CLAYTON, N.C. -- They're sprinkled among the barbecue joints and decrepit gas stations: an occasional Mexican bakery, or a store window plastered with movie posters in Spanish.
In Raleigh, Durham and nearby rural areas, Latino faces are everywhere -- landscape workers trimming bushes, construction workers pouring concrete, field workers hauling endless yellow bundles of tobacco leaf.
North Carolina's large cities, small towns and rural areas are being transformed as Hispanic professionals, entrepreneurs and laborers become a growing part of the state's booming economy.
Along with the positive economic effects, the influx is forcing governments, schools, churches and health-care systems to make rapid and sometimes costly adjustments.
In this central North Carolina town, Jose Juan Mendez stops by a store called La Michoacana, which sports a plastic banner resembling the red, white and green Mexican flag.
Inside, Mendez finds an assortment of Spanish-language compact disks, Mexican action movies, imported sweets, fresh-baked tortillas and other products with familiar brand names such as Tia Rosa and El Charrito.
The 23-year-old Mexican house painter from San Luis Potosi smiles with a hint of melancholy.
"I've worked only 10 of the last 14 days. It's not enough," he said. "But coming here makes me feel a little bit better."
Jobs and a peaceful environment are attracting Hispanics such as Mendez to North Carolina in record numbers, though officials disagree on what those numbers are.
While the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 149,000 people of Hispanic origin live in North Carolina, state officials say the Hispanic population has doubled since 1990, to more than 200,000. Meanwhile, Latino advocates and business leaders put the number much higher, between 350,000 to 500,000.
With a nationwide population of about 27 million, Hispanics are projected to surpass African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group in about eight years. While highly concentrated in California, Illinois, New York and Florida, Hispanics have increasingly been moving into other Southern states.
A better place
In North Carolina, Hispanics are mostly settling in urban communities along the Interstate 85 corridor, in western Piedmont counties, in eastern farming areas and near military bases.
They occupy an increasing number of jobs in the food and hotel service industries, as well as in construction, landscaping and livestock slaughterhouses.
While Hispanics cite jobs as the top reason for venturing to North Carolina, there is a clear second reason many refer to as "tranquilidad," or "peace of mind."
"It's a much better atmosphere," said Pedro Aguilar, 34, who worked in Los Angeles for seven years cleaning office buildings before moving to North Carolina with his wife and four children.
"There is more discipline in the schools compared to Los Angeles. People there live without order. There are gangs everywhere. I don't want those values to stick to my kids." he said.
Norma Herrera also came to North Carolina from Los Angeles in search of steady work and a better environment for her teenage son.
"It's a thousand times better," said Herrera, who is Guatemalan and works at a turkey processing plant in Mount Olive. "There is too much violence in California. Too many bullets. They sell drugs in the schools. They get into it so quick. They forget who they are. Forget about God. They finish dead or in jail or as invalids in a hospital."
Ebrahim Melendez, 47, who came to the United States from Honduras in 1989, lived in New Jersey for five years before coming to Raleigh with his family.
"I like the smaller cities, smaller towns," he said. "I like the open spaces, the countryside. It's a state with a lot of opportunity and above all, a lot of tranquility."
While many Latinos sing the praises of their new, adopted state, they also face many challenges.
While not nearly at the levels of cities like Los Angeles or Houston, crime is also a problem in North Carolina.
For example, in the first half of last year, nearly 100 Hispanics were victims of violent crimes in Durham, a number that accounted for 15 percent of all violent-crime victims. That number is roughly twice the percentage of Hispanics in Durham's population.
Police say Hispanics are victims of a disproportionate number of crimes because many have settled in low-income, traditionally high-crime neighborhoods. In addition, many are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system, distrust police and speak little or no English.
Hispanics in the state are also more likely to suffer accidents.
In 1997, Hispanics made up about 2 percent of the state's population, but accounted for 9 percent of its workplace deaths. In addition, 25 percent of Hispanic deaths from 1995 to 1997 came in motor vehicle accidents, as opposed to about 2 percent of white deaths and 2.5 percent of African- American deaths.
In addition, Hispanics in North Carolina face several health care-related challenges, some stemming from the language barrier. A recent study recommended including $2.3 million in the state budget next year for interpreter services at 85 local health departments to remedy the situation.
The study by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, a nonprofit group funded mostly by private foundations, found that Hispanics rely more heavily on local health departments because they work in lower-wage and more dangerous jobs with fewer benefits such as health insurance.
This has put a heavy burden on some local agencies. The Durham County Health Department reported serving 5,000 Hispanics in 1997-1998, or about 23 percent of its case load, and the Wilson County Health Department reported that 30 percent of its clients were Hispanic.
The study also revealed that only 69 percent of Hispanic women receive prenatal care in the first trimester of pregnancy, compared with 88 percent of white women and 77 percent of African-American women. As a result, the study recommends an additional $250,000 in next year's state budget to allow more health centers to provide maternal care coordination services to women ineligible for Medicaid.
The study points out that Hispanic children are less likely than the overall population to be immunized against childhood diseases. It recommends funding immunization outreach workers in the 20 North Carolina counties with the largest Hispanic populations.
Hispanics and local governments also face a growing challenge in schooling. Several school districts are coping with the influx of students who don't speak, read or write English. Many administrators and teachers have expressed frustration with the lack of resources for educating Hispanics.
Lawsuits have already been filed in some western North Carolina counties such as Yadkin, Burke and Chatham on behalf of non-English-speaking children, alleging that they are not getting the free and appropriate education to which they're entitled under federal law.
In the face of these challenges, politicians are reacting. Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. has started an Office of Hispanic/Latino Affairs, and Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Democrat from Lillington, has created a Hispanic advisory group and has begun translating some of his press releases into Spanish.