Spanish explorers and soldiers marched through what is now Alabama in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but they left no permanent settlements. By the end of the twentieth century, however, Spanish-speaking peoples had established a growing presence in Alabama. Since the U.S. Census Bureau began recording information on Hispanics in 1970, demographers, journalists, and scholars have marked their increasing numbers in Alabama and their dispersion throughout the state. According to the U.S. Census, by 1970 some 13,000 Spanish-speaking people lived in Alabama, and by 1980, the number had increased to 34,000. In each census count, analysts found that some 90 percent of Hispanics were native-born. According to the 1980 census, many more Hispanics worked in professional services (1,800) than in agriculture (296) and construction (656). By 2005 Alabama's Hispanic population had surged to almost 100,000, with new immigrants accounting for most of the increase. These immigrants largely filled low-wage, non-union jobs. For Alabama, the 25-year period between 1980 and 2005 brought a wave of new immigrants who were part of a much larger surge of immigration that has now surpassed in numbers even the huge European migrations of the industrial era.
A new wave of Hispanic immigration to the southern United States developed during the 1980s and after, primarily in response to new federal immigration legislation passed in 1986. This migration has resulted in the creation of substantial communities of Spanish-speaking people in Alabama. Most of these immigrants have met labor demands in farming, industry, construction, landscaping, and the service industry. Although fewer in number, Hispanic physicians, nurses, engineers, social workers, teachers, business people, and university professors are also among the recent migrants to Alabama. There is no indication that the new immigration pattern is slowing, and Hispanics are bringing economic and social changes to the South, as well as new forms of cultural expression.
Immigrants have come primarily from Mexico, with others arriving from Guatemala, Honduras, and other Central and South American
nations. The U.S. Census of 1990 provided an early demographic snapshot of the new Hispanic migration stream, reporting almost
25,000 Hispanics in Alabama. This number was lower than the figure for the 1980 census for two reasons: the 1990 census is
generally considered to have vastly undercounted Hispanics, and the 1980 numbers were based on statistical estimates rather
than on an actual count. In any case, the state's official Hispanic population surged to about 76,000 in 2000 and 99,000 in
2005—a 15-year gain of 302 percent. The census generally undercounts such groups, however, and Alabama's Hispanic population
is probably considerably higher. Some unofficial estimates for 2005 indicate as many as 180,000 to 250,000 Latinos living
in the state. According to Census Bureau estimates, Mexicans made up about 63 percent of Alabama's Hispanics, and Central
and South Americans almost 29 percent, with Guatemalans most numerous among this group; by contrast, few people from Puerto
Rico or Cuba have relocated to Alabama.
In 1986 the federal government approved the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in an effort to curb illegal immigration. The legislation offered amnesty to three million undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico and Central America, if they could prove at least five years of work and residency in the United States. Amnestied Hispanics in California and the Southwest, now holding green cards, were free to move about the country in search of work. They also gained the right to bring family members from their home countries, which potentially added as many as 9.2 million Hispanics. In addition to IRCA provisions, new job opportunities, often facilitated by labor recruiters, and the moderate climate attracted both amnestied and undocumented Hispanics to Alabama.
Effects of NAFTA
Mexican migration intensified after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in January 1994. NAFTA was envisioned as ushering in an era of economic integration and free trade between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, but the promised economic benefits never materialized for Mexico. U.S. manufacturers outsourced jobs to the Mexican side of the border, where they could pay drastically lower wages, and free trade severely undermined Mexican manufacturing and agriculture. Facing declining wages and unemployment at home, hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers sought better opportunities in the United States, with increasing numbers heading to destinations in the South.
Big business in the U.S. also played a role in diverting Latin American migration streams to the southern states. Many large firms, such as poultry giants Tyson and Gold Kist, recruited Hispanics to work in chicken-processing plants in Alabama. In the late 1990s, a huge billboard in Tijuana, Mexico, sponsored by Gold Kist, offered a promising future. Its message: "Mucho Trabajo en [Much Work in] Russellville, Alabama," followed by a local labor recruiter's telephone number. Freelance recruiters along the border in Mexico and Texas regularly bused willing Hispanic workers directly to jobs in Alabama plants. In addition, corporate recruitment and the expansive service economy in southern states and Sun Belt cities have helped to divert this migration stream to places that never experienced much immigration in the past, including Alabama.
The Hispanic labor force has become an important factor in Alabama's rural and urban economies. In small north Alabama towns,
such as Albertville, Collinsville, and Russellville, Hispanics work on chicken farms and in poultry-processing plants, as well as in hosiery, garment, textile, carpet, furniture,
and plastics manufacturing. They work extensively in agriculture, where they plant, pick, and pack tomatoes, strawberries,
cucumbers, potatoes, and watermelons. In south Alabama, Hispanics are fewer in number, but they are still very much in evidence
and provide migrant agricultural labor, work to replant sod and timber land, process poultry and seafood, and work dairy farms, truck farms, plant farms, nurseries, and sawmills. In metropolitan areas such as Birmingham and Montgomery, Hispanics work in restaurants, landscaping, roofing, building construction, car washes, and warehouse jobs. They also hold
service jobs in hotels and office buildings. Hispanic immigrants have found numerous niches in the Alabama economy—niches
where wages considered low by U.S. standards represent a huge premium over their earnings in Mexico or Central America. Many,
however, still live in poverty.
