By Simone Pierre Delerme
Memphis’ Summer Avenue has become an enclave with a concentration of Latino-owned restaurants and small businesses. Along the corridor, one will find some of the community’s Latino pioneers. Mirna Lissette Garcia and her business partner Maryury Rodriguez, for example, opened Mi Tierra Restaurant in October of 2003. Mirna was born in Guatemala City in 1964 and migrated to Chicago when she was fourteen years old. In 1995, she decided to move to Memphis with her son and join family in the area after visiting. She was a pre-school teacher in Illinois with no experience in the restaurant industry. However, after moving to the area she found employment in one of the first Mexican restaurants opening in Memphis where she learned everything she knows. Maryury’s brother is the owner of restaurants in Chicago and Florida, and helped the two women get their business started as they strive to “give Memphis a little of Colombia.” They later diversified their menu and added Mexican cuisine since their customers were not familiar with Colombian food, one of the biggest challenges faced by the owners of non-Mexican establishments. Their unique vision transformed the interior of a building in a small Memphis shopping center to a space where Latinos congregate to eat, listen to music, and dance to the rhythms of cumbia, salsa, and merengue.
This ongoing project on the experiences of Latinos in the south, began over the spring of 2016 with interviews in Oxford, Mississippi; subsequently the research expanded to Memphis. The objective was to document the migration stories of immigrants and the experiences of other members of the Oxford community as part of The Invisible Oxford Project. We created the website and archive in the southern studies research methods course that I teach. The interviews we collected and archived focused on the less visible spaces, places, and communities in Oxford. The project grew to an ethnographic study of Memphis and Oxford conducted in collaboration with McNair Scholar Brittany Brown and Honors student Katherine Aberle. Taking into consideration the South’s historic black/white racial binary, we documented the place-specific experiences of Latinos in new destinations of migrations in the Mid-South using anthropologic methods, which include participant observation, informal and oral history interviews as well as content analysis of newspapers articles and archived transcripts.
Between 1980 and 1990 there was little growth in Memphis’ small Latino population of 5,225, however, between 1990 and 2000 the population increased by an astounding 333.6%. In contrast, the non-Latino white population declined over the last four decades while the number of Latinos continued to increase to 41,994 in 2010. In the last decade Oxford, MS has seen a 281% change. During the interviews, individuals were asked opened ended questions so they could reflect on themes ranging from assimilation and cultural preservation to incidents of discrimination and adapting to life in the south. From the interviews, we learned that in both Memphis and Oxford we were witnessing the growth of the Latino community as a result of family unification. Already established Latinos, often times working in either warehouses (in the case of Memphis), restaurants, or the construction industry, communicated to family members and friends about job opportunities, the cost of living, and the quality of life in the region. In Memphis, the communities of Berclair, Hickory Hill and Nutbush became “receiving communities” where new immigrants settled in the early 1990s. In Memphis, a larger city in comparison to Oxford, newspapers, non-profit organizations, churches, and other institutions have been created to provide services to the Latino community, preserve the culture of Latinos, and incorporate the incoming population of immigrants into the region. Although, with no Latino elected officials, there is little formal political representation.
Latino-owned restaurants and small businesses are the visual markers in the landscape that signal the Latinization of particular communities and represent incorporation into the local economic market. Latino-owned restaurants enabled individual families to become upwardly mobile. Several families we interviewed transitioned from the construction industry to the restaurant industry or kept ties to both to maximize their income. At the restaurants, immediate and extended family members worked together to establish their businesses, sometimes even expanding their operation to multiple locations. One family successfully opened over 22 Mexican restaurants in the region. These restaurants have become important symbolic social spaces in the community, places where Latinos congregate and connect to preserve their culture through food, music and dance. But, these restaurants are also spaces where non-Latinos are exposed to Latin American and Caribbean culture as both consumers and employees. So, restaurant owners and managers also served as cultural brokers. For our non-Latino interviewees, this led to increasing consciousness about the growth of the Latino population and the challenges these individuals face—like linguistic barriers—and fostered activism and outreach through churches and non-profit organizations like St. Peter’s Episcopal church in Oxford, Latino Memphis and Caritas Village. As Chef Elijah Townsend of Caritas Village—a restaurant, catering facility and community center in Memphis—explained:
My hope [ ] is that we can begin to bridge, close the gap on some of those barriers and begin to actually learn about each other and I think food is a great source to allow that to happen. I think food is an amazing tool to bring people together. If we think, if we look back over our lives, everything that happens to us, in some capacity, food is involved. Whether it’s happy, sad, celebratory… food’s there. I think food has the ability to take us to places we never physically will be able to go but we can experience that through taste and through that journey.
The influx of Latinos to Memphis and Oxford is challenging the historic black-white racial binary that has existed, and Latino-owned businesses are an important visible presence signaling the Latinization of spaces and places in communities throughout the south.
Dr. Simone Delerme is McMullan Assistant Professor of Southern Studies and Anthropology at the University of Mississippi. Her research focuses on Latino migration to the American South, and the social class distinctions and racialization processes that create divergent experiences in Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee. Interview transcripts from the project can be accessed on the Southern Foodways Alliance’s website, https://www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/latino-memphis-and-oxford/.
Dr. Delerme’s research questions are included below. We invite readers to comment on them. The following questions guided our data collection and analysis:
- How are Latino migrants incorporated into the social, political and economic life of communities in non-traditional destinations of migration?
- How are residential and commercial spaces with a concentration of Latinos perceived by non-Latino residents?
- How do Latinos navigate the South’s historic black/white racial binary?
If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact Sarah Fouts firstname.lastname@example.org.