The look and feel of our communities is rapidly changing. Newly released census data reveals tangible trends in who’s moving in — and who’s moving out of Beaufort County. Here are three stories of families reflective of those changes.
Mario Cordero left his hometown of Duerrero, Mexico, in 1997 when he was just 16 years old. It was the last time he saw his mother.
Now almost 20 years later, Cordero’s life in Bluffton couldn’t be more different from what he left behind. When he calls his mother every week, he hears about what life would be like if he had stayed in Duerrero. Drug cartels have overrun what was once a quiet town. No one is allowed out of their homes after 10 p.m.
In Bluffton, Cordero lives a quiet, happy life with his wife, Maria, who immigrated from Mexico in 2002. They have two daughters, Samantha, 6, and Sarah, 1.
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Families such as the Corderos are the new face of Bluffton, immigrating to the town for a better life. From 2000 to 2014, the number of town residents who identify as Latino or Hispanic rose from just 76 to 2,616 residents, according to U.S. census data.
The actual number is likely much higher. Census data tends to underestimate the Hispanic population, said South Carolina State Demographer Michael MacFarlane.
Bluffton is changing to accommodate the growth. Two of its public schools, Michael C. Riley Elementary and Red Cedar Elementary, now have a majority of hispanic students and offer programs to help its new students adjust to American life. Businesses focused on serving the Spanish-speaking population are thriving. And churches, including St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Bluffton and Holy Family Catholic Church on Hilton Head Island, have created Hispanic ministries that host booming Spanish-language religious services full of young families every week.
Cordero’s family, like so many that have moved to Bluffton in the past few years, came here looking for work. Cordero heard of the area through a family member already in town. He first got a job at a restaurant on Hilton Head and now works for his uncle’s air conditioning company.
The migration to Bluffton is all economic, said Eric Esquivel, co-chairman of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and publisher of La Isla Magazine.
“People move here to find opportunity, to get a good job,” he said, noting the area’s service and construction industries are creating many of the opportunities. “They want a better life like anyone would want for their family.”
Adjusting to a new life
Once newcomers get here, adjusting to the the unfamiliar can be challenging.
Two years ago, Gerardo Merlo, 17, and his family moved to Bluffton from Mexico City. It took some time to adjust to the quiet of Bluffton compared to the hustle and bustle of his hometown.
“At first all I saw were these huge trees,” Merlo said. “I just asked, ‘Where is the rest of everything? Where are all the buildings? Why is it so quiet here?’”
He joined school in the middle of the year. He lacked strong English skills and felt intimidated by the facilities that looked as nice as colleges back in Mexico.
The school’s English as a Second Language program was a big help. Teachers not only improved his communication skills, but helped him adapt to cultural differences.
“Like in Mexico when you greet a girl, you’d go kiss her on the cheek,” Merlo said. “Here they told us it’s weird to do that, like you might get sued or something.”
Beyond school, Hispanic newcomers often rely on local businesses and community organizations.
People move here to find opportunity, to get a good job. They want a better life like anyone would want for their family.”
Eric Esquivel, co-chairman of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition
Hispanic-owned businesses, including Sebastian Multiservices on Fording Island Road, serve as a hub where newcomers are often sent when they need help.
Business owners Sebastian Hernandez and his father, Nelson Hernandez, know which employers are hiring and which stores cater to the needs of the Hispanic community. Their shop offers phone card services for making international calls as well as cell phone service and repair. It also arranges air flights and other travel and provides Fed-Ex services and a partnership with an insurance company.
In 2004, the Hernandez family immigrated to Bluffton from Colombia in South America. They understand the challenges newcomers face and try to help.
Recently, a group of men came into the store, worried about the high cost of groceries in Bluffton.
“They said, ‘How can you afford $8 for some rice?’” Sebastian Hernandez recalled. “And we eventually realized they were shopping at that imported goods store World Market for all their groceries rather than a real grocery store so everything was 10 times more expensive.”
Community organizations also help the Latino community in Bluffton, including The Literacy Center and Neighborhood Outreach Connection that offer English lessons for adults.
And religious groups, such as the Hispanic Ministry at Holy Family Catholic Church and St. Gregory the Great, provide community support.
“We have to deal with a lot of situations. We have a lot of problems involving immigration,” said Holy Family youth group leader Hector Morales, a Puerto Rican who first moved to Bluffton in 2006. “The kids might not have their parents near them for years, so sometimes they have trouble at school or need help. We try to do everything we can.”
St. Gregory’s, where the Corderos are active members, has given the family a sense of community. They have friends in the parish and Mario Cordero has played the role of Jesus in the Hispanic ministry’s Stations of the Cross production for the past four years.
After Mario Cordero started a family in Bluffton, he stopped thinking about going back to Mexico. Although there are still struggles, his job allows him to financially support his family and his mother in Duerrero.
“This is where I have been able to build my life,” he said. “This is my home now.”