Creative Collagorations: Latina and Black Women in Knoxville

Staff

Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 2001 pp. 27-28

In 1992, very few Latinos lived in Knoxville, a city of 173,890 nestled in the mountains of East Tennessee. Tne Latina women connected with the University of Tennessee in Knoxville organized HOLA in order to overcome the sense of isolation from Latino culture that they felt. Today HOLA has abaout one hundered members and a strong history of provideing a voice for the Latina community in East Tennessee where Latinos now make up 1.6 percent of the Knoxville population, according to the 2000 Census.

Also in Knoxville, the Carpetbag Theatre has supported, for more than thirty years, the professional development of young artists while collaborating with other groups to create new performance works addressing issues and aspirations of people silenced by racism, classism, sexism, or ageism. It is one of the few tenured African-American professional theatre companies in the South.

These two community organizations are working together now, sharing their individual histories, culture, and common strategies for struggle, both with each other and in their broader communities. "We are collectively coming to the realization of some of the things the African-American communities and the Latino communities share, and we're trying to explore the ways we connect there," explains Linda Parris-Bailey, the executive and artistic director of Carpetbag Theatre. With African Americans currently comprising, according to the 2000 Census, 16.2 percent of the Knoxville population and Tennessee's Latino population growth expanding rapidly, a partnership between the two groups has the potential to wield great influence.

Witnessing the steady growth in Knoxville's Latino population, the members of Carpetbag Theatre decided to begin structured outreach to that community. At first, this involved identifying service provider institutions that served the Latino community, but when Parris-Bailey invited a Latino cultural arts group from California to come perform and lead workshops, several members of HOLA also attended. When some of the same Latina and African-American women who had met at those performances saw each other again at workshops led by the Knoxville Legal Services affiliate, those beginning relationsips were reinforced. HOLA began inviting Carpetbag members to HOLA meetings and Carpetbag Theatre invited HOLA members to be a partner in their American Festival Project work. The dialogue had begun.

For the past two years, HOLA has organized a Hispanic Festival, showcasing Latina culture. The 2001 festival, held in October, was a collaborative effort of HOLA and Carpetbag Theatre to reach across and beyond traditional racial boundaries and included a film festival, speaker presentations, and a Blessing of the Flags ceremony. With guidance, assistance, and reehearsal space provided by Carpetbag Theatre, HOLA also prepared a dramatic reading, telling the stories of HOLA members' migration to East Tennessee. The members fo Carpetbag Theatre worked to encourage a large African-American turnout for the performance and the theatre was full for the performances.

"The Latino community is in much the same situation that the African-American community was during the 1950s and 1960s," says Loida Velasquez, HOLA vice president for social action. "So Latinos have a lot to learn form African Americans about how to struggle for recognition and civil rights and teh importance of building cultural ties in order to later build political understanding." Velasquez and other HOLA members have begun planning leadership meet-


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ings where African-American community leaders can share what theyhave learned about community organizing and creating change through activism. HOLA members hope to build on the civil rights tradition of the African-American community and to create a new sense of power anong Knoxville's minority groups.

with experiences working with large minority populations in other cities, Parris-Bailey knows that tensions frequently emerge between minority groups, particularly over issues like job competition. Her hope for Knoxville is that, by nurturing these early relationships across racial and ethnic lines, "we can counter the basic mythologies about the other communities...and create come linkages before it gets to the point that we can be manipulated."

As HOLA members develop deeper relationships with African American community leaders and as African American women continue to attend HOLA meetings, discussions about race relations and racism have begun. Race and ethnicity are directly addressed with HOLA participation as attendees discuss issues of law enforcement and minority business development. "This dialogue between Latinos and the African American community is ongoing. It is happening at many different levels and different settings throughout our communities and will form a strong foundation of trust for later work together."

The next step in HOLA and Carpetbag Theatre's work together will be deciding how to continue sharing the dramatic reading performances beyond its initial opening at the October festival, particularly how it can be performed in the African-American community to stimulate discussion. Members of the two groups are also seeking to continue and deepen the relationship between the two groups. "I think the people involved in the partnerships are listing to each other," says Parris-Bailey. "We need to spread the opportunities for listening out."

Gwen Robinson, Jessie Bond, and Sarah Torian contributed to the article. for more information about Carpetbag Theater visit: www.korrnet.org/carpetbg/.