The growth of the Hispanic population in the Lowcountry has brought not only opportunities but also a plethora of challenges for residents and the region.
South Carolina has experienced a 300 percent increase in Hispanic residents since the 2000 U.S. Census, more than any other state: nearly 250,000, or 5.3 percent of the state’s total population.
That data is part of a report resulting from the Hispanic Forum held on Hilton Head in February 2015. The forum findings released Jan. 13 also noted that a report from the South Carolina Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies reflected actual figures are three times that number because “not all Hispanics fill out the census or share information.”
Eric Esquivel, president and publisher of La Isla Magazine, hosted the press conference that included executives from the South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs. He said what has made the Palmetto State an emerging destination for Hispanics is the same thing that draws many non-locals to make the Lowcountry their home.
“Economic opportunity. That started in the early ’90s and really started on Hilton Head,” Esquivel said. “It’s a unique place compared to the rest of the state.”
The economic opportunity in work force, in tourism, food and beverage, and development draws people from everywhere. That draw is what makes the place because of the people, he added.
“We have amazing people from all backgrounds who have come to Hilton Head. A lot of those people have very open minds and cultural experiences both within the country and abroad,” Esquivel said. “And that has contributed to that mentality of welcoming people.”
The growth, however, comes with challenges. The forum’s report points out that many of the challenges originate because of a lack of language skills and a difference in cultures – the same obstacles immigrants have always faced. Those in turn often translate into conditions of poverty and deprivation.
Benjamin Washington, research and policy program manager for the commission, said that Beaufort County ranks 44th out of 46 counties in the state with a 14.1 percent annual poverty rate and an average unemployment rate of 5.7 percent.
“That means one out of every seven people lives below the poverty level in Beaufort County,” Washington said.
The CMA, working with local organizations and agencies, seeks to address the issue of poverty, as well as language barriers, cultural differences, navigating the health systems, building trust with law enforcement agencies and increasing educational and entrepreneurial opportunities through collaboration and partnerships.
The full report is available online at www.cma.sc.gov.
“Our job really is to discover what it is that is driving poverty and deprivation, the impact it is having on minority population. And then find out what it is we can do about it,” said Thomas J. Smith, executive director of the state Commission for Minority Affairs. “What we now know and have known for a while is that whatever it is that needs to be done, we realize that we cannot do it alone so partnerships and collaboration are absolutely essential.”
Further action steps include a follow-up meeting of interested organizations, linking community leaders and grass roots organizations to resources, continuing research and making data available for grants that will help minority communities and continuing to work with Hispanic organizations to break the cycle of poverty.
“Our goal is that everyone in South Carolina not only survives but thrives. That your race, your color, your religion, your background – none of those things are impediments to your being the best that you can possibly be,” said Smith. “And that you can set goals in South Carolina and you can meet those goals if you are willing to work hard, no matter if you come from a minority group or not.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.