The Newest South: A Lotta Cultures Goin' On

By Hector Tobar

Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 2001 pp. 22-23

Reprinted with permission from the May 13, 2001 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

In the center of Memphis, a river port known for its turbulent history of conflict between blacks and whites, there is a place where the old ideas about race and the South don't make sense anymore.

Drive east from the Mississippi along Union Avenue, just past the studio where a then-unknown Elvis Presley showed up one day to record a song, and you'll come to an in-between place known as Midtown. Here, there are no ethnic or racial majorities.

"In Midtown, you have everyone and anyone living together," Claudio Perez-Leon, a Peruvian-born painter, said as he sipped a drink at a local cafe. "All the categories used to divide people are ignored here."

In Memphis, as in other corners of the South, familiar neighborhoods are being remade, an inevitable consequence of the shifts documented in the 2000 Census. As the South grows-attracting migrants to both its large cities and its rural towns-it's starting to look a bit more like the East and West coasts.

Census Tract 36 in Memphis offers one of the most dramatic expressions of this new, polyglot South: Its 3,016 residents are split into four roughly equal groups: 28 percent white, 27 percent black, 25 percent Asian and 17 percent Latino.

What's happening in central Memphis is only the most advanced expression of a trend seen in Southern cities and towns as far afield as Bentonville, Ark., and Raleigh, N.C. All have seen a sharp increase in either their Latino or Asian populations or both.

In the 1990s, Tennessee's Latino population increased by 278 percent, while North Carolina's grew by 394 percent. In a handful of rural towns, Latinos have become the largest minority group, mostly because immigrants are taking low-wage jobs in chicken processing and other industries. Latinos make up about 40 percent of the population in Siler City, North Carolina, and Dalton, Georgia, the "Carpet Capital of the World."

Elsewhere, Asians have become the largest minority in overwhelmingly white suburbs such as Cary, North Carolina (outside of Raleigh), and Germantown, Tennessee (east of Memphis), mirroring a pattern first seen twenty years ago in such Los Angeles suburbs as San Marino and Monterey Park.

Earlier this year, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton took note of the trend and formed an Office for Multicultural and Religious Affairs. Its mission is to ease the transition of Latinos, Asians, and other groups into the city's public life-and perhaps avoid the type of racial strife that Memphis became known for in the 1960s.

Already, some observers of this city's social milieu see the potential for such conflict. Latinos, the city's fastest-growing minority, are increasingly filling low-wage jobs in construction and other industries.

"There are some people who see the growth of the Latino community as a threat," said Jose Velasquez of the Latino-Memphis Connection, a social service agency. Some members of the city's black community "think we're going to take things from them without having to go through the same struggles."

In the 1960s, blacks were alone at the bottom of the wage ladder in Memphis-it was a group of such men, sanitation workers, who marched with "I am a man" placards that became a civil rights icon. Their struggle brought the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the city, where he was assassinated in 1968.

Today, the motel where King was killed has been converted into a civil rights museum. This month, it's exhibiting "Americanos," a traveling photo documentary on Latino life in the United States.

For the most part, Memphis' relationship with its Latino immigrants remains in the honeymoon phase. "We don't have the problems there are in other parts of the country," said Narquenta Sims, head of the mayor's multicultural office.

Because many Latinos have just arrived in Memphis, she says, they haven't developed the resentments or expectations that can build up over time. "You don't have a lot of second- and third-generation Latinos here," she says. "Everything is brand new. Let's keep it brand new."

In other corners of the South, there have been small but angry protests against the growing presence of Latino immigrants. Last year, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke joined one hundred people at an anti-immigrant rally in Siler City, North Carolina. They carried signs that read, "No way, Jose" and "The melting pot is boiling over."


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Hoping to prevent such scenes in Memphis, Sims and the mayor's office have worked hard to promote the city's growing diversity as an economic asset. They've also hosted a number of community meetings with the city's budding Latino and Asian leadership. More than 1,500 people came to one session that was held, like most gatherings of the mayor's commission, in Midtown.

"The focus is to get everyone who is not white or African American together," Sims said. "We tell people, 'You may be Latino, you may be Asian, but we all have things in common.'"

Indeed, there is a certain historical parallel at work in the latest round of migration to Memphis, a thread that joins the 19th century black sharecropper and 21st century Mexican field hand.

In times past, people came to the "capital of the Mississippi Delta" from the surrounding plantations and down-and-out river towns, black and white men and women making new lives in an era marked by harsh segregation laws. A few brought their guitars and voices and made some of the first recordings of what came to be known as the blues.

Now they come to Memphis from places as varied and distant as do the thousands of packages processed hourly at the FedEx Corporation's worldwide headquarters here.

There are Vietnamese families from fishing towns on the Gulf of Mexico; Mexican veterans of the chicken plants in Arkansas and Alabama; the families of Somali refugees who have become a fixture in heartland cities from Minneapolis to Columbus, Ohio; and the entrepreneurs from the Indian subcontinent who have become dominant in the hotel business across the rural South.

"It's not New York or L.A., and it's never going to be, because it's hot and humid and it's still the South," said Judy Peiser of the Memphis-based Center for Southern Folklore. "But it's a more cosmopolitan place than it used to be."

Peiser has seen slow and subtle changes to the city's cultural landscape, most of which are not yet visible to many outsiders, who still think of culture in Memphis as "blues and barbecue." A few years back, Peiser became aware of a new Memphis musical tradition, the ranchera concert.

"They have these mammoth dances. All these kids come in, young people working in construction," Peiser said. "They all have money in their pockets. It's an amazing scene. They take over entire warehouses."

Memphis now boasts a Spanish-language radio station. When the popular Mexican band Tigres del Norte came into town, it charged $50 a ticket and still managed to fill a 1,000-seat theater. There are street gangs transplanted from neighborhoods in Chicago and California.

But while Latinos make up a large portion of some neighborhoods, they are still just 3 percent of Memphis as a whole (city officials here say that Latinos were grossly undercounted and that the actual number may be twice the census figure). The idea of Latinos having an effect on political life here is still far in the future.

"In Memphis, our community is still in diapers," said Juan Romo, editor of the Spanish-language weekly La Voz Hispana. "A lot of people haven't made up their minds to stay here yet. They're happy to work hard and send money home."

Memphis' growing Indian and Pakistani community is further along, however. In 1991, when Herenton campaigned to become the city's first black mayor, Indian activists here organized a fund-raiser. "It's always good to have a friend in City Hall," said Sudhir Agrawal, an accountant and native of New Delhi.

Agrawal is also a volunteer treasurer of the India Cultural Center and Temple, whose one hundred members come to Memphis to worship every week from Hernando, Mississippi; Little Rock, Arkansas; and other places.

"We are involved [in the community] to some extent but not as much into the politics of black and white," Agrawal said. "We just go about taking care of our business and moving on and expressing our opinions."

Sims said it was the Indian and Pakistani community's support for Herenton that helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the Office of Multicultural and Religious Affairs.

"The Hindus came out for him in a very strong and powerful way when no one else wanted to touch him," Sims said.

When the office finally opened earlier this year, one of the first calls Sims made was to the Mexican consul in New Orleans. She proposed to the diplomat that Mexico establish a consulate here. It would be the city's first foreign delegation.

After months of waiting, the city got a response, just the other day, in the form of a letter from Mexico City. Unfortunately, the text was in Spanish, and no one in Sims' office could understand it. So, she ran it through a computer translation program and managed to decipher the message: No consulate yet. But maybe soon.