Latino community continues to change the Lowcountry for the better

A Q&A with Eric Esquivel, one of the area’s first Spanish-speaking residents.

Story by Lisa Allen + Photos by Arno Dimmling

Eric Esquivel is the founder and publisher of La Isla magazine and cofounder of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to finding a fair solution to immigration reform, fighting for the rights of immigrants and creating an inclusive community throughout the region. When his family moved here in 1983, they were among the first Spanish-speaking residents in the area.

A lot has changed since then …

[LOCAL Life] What brought you to Beaufort County? [Eric Esquivel] My father, Dr. Hector Esquivel, who was from Colombia, South America, came to the United States on a scholarship to study medicine. He moved our family to the Lowcountry in 1983 from northern Pennsylvania for a warmer climate. We were the first Spanish-speaking family in the area.

[LL] What do you like most about living here?
[EE] First off, how strong and tight-knit our community is. It’s a place that has a true sense of community where our neighbors are willing to step up at any time to help one another. Additionally, I love that we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world with great beaches, wildlife and climate.

[LL] In what ways has the Latino community changed since you’ve been here? [EE] Wow, in what ways hasn’t the Latino community changed!? We have gone from virtually not having a Latino community through the early 1990s to having the fastest growing Hispanic demographic as far as an emerging market within the whole country. Just to give you a little data, the Hispanic community grew 2,999 percent from 2000 to 2010 in the Bluffton area, based on the 2010 Census. The reality is that we went from virtually not having a Latino community in the 1990s to having one of the most flourishing communities in the Southeast where you can experience Latino/Hispanic culture from every country throughout Central and South America, along with a variance of languages and even food. Today you can find Latinos intertwined within our whole community, impacting every part of our society. Because of this growth, we are a richer community for the diversity that Latinos have brought to the Lowcountry.

[LL] How important are Latinos to the local economy, from Hilton Head to Bluffton to Beaufort? [EE] Latinos are part of the lifeblood of the Lowcountry economy, especially in the service and construction industries that support tourism, travel and leisure that make the Lowcountry and Hilton Head one of the most renowned places to visit in the world. Today, you will find Latino individuals and businesses intertwined in every aspect of our economy, along with now three generations growing up here and calling the Lowcountry home. The story of our Latino neighbors in the Lowcountry is no different than the story of past immigrant generations coming to the land of opportunity to not only better themselves, but to also better the environment and economy around them and the people that live in it. Without our Latino community, the Lowcountry and Hilton Head would not be as successful as it is today because of their great contributions to our society and economy.

[LL] How have Latinos contributed to the community that might go unnoticed? [EE] The growth of the Latino community in the Lowcountry has pushed our society to be more tolerant, open-minded and understanding of diversity and inclusion. In reality, their presence has made us a better place not only for ourselves and our children who are growing up here but also for all of the visitors that come to visit this place we call home. We have seen ourselves challenged and pushed to grow through organizations such as our school systems, police departments, government agencies and in reality, every aspect of business life. The greatest contribution by our Latino community, however, has been its culture and language. Latinos have incorporated themselves into Lowcountry life through music, dance, food, and in reality, their zest for life and living. I believe that the Latino community has been in itself one of the greatest contributions to bettering our community that we have seen in our history.

[LL] What can local leaders — business and government — do to make life here easier for the Latino community? [EE] First off, just being conscious that they are a prominent community with a secondary language is the most important thing. Additionally, we can make life easier for our Latino community by offering more bilingual services, welcoming them with a smile, and hiring more bilingual staff in order to support the growth and provide better customer service to this community that is now the fastest growing and most loyal demographic in our country. Secondly, we need to ensure that Latinos have a place at the table and are incorporated into future growth and development in our community so that they can help guide us into a future that is welcoming to all. Lastly, our state, counties and municipalities need to be more conscious of our constitutional laws that protect secondary language speakers. There are specific requirements for government agencies to offer bilingual services once populations reach a certain size according to census data. Everyone should be able to participate in federal programs regardless of race, color or nation of origin as outlined in Title Six of the Civil Rights Act under our U.S. Constitution. If we haven’t crossed that threshold here in the 2020 Census, we’re really close.

[LL] What are some of the drawbacks for Latino families moving here? [EE] First off is the language barrier for our Latino community. That would be the greatest drawback to them moving into our area versus areas such as Miami, Chicago or Charlotte where you will find much more bilingualism and services in multiple languages. Next is the cost of living compared to wages for our community, in conjunction with the shortage of housing and rising rent. It’s somewhat difficult for Latinos in our area because we have had less diversity than other areas of the country. I have found that at times our Latino experience includes more inherent racism, discrimination and bias within our society than you might find in other areas of the United States. LL

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