Letter from North Carolina — From the December 2013 issue

Jump Juan Crow

A Southern family struggles to avoid deportation

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Chatham County, North Carolina, population 63,505, is in the geographic center of the state. We are 710 square miles, eighty-nine people per square mile. An improvised web of old roads has settled across the county, most of them named for a long-gone church that once sat at the road’s end, or for the family that once owned the land they now transect, or the store that once stood at the crossroads. Even the names of those places still standing can confuse an outsider. For example, on Saturdays you can drive down Reno Sharpe Store Road to go play your guitar at what’s known as Reno Sharpe’s Store, though it’s no longer a store, and Reno died a few years ago. You would only know this if you’d lived here awhile.

Out on Lorax Lane they manufacture and sell biodiesel, which explains the incongruous number of old Mercedes sedans clanking around. Many of the fields formerly planted with cotton now grow organic vegetables for the local market, or they’re filled with chicken barns and cell towers. Day by day the rest go back to pine forest. In the towns, the detritus of the storefronts’ many transformations — the drywall, the nails, the broken bits of concrete, the old newspapers — is everywhere crunching underfoot. The patron saint of our Catholic parish is St. Julia, a martyred Carthaginian slave.

Illustration by Jen Renninger

Illustration by Jen Renninger

At one end of the county, in the middle of the woods, there’s a small, lifeless circle of dirt twenty feet in diameter, called the Devil’s Tramping Ground going on 150 years, where Satan himself is said to pace at night. The whole county is a series of linked folktales: of a race of famously plentiful rabbits now nearly disappeared, of deadly freshwater mermaids found where the Haw and Deep Rivers meet to form the Cape Fear River, of the dribbling fonts of miraculous spring water named Faith and Love, and of the ghost dogs in the abandoned shafts of Ore Hill overlooking the springs below. Out on Russell Chapel Church Road, just past Elf Way, a woman has erected a sign in front of her trailer, its message written in foot-high black letters: get to no me befor you judge me.

Three unnavigable rivers split the county. They must have been mighty and cataractal when they cut down from the mountains some geologic ages ago, but the mountains are hills now, and the rivers are flat and full of old rock. The county now sits at 200 to 770 feet above sea level. This is the Piedmont, a waypoint for the traveler, the space between long-ago tide lines. It’s profoundly green in the summer, but not bright green. A washed-out green. Europeans arrived here in the 1740s, most of them Quakers and Poor Palatines. At that time the area was frontier, the hinterland, a virgin territory that could be conquered and civilized. The settlers were subsistence farmers and craftsmen, usually both at the same time. In Chatham County they became hard-core homesteaders.

The mountains were scoured, sifted, and carried off by erosion, exposing rich veins of clay that could be mined, collected, purified, turned, and fired. This region is famous for its pottery, mostly stoneware. Depending on the clay and the ingredients in the salt glazes, our pots become a deep gray, or the color of warm sand, or a veiny light green the color of a camellia leaf’s underside. Potters used to test clay out in the field by spitting on it, rolling it out like a worm, twirling it around a finger to see if it was plastic enough, biting it to see if there was any grit.

This clay has long contained the tombs of Alstons, Matthewses, Wrens, storekeepers and farriers, postmen, minders of the gins and mills. Soon we’ll be adding new names: Cuadros, Vincente, Santiago, Álvarez, Mejía, Estrada, the claim jumpers and infiltrators, the new colonizers, the squatters. They have rushed into this place: Hispanics now constitute 13 percent of the county’s population (8,228 of 63,505), up from 1.4 percent (564 of 38,979) in 1990. Most of them have come here for work in meatpacking, landscaping, and construction. The white population has grown steadily, but the black population is down to 13 percent, from 23 percent, in the same twenty-year period. A usurpation has taken place, a transfer among the powerless — a trend repeated throughout the old states of the Confederacy.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the writer-in-residence at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

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  • Razon77

    Hearkening back to “This Land is not Your Land” from the February 2013 issue, this presents an emotional portrait of the quandary faced by so many of the illegal/undocumented. The “Almanzas” seem like such a good family. However, one truly troubling sticking point (like several such points in the previous article): what about the $8,000 in retribution? Who was the victim? By way of background, there is a Social security-type system in Mexico- an identifier number tied to federal benefits would not be unknown to Maria. The American citizen victims of identity theft- the majority of whom are probably Hispanic- may deserve a future look by Harper’s.

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