Car accidents are the top killer of Hispanics in North Carolina and alcohol is often involved
When Eliseo Hernandez came to the United States 30 years ago, he thought he drove better after a few beers. Driving drunk had been normal back in Mexico, he said. But Hernandez, 54, learned of its perils firsthand. He quit the practice after falling asleep at the wheel and hitting a tree 18 years ago.
Then, last year, a young Hispanic man who authorities say was drunk nearly killed Hernandez's only son, Diego, in a crash on a rural Johnston County road. Eliseo Hernandez's daughter, who was nine months pregnant, lost her unborn child in the accident.
Hernandez has spent the past year following Diego through four hospitals and 14 brain surgeries. Diego only recently began to smile again and might never walk.
Hernandez said he hopes his painful journey will teach his friends and family a lesson. Car accidents are the top killer of Hispanics in North Carolina, and the disproportionate number of alcohol-related arrests and wrecks are an embarrassment to a minority already beleaguered by hard feelings over illegal immigration.
"It makes the Mexicans look bad, very bad," Hernandez said. "The American people say 'Oh, it's just another Hispanic, the same as the others.' "
In 2005, there were 37 alcohol-related crashes caused by Hispanic drivers for every 10,000 Hispanics in the state, according to the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. That is more than three times the rate of alcohol-related crashes among non-Hispanics.
Hispanic leaders are struggling to stem a problem that they say is rooted in the waves of young men who leave the calming influences of church and family to labor alone in a new country.
"It's difficult because you're trying to compete with the loneliness," said Tony Asion, public safety director for El Pueblo, an Hispanic advocacy group. "Then, as some learn, more come, and we start again."
Last month, a Johnston County father and son died in a fiery crash authorities say was caused by Luciano Tellez, 31, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Dwane Braswell, 35, and his son Jerry, 9, were riding in a tractor-trailer cab on N.C. 210 in the Cleveland community of Johnston County when Tellez struck the tractor and rolled it into a ditch, where it caught fire.
Empty beer cans were found in Tellez' car, but authorities say it is impossible to know whether he was drunk.
It was the latest in a string of such accidents caused by Hispanic men. In February in Salisbury, a woman who was eight months pregnant and her unborn child were killed. In October, it was two college students and a high school boy. In January 2006, a man from El Salvador killed a Hillsborough woman in a head-on crash and fled, leaving an injured passenger in his own car.
Researchers say drunken driving among Hispanics is at least partially explained by demographics. As in many places where immigration is fairly recent, the Hispanic population in North Carolina is young and dominated by men -- both factors that make them statistically more likely to drive drunk.
Men in their 20s and 30s made up more than half the people charged with DWI statewide in the year ending last July. Nearly 40 percent of North Carolina Hispanics were 21- to 39-year-old men in 2005, according to census estimates. This same age range accounted for only 18 percent of blacks and 16 percent of whites.
Bobby Dunn, who counsels Spanish-speaking DWI convicts in Johnston and Wilson counties, said his clients are often young men far from home with money in their pockets for the first time. Many were too poor to have cars in Mexico, so they have little experience behind the wheel.
They also see drinking as a way of showing their manhood.
"The magic number is 12," Dunn said, or "un doce" in Spanish. "If you can drink 12 beers, you're a man."
Others say heavy drinking is part of a lifestyle dominated by long work days building homes, painting or picking crops.
Walking down Buck Jones Road to his apartment in West Raleigh, Alberto Gonzalez figured he would drink most of the 12-pack he had just bought that night, even though it was a weeknight.
Gonzalez, 29, said he hadn't given much thought to spending a night without a beer in hand. "I just sit and drink," he said. "Maybe a friend will come by. Other than work, this is what I do."
Hernandez was part of an early wave of young men who came to North Carolina to pick tobacco. There were so few Hispanics in North Carolina then, he said, he couldn't find a store that sold hot peppers or corn tortillas.
He had been a drinker in Mexico, he said, but it got worse in the United States. He didn't have a family to tend to, and he felt very alone in a place where no one understood him.
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