#discussCLT: An Immigrant’s Story

No matter how you feel about immigrants, Oliver Merino deserves your admiration
Logan Cyrus
The crowd at Marshall Park for the Day Without Immigrants rally in February.

Regardless of how you feel about undocumented immigrants, you can’t help but admire the sheer strength of will Oliver Merino exercised in building a life for himself in the United States, and in Charlotte. He was 10 in 1999 when his family left Mexico to settle in Monroe, not the most welcoming of cities.

As he approached his high school graduation, knowing he couldn’t afford college, a guidance counselor told him, not meanly, that his best chance of success was to go back to Mexico. Merino earned a degree anyway from Johnson C. Smith University, despite having never met a black person before moving to the United States. Actually, it was because he’d never met a black person. He chose to major in African-American Studies, he said during the latest #discussCLT podcast, “to learn more about the place I was now part of.” So much for non-assimilation.

Merino is now the Latino New South coordinator for the Levine Museum of the New South, helping develop programs and areas of collaboration between the museum and Charlotte’s Latino community. In the last three months, he’s settled into an additional role as a prominent activist imploring local officials to offer emotional and material support for undocumented immigrants following a series of federal raids in Charlotte and other cities in February.

He publicly represented Latino activist groups before the CIty Council in April, when they issued a list of demands—local withdrawal from the 287(g) program, an end to police checkpoints, and decriminalization of “minor” offenses, such as driving with a revoked license and DUI. (That last one caused even some allies to raise their eyebrows.) His activism led to threats. He doesn’t plan to stop. “Power,” he said during the podcast, “does not concede anything without demand.”

It’s a fascinating discussion (embed above), nudged along ably by Andy Goh and Andy Smith. It leaves you thinking about things, maybe even called to action. One of Merino’s most perceptive observations: All of this Latino activism isn’t happening in a vacuum. The events of the last year-plus in Charlotte—in particular House Bill 2 and the Keith Scott shooting, and all the discussion and reaction that accompanied them—seems to have awakened something in the city’s character, stirred to life voices that had never found cause or courage to be raised.

Well, they’re raised now, and good luck to city leaders in trying to get them to turn the volume down. “What do you value more, the money or the people?” Merino asked. “They need to do more. The people here expect more.”

Categories: #discussclt, DiscussCLT Conversation