erry Odom telephones me from the lobby of the Greenville Hyatt at seven-thirty Sunday morning, before I've had my coffee. She and David are a good half hour early for a trip we're going to take to a flea market at the fairgrounds on White Horse Road.
The market proves to be a bit of a bust. In the town overrun by Mexicans, in the place where the Mexicans do their shopping, Mexicans prove difficult to actually spot. Most tables are manned by Anglos or African-Americans, who are also doing most of the shopping. Terry is concerned I'll be disappointed. So, after we leave, we cruise up and down White Horse Road, making occasional sightings. "There's one," Terry cries, spotting a Latino out the front windshield. "There's one there. They're everywhere. It's just like ants."
At the Hallmark Shopping Center, Terry produces proof positive that the Mexicans have taken over -- a strip mall in which all the stores have signs in Spanish. "You see," says Terry. "What did I tell you?" She reads each sign out loud for the record. There are boutiques, a jewelry store, and a sort of poor man's all-in-one professional financial and legal services store. No galleria anchored by a Neiman Marcus, it is nonetheless a respectable collection of shops. Still, the Odoms see in it the ruination of Greenville.
Our last stop is the "Super Mercado," a grocery store, where the first thing that hits me is a volatile sweet, spicy, exotic aroma. There are stacks of freshly baked tortillas, Mexican canned goods, the smell of cumin and chilies. There's a parrot sitting in a large cage, bottles of hot sauce on the counter, a huge Plexiglas box filled with gigantic pieces of fried pork rind, and, in the center of the store, a shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary, cheap plastic flowers and a pool of water at her feet, and I'm enchanted.
But to the Odoms, the place is just "a front." The Mercado, Terry says, is one of the spots where buses regularly discharge newly arrived Mexican immigrants. "They tell them where to get the jobs," she explains. "How to get welfare." The story of the buses is fuzzy, and I can't pin her down as to whether the immigrants are legal or illegal, boarding on the U.S. side or in Mexico. One thing is clear: The people getting off the buses speak Spanish, and that makes Terry mad.
"Spanish," she says, dismissively. "We talk English here, folks. This is America."
Back at the Hyatt, I have a long shower and a beer. Listening to the bigotry is exhausting. It is made worse, not better, by the fact that Terry and David are in all other respects lovely, gentle people. They have charmed me with their kindness and welcomed me as generously as I have ever been welcomed anywhere I've traveled. They are nice to everyone, except the people they hate.
Monday morning, I meet with Wilfredo Leon, publisher of the statewide Spanish-language newspaper Latino. Leon is an intense man with closely cropped dark hair and piercing eyes, who speaks deliberately and avoids smiling at all costs. Born in Puerto Rico, he came to Greenville in 1985 via Phoenix to work as an executive for Digital Equipment Corp. He tells me a very different story, quietly offering an antidote to the last three days of poison.
Without my mentioning it, he tells me about the very same Hallmark Shopping Center I've visited with the Odoms. In his version, it's a Latino success story -- a formerly rundown, abandoned area brought back to life.
When I share with him some of the anti-immigration groups' environmental arguments, and the Odoms' belief that Latinos are responsible for an increase in local drug traffic and other crime, Leon is seething, in his controlled fashion. It takes him half a minute to catch his breath.
"My initial reaction to a person who came up to me and said that stuff would just be to walk away," he says. "Because I consider myself an intelligent person. And anyone who'd say something like that I don't consider to be very intelligent. Many nights I'm on the road traveling, and I see the crews building and repairing the bridges or roads. And sometimes I get calls from companies who hire people to do these jobs. And sometimes we have conversations about what's so exciting about hiring Hispanics. And the answer is consistently the same. It has to do with the work ethic of the Hispanic. It's got to do with the dedication and the efficiency and the productivity of these workers. When we had the asbestos cleanup, who was doing that? Hispanics, for the most part. Isn't that the opposite of what these people are saying?"
A call to Sgt. James McCann at the Greenville County Sheriff's Office confirms that the crime situation is not as the Odoms have portrayed it. From 1991 to 2001 the number of Part 1 crimes -- murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft -- remained virtually unchanged, despite a 20 percent overall increase in population.
Leon reassures me that the Odoms and their friends are an aberration, that the presence of international corporations such as Michelin and BMW has lent Greenville a tolerant, almost cosmopolitan atmosphere. "What you heard is not reflective of most people in Greenville," he says.
It's all confirmed when I call Sharon Smathers, executive director of the Greenville County human relations commission. Smathers paints a picture of a thriving group of people in a relatively tolerant place with "very little hate crime."
In Greenville, as in most of the country, the anti-immigration movement remains small. It may make a lot of noise, cause a lot of trouble, but its ideas are unpopular -- a suit that doesn't fit and never will, no matter how skilled the tailoring. Most Americans are not likely to embrace an issue that smacks of bigotry. Conversely, in a refutation of the movement's environmental claims, Latino political leaders and voters in California are emerging as environmental advocates. The San Jose Mercury News reported that 74 percent of Latino voters approved a recent bond measure for open space, compared with 56 percent of white voters.
Outside the Greenville Hyatt, there's a new urbanist transformation -- a narrow tree-lined street with a half-dozen restaurants per block, small, smart shops at street level, and apartments up above. Turn the corner, and there's the downtown, a maze of modern tan, gray, and glass buildings and parking lots. There are plenty of pretty trees. The brokerages, newspaper and law offices, and radio and TV outlets all cluster around, keeping Bob Jones University, Pat Buchanan rallies, and the city's smattering of anti-immigrant bigots at bay.