Meeting the Needs of Latinos on Hilton Head Island – Eric Esquivel

Eric Esquivel is the president, publisher and managing partner of La Isla Magazine. Based on Hilton Head Island, La Isla is a national award-winning publication whose work helps Latinos integrate into American society, promotes cross-cultural awareness, and helps businesses increase their share of the local Hispanic market.


One of the guiding principles for Hilton Head Island Vision 2030 is “providing meaningful experiences that cherish our history, the arts, cultural diversity and enrich the lives of our residents and guests.” As publisher of La Isla Magazine, what does this guiding principle mean to you?

It means understanding the deep historical roots of Hilton Head and what we call the Lowcountry. If you don’t know the history, the complexities and who the players are, then you can’t move forward into the future. With that you develop the ability to understand the arts by understanding the diversity and who played that role in the arts.

I think the guiding principle is not only understanding it but also helping highlight the great diversity that doesn’t only exist culturally, but also on so many levels: the ecology, the history and the residents. What’s happening today, especially with mass development, if we don’t preserve and have guiding principles in all these factors we will lose that through the economic development and the drive to continue to do more business.

Currently, we not only have to know the guiding principle. We also have to speak to it and bring people together to understand each other. If we do not acknowledge the history, the arts, and cultural diversity we can’t enrich the lives of residents and guests because we don’t have a guiding principle behind it.

According to the 2010 Census data, the Hispanic or Latino population of Hilton Head Island makes up 15.8% of the population or 5,861 of the total 37,099 population. As the largest minority on Hilton Head Island, is enough being done to promote cultural diversity on Hilton Head Island? If not, what changes would you make?

I was the census chair for Beaufort and Jasper county in 2010. I’ll start off by saying that the 5,861 number is probably closer to 15,000. So, we don’t really understand how big our community truly is and its numbers. One of the reasons is that they do not indicate race as Latino or Hispanic on the census – and they’re supposed to defer to others – so that’s why there’s a high error rating.

I would say that while there are factors being done to promote cultural diversity, not enough is being done. Specific to Hispanics, we need more leadership and involvement civically and politically so we can move forward that recognition; not only culture diversity of the population but also of representation for the betterment of the Latino community as a whole and integration, common respect and understanding of what it means to be Latino or Hispanic-American in the deep South.

In many senses, there are two faces to Hilton Head, the one that serves our wealthy and tourists, and one that turns a blind-eye to our communities of needs. There needs to be more efforts no matter how hard the work is to engage the Latino community. You have to go to them and have to build the relationship before doing business.  Engagement is key because that engagement empowers them.  If you let them know what’s at stake, they will take ownership and be proud of it. They are a shadow workforce that has not been engaged and they are not being represented as well as they should be.

What role does the Latino community play in shaping the overall identity of Hilton Head Island?

We’re in the middle of it and that’s what so cool about it. It’s almost a message back to our Latinos, ‘here’s a soft piece of putty, what legacy and shape do we want to leave?’ The role is there to Latinos to shape the identity of Hilton Head. Serving as one of the founding members of what’s called the Santa Elena Foundation, we have proven that the first true settlement was not Plymouth Rock, but Santa Elena one hundred years before. I’ve used this as an example to create a sense of pride with the new Latinos saying we’ve got roots that go all the way back.

Where we are today, time will tell.  But my message to our Latino community is that the opportunity is there.  But, they have to be willing to take a risk, to step forward, and have their voice heard. To the non-Latinos, my message is to embrace what you don’t know, what’s different, because that what makes us stronger as a country of immigrants and will welcome and help the Latino shape their role and identity in the community. The sooner people feel a part of the community, the sooner they become more proactive to make the community better.

A recent article in the Island Packet highlighted the rapidly growing Latino population in Bluffton and the role that community organizations and religious groups are playing to meet their needs. Why are community organizations like these important to creating a strong community for everyone?

They are the foundation of our community, not just for Latinos but as support beams for integration for the people who don’t have the voice. Historically, without these organizations the new community’s success would not exist for immigrants. Community organizations like nonprofits, religious groups, and even businesses such our own and others are taking a risk by breaking the norm or going against the grain. There is no race, color, creed or religion in business; opportunity is opportunity. These organizations help reach down to the first generations and help them get established.

What is the purpose of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and what is your involvement with the organization?

When I came back to run La Isla, I knew the rule of journalism which was to tell the story and not be the story. But the stories I was telling weren’t okay with who I was, my religious values, my heart, my soul and the culture I loved.  My father is Hispanic and he was an immigrant who came here and was very successful. Seeing what was going on, I wasn’t okay telling the story. It wasn’t good for our community, our kids, our economy and our future. This is a place where I grew up and I had come back to make a career, but with a business representing Latinos. I wanted to not just talk the talk but walk the walk.

