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Amid Racist Harassment, Many In North Carolina Town Vow To Fight Back

Reports of racially-motivated harassment continue to pour in across the country after Donald Trump's election as president. One community in North Carolina just held an emergency meeting to try to find solutions to address the harassment Latinos are experiencing there.

Juvencio Rocha-Peralta, who leads the Eastern North Carolina Latin American Coalition, seemed to like what he saw as he greeted people at the doors of Greenville's Unitarian Universalist church Tuesday night. The crowd was white, black, Latino and Asian ... retirees, moms, kids, teachers and elected officials. Since Donald Trump's victory, the diversity of this college city is now a source of tension.

"I think it's our own responsibility as citizens to come together, united, and talk about what's going on," Rocha-Peralta says.

Greenville resident Leo Otero read the testimony of one local Latina mother who could not attend the forum. She wrote that, since the election, her son's classmates have taunted him about his race.

"Today when I picked up my son from school, he seemed sad, and was about to cry, and he asked me, 'Mom, am I going to be deported?' " Otero read. "I said 'No, why?' And he said 'Because almost every kid in school was telling me that I was going to be deported in Mexico. And I told them no, I was born a U.S. citizen. But they said, "Yes you are, 'cause you are Mexican — just look at your skin color." ' "

The Southern Poverty Law Center says it has collected more than 400 reports of harassment or intimidation around the country since last week — including one at East Carolina University, where "build that wall" was spray-painted across a pillar. And Rocha-Peralta says employees at a local pharmaceutical company circulated a petition to ban Spanish. He says the community has to figure out how to address racism.

Travis Lewis works for the county school district, and says teachers are responding to incidents by focusing on empathy.

"They're trying to mediate with these students, and often they found that they're friends — they were friends before the election, they get along," Lewis says. "And so these comments, you know, why are they saying this? Do they not realize that this is being hurtful to people that they consider friends?"

But Lewis says schools can't control what kids hear outside the classroom.

Greenville psychotherapist Marleni Vilca-Paul is concerned, but encouraged by the diversity of the people gathered at the church.

"I have hope and I think one by one we gonna make it — and just maybe little smiles and nice gestures to the Latinos, no matter where they are, is going to break some barriers," Vilca-Paul says.

Organizers say this is just the beginning of many meetings to bring together an anxious community.

Copyright 2016 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered, Here & Now from WBUR, and NPR's Weekend Edition.