Hispanics are among South Carolina’s oldest and most recent immigrant groups. Long before English settlers founded colonies in the Massachusetts Bay, Spanish explorers laid claim to territory in what is now the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific. From bases of operation in the Caribbean and Mexico, Spanish emissaries established presidios and missions to protect Spain’s northern colonial frontier. In 1526 Spaniard Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón established the first European settlement in present-day South Carolina (and the United States), San Miguel de Gualdape. A variety of difficulties led to its abandonment by 1527, but a second Spanish settlement near present-day Beaufort, Santa Elena, served as the capital of “La Florida,” the name given to Spain’s holdings in the Southeast, from 1566 to 1576. After Spanish settlers abandoned the Santa Elena site in 1587, Franciscan friars from missions along the coast continued to visit Indian communities in the area. Spain lost its claims to most of present-day South Carolina in the 1670 Treaty of Madrid with Great Britain.
The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” apply to a broad category of U.S. residents that include persons of Latin American and/or Spanish ancestry. Tremendous diversity exists within these groups in terms of national origin, socioeconomic class, educational attainment, and other characteristics. While a sizable Spanish-speaking population has resided in the United States throughout its history, the volume of Hispanic immigration in the late twentieth century resulted in this group becoming this country’s largest minority population by the year 2000.
Following national trends, South Carolina experienced a rise in its Hispanic population beginning in the second half of the twentieth century. New residents of Cuban and Puerto Rican origin arrived beginning in the 1960s, largely due to military and industrial employment. Colombians, most employed in the textile industry, immigrated to the upstate in the 1970s, and beginning in the 1990s large numbers of Mexican and Central American immigrants arrived. Because of these and other factors (as well as factors in Latin America such as deteriorating economic and political conditions), South Carolina was among eight states with the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the 1990s. Census data reports that their numbers more than tripled in that decade to 95,076, or 2.4 percent of the total state population. Analysts agree, however, that Hispanics across the nation are largely undercounted in the census process. The census of 2000 revealed that the majority (fifty-six percent) of Hispanic residents of South Carolina were of Mexican origin, followed by Central and South Americans. Thirteen percent were Puerto Rican, and three percent were of Cuban origin.
The impact of this new population group is seen through changes in popular culture, supermarket and restaurant offerings, bilingual signage, the emergence of Spanish-language media, and in public education. It is also evident in their economic contribution, particularly in labor-intensive, low-wage industries. Further, the purchasing power of Hispanics in South Carolina in 2002 was estimated at more than $2.2 billion. A commission appointed by South Carolina governor Jim Hodges in 2000 recommended that the state government make sweeping changes, particularly in the area of social services, to keep pace with the growing Hispanic population. South Carolina, as did many states that saw tremendous growth in Latino residents, scrambled to accommodate its new residents.
Humphreys, Jeffrey. “The Multicultural Economy 2002: Buying Power in the New Century.” Georgia Business and Economic Conditions 62, no. 2 (2002): 1–27.
South Carolina. Commission for Minority Affairs. Hispanic/Latino Ad Hoc Committee. Findings from the Hispanic/Latino Ad Hoc Committee. Columbia: South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs, 2001.