Because of what I saw happening locally, statewide, and nationally with very counter-intuitive and negative, discriminatory laws on local, county and state levels through grassroots, I helped found the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and currently serve as co-chairman. Our roots go back to 2006 when Beaufort County tried to implement a copycat law of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. A Lawful Employment Ordinance put the burden of immigration enforcement on small business.  But the way they originally wrote the law and wanted to pass it was that anybody could call the county and report that they thought a certain business had someone illegal working there based on how they looked. In Hazleton, this was already happening. It brought a negative ambience with it to a community who depends on Latinos for a workforce.  People become deathly afraid to stand up for their rights and speak the truth.

Since then our mission has become to be a human and civil rights advocacy group and stop violations on local levels. We put on educational forums for Latinos on how to be better citizens.  We do citizen workshops, health fairs, rallies or protest prayer vigils.  On the flip side, we run voter registration, development and educational forums and speak to our extreme counterparts on immigration reform.  We also reach out to our opposites to education them and bring them closer. We have served, fought and defeated many local anti-immigration laws. We helped defeat the “show-me-your-papers” South Carolina Senate Bill 20; about 80% of that law. It’s in the law books as Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and plaintiffs versus governor Nikki Haley. We’re currently are part of the amicus brief  for the supreme court hearing, that started taking place on April 18th for the DACA and DAPA expansion hearings.

It has been reported that 20.7% of the Beaufort county Hispanic/Latino population is living below the state poverty rate. What needs to be done to decrease this percentage of those living under the poverty rate?

I think when they take these numbers it’s just a general study of everybody else. To fix this on the local level we need comprehensive immigration reform. We have a lot of people living in the shadows, that have chosen to live here even though they may have come legally but overstayed their visa or work permits. They feel life is still better here than their home countries. In many ways, it creates scenarios of a mild form of indentured servitude that the shadow world takes advantage of. We need more outreach and education and also we need to look at the unintended consequences of laws we are creating.

We need to get more proactive on how we welcome and embrace, and how we get new immigrants into the system and integrate them into our community instead of putting up laws and creating obstacles. The example I use now is DACA, which gives kids the ability to process in and look like a citizen two years at a time. The intent of it was was the Dream Act which would allow these kids to join the military or go to college, and the state of South Carolina created a piece of legislation that says if you’re DACA:  1) you have to pay out of state tuition and 2) if you’re DACA and you go study for a career that needs a state license, we’re not going to give it you. We have kids graduating with nursing degrees and other degrees and go find out they can’t use it in a state that has a shortage of labor and workforce. Ultimately these kids of Latino descent are going to be a product in our community one way or another. Do we want them to be successful or do we want them to be a drain on our community?   It starts at the state legislature; these state laws need to stop countering federal law.

In a Pew research poll conducted last fall, 58% of the Hispanic population characterize racism as a “big problem” in the United States. What can be done to create a more open and culturally sensitive environment here in the Lowcountry?

I think some of the things La Isla is doing is groundbreaking and I think we’re a role model for the state of South Carolina as a bilingual publication. Not because they need to learn English, but because isn’t it smart to help people who don’t know the language to know the laws and how to be a part of our community. We do more outreach to both families and adults, more interactions, for example our festivals that we do twice a year such as the  festival de Mayo and Latin music festival. We bring out around 8,000 people a festival; it’s about 60% Hispanic 40% non-Hispanic.  It’s an appreciation of the culture and a respect and celebration.

So, I think seeing that Hispanics are the fastest growing minority not only nationally and now South Carolina being the fastest growing emerging state, we need our leaders to get on board and be progressive in the sense that we’re welcoming and helping others. A lot is accomplished with our leadership, our outreach, infrastructure, logistics, and bilingual materials. If we’re not willing to reach a hand out and welcome and help integrate, we are postponing and prolonging the inevitable but making our situation worse. It has to be a partnership of public and private and it has to be scaled throughout a business and community along with our adults and youth.

Finally, what is your vision of Hilton Head Island in 2030. And, how do we get there?

I have a vision that it’s a beautiful island, a first class destination that understands how sensitive and balanced it is to not just serve the economically fortunate and tourist but also has a balance and importance of the people that serve that beautiful place with a respect and cultural diversity that exists here. My vision includes a belief that the kids of 2030 grow up color blind, but know the history we’ve had to fight for to pave the way to a new and different existence.  I want them to know  that it isn’t an issue what skin tone you have – that everyone should have an equal opportunity and that everyone has a voice in development and economics. When we can understand and do what’s right for all we will be so much stronger and will not be fighting unintended consequences whether its workforce or housing or everything else.  These are big issues that we have to deal with now. They’re not going away – we either deal with them now or they fester, and stay with us.

I therefore envision a place where all can be successful and fully integrated – where being Latino isn’t assumed that you’re Mexican or you’re illegal, but another part of our community. Also, that we’re holding very delicate and true that the history of those challenges – just like the people who came before us, the enslaved Africans – these examples should enable us to learn from them.   We don’t want to continue to commit the same errors so that when the next generation of immigrants comes, we know how to do this already and don’t make the same mistakes.


Eric Esquivel

Eric Esquivel is the president, publisher and managing partner of La Isla Magazine.


The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: George Lezenby via Flickr CC

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