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Hispanics line up for driving school

Across the South, immigrants unfamiliar with American ways get crash course in road safety.

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Victor Garcia never figured that where he'd start to feel like a real American would be inside a gritty police station somewhere in North Carolina.

Mr. Garcia, a barrel-chested construction worker from Mexico who is dressed today more like a lawyer, is one of the thousands of recent immigrants to the South who have struggled with an unfamiliar culture and intimidating authorities speaking in molasses-drenched tones.

Although he's as legal here as a dollar bill, Garcia's hands would still tighten on the wheel at the sight of a police cruiser - until now.

Last week, he and 43 other recent immigrants became the first graduating class of a new experiment in the South's increasingly kaleidoscopic society: the Spanish police academy in Durham, N.C.

The students are training not to become men in blue, but simply to understand the local rules of the road - both in terms of driving cars and dealing with the police.

Officials here say the positive response to their primer suggests an untapped and unexpected camaraderie between Southerners and Latinos, based on common values like hard work, family life, and churchgoing. The next step, experts say, is to capitalize on such small familiarities to bridge an enduring - and often frustrating - cultural chasm between Dixie and Latino roots.

"I think [the academy] exemplifies a real opportunity to cut short this period of mutual suspicion and estrangement," says Lou Ternatzky, a research director at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, Calif. "In fact, because of a lot of shared values, I think it's going to work faster and better in the South than a lot of other places."

From Miranda rights to gun rights

Meeting in the squad room, the six-week course ran the gamut from traffic rules to police procedures, including the intricacies of licensing and questions about how to legally carry a concealed weapon. Many students lingered after each two-hour class to chat with the instructors and Spanish-language interpreters. "There are so many things that you wouldn't just know and you wouldn't just ask any cop about," says Garcia.

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