Lines form outside every morning, sometimes as early as 5 a.m. Commuters in North Raleigh drive by wondering, "What are all those people doing there everyday?" and "What happened to the Taco Bell?"
Inside, workers behind the counters call out numbers and directions in Spanish. All the signs on the walls are in Spanish. Time Warner advertises cable service, ads for a Web site offer credit cards and loans. Posters for job fairs and a Latino art show are tacked to the bulletin boards. Seated in red plastic chairs and standing up against the walls, the people look up when an "Anglo" walks in, shrug their shoulders and point.
Everyone is waiting for a nod from behind the counter. This is what happens most in this place--waiting.
But folks don't seem to mind. After all, they used to have to travel to Atlanta or Washington, D.C., to get the kind of services they can only get from a Mexican consulate: work visas, passports and other, various types of diplomatic paperwork.
This is officially a part of Mexico--inside the Beltline. "When you are here, you are in Mexico," says Mexican Consul Carolina Zaragoza Flores. Here, undocumented immigrants are safe from the prying eyes of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, while others seek refuge from the exploitation of factory and farm bosses. Maybe they also feel a little relief from the homesickness they carry with them on the outside.
"It feels good to be here where everyone speaks Spanish," says José Martinez quietly, smiling shyly. Farm workers from Greenville, Martinez and his family came to renew their matriculadas, or Mexican identification cards.
Pedro Cortez hasn't seen his wife and three kids for three years--since he started working construction in Clinton. He's here to get his ID as well, so he can get a North Carolina driver's license. He sends money home every week, but it's too expensive and dangerous to go home, he says through an interpreter. "I might not be able to get back."
Deputy Consul Carlos Isunza says he hopes recent talks between President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vincente Fox will continue toward an amnesty for the estimated 400,000 Mexicans now working in North Carolina. Those negotiations stalled after Sept. 11 when many immigrants fled home to safety. Now they've come back in droves. "These workers are part of society here, even though they don't have the papers," Isunza says. "Businesses want them here."
The contrast between Zaragoza's second-floor, windowed office and the surrounding urban neighborhood is stark. Her seat overlooks the busy parking lots of a Burger King and a Kroger grocery store, where Latino workers can be seen sweeping the asphalt.
Zaragoza says she's proud of her people and loves it when she hears her native Spanish spoken in local stores and malls. "I hear it everywhere," she says.
There are nine staffers in the consulate, three diplomats and six local employees. They take regular road trips to other areas in their jurisdiction, which covers North and South Carolina. On a recent Saturday, the team carpooled to Red Springs, where more than 600 Mexicans showed up for help with their papers and information about the consulate's other services. When the team went on the road to Greenville, S.C., more than 1,200 citizens of Mexico turned out.
Career diplomats, Zaragoza and Isunza say their most important role is to protect Mexicans' human rights. They assist immigrants with everything from getting documents from home so people can receive ID cards, to marrying native Mexicans, to providing birth certificates, to shipping home dead bodies.
Zaragoza is a notary public and acts as power of attorney for many Mexicans. "We can represent Mexicans who are not here, but have children here," she says. "There are many young people here by themselves. Sometimes they want to go home and we can help them."
The consulate also helps Mexicans who have gotten in trouble with the law. "They go through the legal system here," Zaragoza says. "But we can make sure they have attorneys and are treated fairly."
Zaragoza also works closely with the N.C. Department of Commerce and local Hispanic organizations to raise awareness of trade and tourism opportunities. She networks with local arts organizations to bring Mexican art and culture to the schools. One art contest she's running offers a prize of a trip to Mexico City.
"We don't want people to forget where they came from," she says. "We want them to be good citizens here, but also to be proud to be Mexicans.
"Many children are born here and have never been to Mexico," says Zaragoza, adding her disappointment that, "They don't even speak Spanish."