The immigrants have established new ethnic communities in Alabama. At first, Hispanic newcomers tended to be young, single men who shared cramped housing, worked in teams or crews, and sent earnings to family back home. They returned home often, but eventually brought friends, siblings, wives, children, and even aging parents to the U.S. in a process known as chain migration. Such a network brought more than 6,000 people from the south-central Mexican municipality of Acambay to the Birmingham area during a 15-year period. Over time, they have put down roots, sent children to U.S. schools, carved out residential spaces, and bought homes and property. In small Alabama towns and rural areas, Hispanics live primarily in mobile home parks or apartment complexes, but in urban areas they are widely dispersed wherever they can find low-cost housing. Many have started restaurants, grocery stores, and small construction and landscaping companies. According to U.S. Census statistics on minority businesses, by 2002 Alabama Hispanics had established over 2,500 business firms.
Hispanics have contributed to Alabama's recent economic growth in a number of ways. Their labor has helped fuel urban and regional economies since the 1990s and has brought a number of new industrial plants to Alabama. Hispanics have revived the dying business districts of small Alabama towns, boosting rental housing, retail sales, and the used-car market. Major businesses, including department stores, new-car dealers, real-estate firms, banks, credit unions, and insurance companies now advertise in Spanish and encourage immigrant spending. Big grocery chains now stock an infinite variety of Hispanic foods. Increasingly, Hispanic newcomers have been pulled into the economic mainstream.
Hispanics in Alabama also have created a vibrant cultural life around traditional foodways, kinship activities, holiday festivals
and musical traditions, and weekend soccer leagues. Numerous Spanish-language newspapers and radio stations have sprung up
across the state. Their new communities in Alabama are transnational, and the people stay in close contact with homeland relatives
and travel back and forth as often as possible. The money they send home is used not only to support family members but also
to build new homes in their villages. Some migrants will eventually return to their homeland, but many will remain in the
U.S. and become part of the changing social fabric of the Southeast.
Non-Hispanic Alabamians have reacted in varying ways to the new Hispanic migration and its concentration in small towns and urban neighborhoods. This Hispanic influx has complicated Alabama's historic racial divide between black and white. In the late 1990s, anti-immigration sentiment surfaced in a few north Alabama towns with rising Hispanic populations, and African American spokespersons in some areas have complained about job competition from Hispanic workers. Spanish language use has become controversial. Additionally, an unknown number of Hispanics are in the state illegally, perhaps as many as 40 to 50 percent of the total number, and this is a matter of concern to many Alabamians. These problems intensified between 2005 and 2007, as the U.S. Congress debated new immigration legislation, tougher border controls, and guest-worker programs for undocumented immigrants. Alabama politicians have pushed stronger immigration controls as well, helping to politicize the immigration issue. Meanwhile, big employers in poultry, construction, and agriculture have asserted their dependence on Hispanic workers. Rallies for and against immigration occurred throughout the state in 2006. Alabama has fewer than a dozen immigration or U.S. Border Patrol agents, and they concentrate their efforts on undocumented residents who are arrested by local law-enforcement agencies and charged with felonies.
For the most part, churches, schools, and public agencies have responded in positive ways to Hispanic newcomers. The public
schools are especially important in that they are providing English-language instruction to Hispanic children, a generation
that will assimilate more quickly to American society. In addition, myriad agencies have appeared throughout Alabama to serve
and advocate for Hispanics. Project Aprende, for example, works with migrant farm laborers in several north Alabama counties,
providing information on schooling, health care, and environmental safety. In Albertville, the Hispanic American Society of
Marshall County helps Hispanic newcomers adjust to their new surroundings. In Hoover, a Birmingham suburb, the Multicultural Resource Center, sponsored by Catholic Family Services, works with government and
community agencies to provide assistance to immigrants. The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, founded in Birmingham
in 1999, coordinates service and advocacy work for Hispanic immigrants. Similarly, the Montgomery Hispanic Coalition has mobilized
churches, schools, and community organizations in response to the growing needs of the Hispanic population. The Clinica Migrante
provides medical care to migrant agricultural workers in Mobile and south Alabama.
The religious community in Alabama has been especially receptive to Hispanic newcomers. The Catholic Church has established religious and social services for Hispanics throughout the state. Through its Hispanic Ministry Office, the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham ministers to tens of thousands of Hispanics in 39 north Alabama counties. The Catholic Hispanic Ministry of Mobile conducts similar programs in south Alabama. Spanish-language masses provide a comforting and familiar milieu for new immigrants still adjusting to life in the United States. Protestant churches have also engaged in religious, educational, and social-service work with Hispanics. Baptist churches are heavily involved in this sort of work, and Hispanics have become a missionary field for most traditional Protestant denominations. Other denominations that maintain active missions include the Churches of Christ, the Church of God, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, which has at least 10 Spanish-speaking congregations in Alabama. Although the religious mission remains a dominant feature of their work, all of these churches offer needed social services, a haven for Hispanic culture, and a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar world.
Although still relatively small, the continually growing Latin American community in Alabama has brought considerable change
to parts of this Deep South state. Revisions to American immigration policy and stricter border enforcement could dampen the
rate of Hispanic population growth, but the influence of these newest Alabamians is not likely to be reversed. The state's
schools and communities will become more culturally diverse. Over time, Hispanics will become more politically active, and
they will reshape Alabama's traditional racial divide.
Cobb, James C., and William Stueck, eds. Globalization and the American South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005.
Mohl, Raymond A. "Latinization in the Heart of Dixie: Hispanics in Late-Twentieth-Century Alabama." The Alabama Review 55 (October 2002): 243–74.
———. "The Nuevo New South: Hispanic Migration to Alabama." Migration World 30, No. 3 (2002), 14-18.
Short, Dale. "Mexico in the Heart of Dixie." UAB Magazine 21 (Summer 2001): 2–9.
Raymond A. Mohl
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Published March 12, 2007
Last updated August 29, 2012