On wooden steps, the high-water marks, carefully labeled and dated, measure the severity of hurricanes long past. The newest entry, Matthew, tops them all at just over three feet — Ocracoke’s biggest flood in more than a decade. Neighbors have piled up their downed tree limbs next to waterlogged boxes, ruined appliances, and soggy cushions — the shared price of island life.
Reminders are everywhere on this shady lane, but the recent storm seems to have slipped David “Fiddler Dave” Tweedie’s mind. Standing on the porch of his lime green cottage, an altogether different concern has taken over: In a few weeks, this remote island of 900-plus residents — many of whom can trace their surnames, either by birth or by marriage, to a handful of British settlers — will host its first Latino festival.
The island’s Hispanic community has grown from 2 percent to about 20 percent of the island’s full-time population in the past 15 years. Most of the newcomers are from the landlocked state of Hidalgo, Mexico, and many are from the same extended family. A significant shift to be sure, but Ocracoke, caught between the sound and the sea, has always set its clock by migrations: red drum and striper, peregrine falcons and cormorants, ferries and tourists. Understanding these island rhythms, and how they are connected, is part of living here.
“No one is interested in dividing the community up into those who have money and those who don’t, those who have status and those who don’t,” says David, director of the town’s arts nonprofit, Ocracoke Alive, which is sponsoring the festival. “It’s what I’ve always liked about this place.”
Still, merging the crosscurrents of two distinct cultures can be tricky. Good intentions, built on assumptions, can lead to misunderstandings. David discovered this last summer when he added a traditional Mexican band to the lineup at the Ocrafolk music festival. As the musicians strummed and sang, he noticed them eyeing each other. The Latino families in the audience shifted politely in their seats. Something was off. After the show, he pulled aside a friend to ask what was wrong. “Well,” the friend began, trying to be diplomatic. “That’s music we would be dancing to, not watching.”
The ebb and flow of tourist traffic on this island of not quite 10 square miles has shaped the community. Seasonal jobs are the norm, as are multiple jobs. And everyone wears several hats: Here, the school guidance counselor (also the soccer coach) drives the bus.
“We’re more egalitarian here, folks working side by side,” says David, who arrived 24 years ago and later married into the family of the island’s early owner, who was thought to be Blackbeard’s quartermaster. “We’re all in the tourist industry together, and we have to help each other — through hurricanes and everything — to everyone’s benefit.”
After Matthew blew through, power on the island was spotty, and familiar comforts hard to come by. As soon as the water retreated, Eduardo Chávez hustled to his food truck to make biscuits. He posted on Facebook that he was giving them out for free to all comers. Typical Eduardo. Classic Ocracoke.
Eduardo’s Taco Stand on Highway 12, next to the Ocracoke Variety Store, serves grilled crab tacos with sweet peppers and fresh, citrusy ceviche, dishes that have a following as far away as Harkers Island. He’s lived here for 15 years and is admired as much for his kindness — the number of heart emojis on his Facebook page says it all — as he is for his fish tacos. So it’s no surprise that for the festival, he volunteered to be in charge of the food vendors.
“I’m Catholic,” he says, his English halting in an effort to be clear, accurate. “I believe that if you give good things, good things come to your life. That is what I do.” In Mexico City, Eduardo owned a small stationery shop, but when the local economy collapsed, he applied for a U.S. work visa. His uncle and brother were on the island already, and he soon followed, working construction in the mornings and at restaurants in the evenings. During his one-hour break in between, he stocked shelves at the gas station.
“I don’t mope,” he says with a soft laugh. “If you continue with gratitude in all you do, things can change.” Six years ago, a friend offered him the chance to rent a food truck and start a little restaurant of his own. He drew up a menu that has become a culinary map of his life’s journey — from his mother’s chicken enchiladas and salsas, to the local fish he buys from his neighbor, to the serranos and habaneros he now grows in his garden.
On the day he opened, he hung a Mexican flag outside the truck. A good way, he thought, to advertise his cuisine. But the simple gesture was soon misinterpreted. “A man came, a customer, and he tore down the flag,” Eduardo says. “He said to me, ‘Put up the American flag.’”
The man has since been back — to eat. “He misunderstood. I was trying to say what kind of restaurant —” Eduardo stops. There’s no point in dwelling on the past. “He did not understand I have family here,” he says. “This is my home.”
This slip of sand and marsh and scrubby pines has long been a beacon for people seeking a second chance, a final act, a new beginning. In the 1800s, they came on cargo ships and found kindred spirits in the pilots who navigated the sound. And during World War II, they came from naval bases all over for training and to guard our coastal waters. In the 1960s and ’70s, they came to make art, or just to live more simply.
“I believe that if you give good things, good things come to your life. That’s what I do.”
These days, “this place has many people who came to retire, but didn’t,” says Peter Vankevich, co-owner and co-editor of the Ocracoke Observer, program director of the island’s radio station, and, at 63, a volunteer firefighter. “I’m not the first person on the hose, let’s put it that way,” he says. After 32 years in Washington, D.C., working for the Library of Congress, he moved to Ocracoke in 2012 and became the town’s librarian. From the world’s largest library to one of the smallest, as he likes to say.
