By Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

Between 1990 and 2020, North Carolina’s Latino population ballooned:  from 75,000 residents to more than 1 million, an increase of nearly 1,400 percent. The community is diverse; about 61 percent were born in the U.S., while the remaining 39 percent are immigrants, about half from Mexico, and another quarter from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. 

But, beyond these sorts of impersonal data points, little is known about the lives of North Carolina’s Latino residents, according to scholars at the Camino Research Institute, one leg of the larger Camino Health Center in Charlotte

“98 percent of our patients or clients at Camino Health Center are Latino immigrants,” said research assistant Lennin Caro. “That’s who we serve.”

The director of the Camino Research Institute,  Keri Revens, first began doing detailed research on North Carolina’s Latino population, particularly those in Mecklenburg County, while completing her doctoral work in public health at UNC Charlotte. That’s when she came across the most recent community needs assessment for the Queen City — it was conducted in 2006

Caro mentioned another community needs assessment conducted on Chatham County’s Latino population in 2016. But, “To our knowledge, there has been no comprehensive statewide survey study of Latinos in North Carolina. The closest thing we could find was a 2003 report created by the NC Institute of Medicine and El Pueblo,” Caro said. 

“This was not necessarily a survey study,” he said, “but rather a task force made up of influential Latino leaders of North Carolina along with reporting [and] compiling existing data from other sources.”

The dearth of studies led the researchers to a simple question: Why not do the survey themselves? 

Reaching a broad population

Starting in September 2021, Camino launched a survey, a community strengths and needs assessment, for Latino adults around North Carolina. It will be live until May 2022. It is anonymous and takes between 15 and 30 minutes to complete. Their aim is to gather responses from 5,000 people — a number needed to be able to make statistically significant claims and analyses about the state’s Latino population. 

To reach as broad a swath of the community as possible — from rural to urban residents — the researchers are connecting with other Latino advocacy groups statewide as well as pastors and other religious leaders to help disseminate information about the survey, and recruit participants.

Camino’s survey asks participants what they think are the Latino community’s greatest strengths. The preliminary results show those surveyed highly value the community’s bilingualism. Credit: Camino Research Institute

Last year, they conducted a survey about the impact of COVID-19 on Latinos in North Carolina and found the relationship with religious leaders to be especially helpful. 

“Latino pastors have access to this under-researched population,” Caro said, “and they helped us by acting as gatekeepers to promote the survey to their parish, to their ministry, to their people.”

The researchers want to learn everything they can about Latino people in North Carolina, both to fill the gap in the literature and to better offer services and programs to the community. So far, the 226 responses gathered between September and November show that the state’s Latino community sees its bilingualism, cultural diversity and entrepreneurial spirit as its greatest strengths. 

Dental care, vision care, and preventative medicine 

The survey questions include a wide range of topics, including questions about economic security, legal status and interpersonal relationships. But over and over, respondents said they faced serious challenges when it comes to their health. They ranked access to dental care, vision care and general preventive medicine as their top three greatest needs. 

“Anecdotally, serving here at Camino, we’d have our providers who would talk to us and mention, like, ‘Oh yeah, they talk about dental care, they’re looking for it,’” Caro said. “Our social navigators — basically their case managers — when they interact with their patients, they also report to us that [patients] talk about dental care, but now we see it in data, which is really powerful.”

When asked about a broad swath of needs, survey respondents made clear that accessible health services sit high on the list. Credit: Camino Research Institute

“It’s really important to understand that these are where there’s self-identified gaps in care,” said Sarai Ordonez, also a research assistant at Camino. Helping people get access to these particular types of care can be critical for their overall health. 

“[We have] to meet those in order to have more holistic and higher outcomes,” she said.

When asked what the most significant barriers were to accessing medical attention, most people pointed to health insurance. Half of all survey respondents said they do not have health insurance. The number is slightly higher for immigrants — 54 percent — and gigantic for undocumented respondents: 98 percent. 

In North Carolina, about 13 percent of the general population is uninsured. Earlier research has also documented that Latinos are the least insured population in the state

Giving back

While they do hope to get the results published, the researchers have a different top-level goal. 

“It’s really important to us to give the results and present them back to the community,” said Ordonez. “It’s really important for the community to understand what came out of this, what we found, so that they can feel more equipped.”

Caro said the same. Delivering information to the community requires a different approach than submitting it to a journal for publication. 

“When we did the COVID study, one of the first things we did is we made a YouTube video of me presenting some of the important results in Spanish,” he said.

They’ll likely do the same once the results are finalized for this study. They’re also hoping to create an Instagram account for the research institute, “so we can release bite-sized portions of our study back to the community in Spanish in an understandable way,” Caro said. “That’s what we want to prioritize first.”

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Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven covers rural health and Medicaid. She previously worked at the Asheville Citizen Times where she reported on the police, courts, and other aspects of the criminal justice system....