after the presidential election.

Outside the church, Greenville educator Heidi Diaz said what happened in schools this week isn’t totally new. She said she suspects she herself was the target of discrimination years ago, when she and her husband moved into a mostly white neighborhood.

"We had just moved in and I remember one of our neighbors kept calling the city on us," she said.

Within weeks of moving in, Diaz and her husband had received three citations. Diaz said the complaints only stopped after a white neighbor stood up for her to the man making the calls. That’s what she thinks the community needs to do, stand up for one another. And that’s what she tells her fifth grade daughter.

"And I tell her that. I say you see somebody that may be bullied, you talk about it, you tell your teacher, you stand up for them," Diaz said.

Now that latent tensions are bubbling up, organizers say the community has to figure out how to address them.

Travis Lewis works for the county school district, and says teachers are responding to incidents by focusing on empathy.

"They're trying to mediate with these students, and often they found that they're friends — they were friends before the election, they get along," Lewis said. "And so these comments, you know, why are they saying this? Do they not realize that this is being hurtful to people that they consider friends?"

But Lewis said schools can't control what kids hear outside the classroom.

Greenville psychotherapist Marleni Vilca-Paul is concerned, but encouraged by the diversity of the people gathered at the church.

"I have hope and I think one by one we gonna make it — and just maybe little smiles and nice gestures to the Latinos, no matter where they are, is going to break some barriers," Vilca-Paul said.

Organizers say this is just the beginning of many meetings to bring together an anxious community.

Jess is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting. Her reporting focuses on how decisions made at the North Carolina General Assembly affect the state's students, families, teachers and communities.
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