In his new post, Peter found that he could polish up his “passable” Spanish and make new acquaintances at the same time. The many Spanish speakers who came to the library wanted to improve their English, and chatting with them helped his Spanish. He wondered if he could organize a language exchange program, similar to the one he had developed at the Library of Congress, where, at its peak, 23 languages were spoken among the staff.
“After religion, you probably have more tension around language than anything else,” he says. “Getting people to talk to each other — it’s so basic and necessary, but it’s complicated by so many factors.” On a barrier island, where the only exit is by boat, where there’s one post office and one car repair shop, where every child attends the same school, there’s no avoiding your neighbor. In these limitations, Peter saw the possibilities.
So in the winter of 2013, just as the tourists cleared out and the island settled into its quietest season, he got to work. Each week up to 40 adults — 20 English speakers and 20 native Spanish speakers — gathered in the library or the nearby Methodist church just to talk, or try to, anyway. Eduardo was there, as was a retired teacher and a retired CPA. And carpenters and waitresses and business owners. They focused on the words and phrases that would be most useful to both groups in their jobs and daily lives. And through all the embarrassing mispronunciations and baffled expressions, they began to understand each other.
“That’s what’s beautiful about this island,” Peter says. “You come down here, and, if you want to, you can have a real impact.” He invited everyone in the program to his house for a potluck — potlucks being “our lavish dinner parties on Ocracoke.” Kids and spouses mingled, too. “Someone observed that it was the first time many of these families had gotten together socially to really get to know each other,” he says.
In the spring, when the tourists returned, the pairs split up. With a fresh season upon them, there was too much work to do. But the friendships endured and the conversations continued. In fact, those organizing and volunteering for the Latino festival are a cross section of Peter’s program. “Sometimes,” he says, “people just need a place to start.”
“When an event like this is produced in Mexico, my impression is that it forms organically,” says David, standing next to the festival banner he’s unfurled in his backyard. “People just bring what they have. But here, we have to apply for permits, order tents and T-shirts. There’s insurance …” His voice trails off.
Another cultural difference primed for misunderstanding, only this time, David has friend and festival committee chair Alfredo “Freddy” Trejo Contreras to help out. Freddy is, as David puts it, “the bridge between the communities.”
At the small medical clinic on Ocracoke and at another clinic on the mainland, 31-year-old Freddy works as a community outreach coordinator and medical translator for Spanish speakers, and for many elderly English speakers, too. Throughout the area, he’s trusted by the homegrown farmers and fishermen, as well as the new migrant workers.
“That’s what’s beautiful about this island: If you want to, you can have a real impact.”
Freddy is now a U.S. citizen, happily married and ambitious, but he remembers well his newcomer days. At age 15, he packed a bag with a few clothes and a week’s worth of dry food. Twenty dollars in his pocket, he left home with a group from his village in Hidalgo, all of whom had paid for the privilege of an uncertain journey to the United States.
Freddy spoke not a word of English, but he was motivated by a quiet, desperate need: He’d started to feel a strange and wearying sadness press down on him. Depression. The once-promising student was distracted, anxious, and local doctors could do nothing for him. He thought that in America he might find some relief through work.
“I was trying to find answers to something I didn’t even have a name for,” Freddy says, his English now as fluid and precise as a native speaker’s. “It was just a feeling that I couldn’t continue where I was.” The group hiked for days, mainly at night, until the final river crossing in the February darkness. The memory of that fraught time is oddly reassuring, he says. “If I was able to do that, I can do anything in my life.”
Once settled on Ocracoke, Freddy started visiting the library, where he got to know Peter. One day he asked him for help getting his GED, and Peter paired him up with a mentor, the retired CPA. The two began meeting, first at the language exchange, and then daily, between Freddy’s jobs. He expanded his vocabulary by reading The New York Times, National Geographic, and The Economist, and learned a year of math in months. After passing his exams, Freddy enrolled in a community college program for medical translation.
That was three years ago. Now he helps Peter by translating articles into Spanish for the newspaper’s website. He’s traveled throughout Europe with his wife, and is learning Italian. As an American citizen of Mexican origin, he’s sensitive to how the festival is perceived by both groups. “I don’t want it to be about just celebrating ‘our culture,’ ” he says. “I want us to celebrate the island, our union.”
Which they did. On a bright and bracing day in early November, parents and retirees, volunteers and day-trippers, swarmed the trays of warm tamales. They chatted and caught up. Children wobbled on bicycles, attempting a Mexican jousting game, as birds stalked abandoned snacks. At the school circle, marked by a driftwood dolphin, the mariachi band drew a crowd. Day turned to night, and the music played on. There was even dancing. And, at some point, it ceased to matter whether someone spoke with an Ocracoke brogue, or a native Hyde County lilt, or a proud hint of Hidalgo.