Morton, Miss.--Lendy Velasquez speaks English with a thick Southern drawl. She can't hear her own accent because she's never really left the South. Or at least she thought she never had--until her parents told her a few years ago that she wasn't American.
"I thought I was born here and that I was like everybody else," says Velasquez, a 16-year-old high school student from Laurel, Miss. What she didn't know was that she was actually born in Guatemala, where her parents are from.
Now she lives in rural Mississippi with her parents and six younger American siblings. The old lumber town of Laurel, 90 miles from Jackson, has attracted thousands of Latino families in recent years for jobs at the nearby chicken processing plants. It's why Velasquez's parents moved here and opened two bodegas, where their Central American customers can find the same sodas, candies, and chili peppers they know from back home.
Many corner stores like these have popped up, as workers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico move into the region. Most arrived in the United States illegally, looking for work. Velasquez's parents made the trip because they couldn't survive on the 25-cent daily income they made harvesting corn and beans in Guatemala. Velasquez assumed she was born after they arrived in Cedartown, Ga., but, in fact, they brought her to the country as a baby.
"I guess I don't know what I am anymore," Velasquez says as she helps her father ring up customers at his store in Morton on a recent Sunday. "I've been here for so long, and I've never been to Guatemala."
Velasquez sports a maroon Laurel High School sweatshirt and black-rimmed glasses, switching easily from English to Spanish when talking to customers. One woman is looking for nopales, the prickly pear cactus found in dishes from Northern Mexico.
"Por acá," says Velasquez, walking over to a plastic bin full of green cactus paddles.
With its bright blue plywood exterior, tin roof, and colorful flags, Tienda Tacana Guatemala stands out along Highway 80. Across the street is a used-car dealership and a discount chicken shop.
It's Sunday afternoon, and the store is getting a steady stream of customers who have the day off from work. Velasquez and her youngest brother spend many weekends helping out their dad at the store, while their mother and other siblings run the store in Laurel, a 90-minute drive away.
At first, Velasquez disliked the idea of moving to Mississippi from Georgia. She grew up in a Latino neighborhood, with her cousins and grandfather nearby. But her dad, Olegario, couldn't get any more construction work after 2006, when Georgia began requiring employers to use the federal E-verify system to check work permits. His wife had a work visa, but he didn't.
Olegario says he heard that many immigrants were moving to Mississippi to work in the poultry plants, so he thought he could start his own business. He moved the family to Laurel three years ago and opened the first bodega with $2,000. Soon the family was making enough money to open a second store.
People had warned Olegario that Mississippians disliked foreigners, but he says he never got that feeling. He lives in a diverse, working-class neighborhood with African-American, Latino, and white families.
"People told me they don't like immigrants here, but honestly, no one has ever said anything to us," he says.
Lendy had a tougher transition from Georgia. She initially felt isolated in Mississippi, had no friends, and didn't understand the local accent. "I got mad, sad, depressed," she says.
At least her classes seemed easier. The public school system, notoriously underfunded in Mississippi, seemed two years behind Georgia's schools, Velasquez says. She was placed in several gifted classes and soon began to make friends. Most students at her high school are African-American, and so are her best friends.
This year, things really seemed to turn around. Velasquez joined the Army JROTC and is dreaming about a career in the military. She also qualified for federal deportation relief under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, so now she has both a Social Security card and a driver's permit. Maybe now she can travel, fly on a plane for the first time. She'd like to see Paris, or even the town where she was born in Guatemala.
"I heard it's really poor and sad," she says. "But I'd like to know where I'm from."