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Black and White and Brown

How the growing Hispanic population is changing the face and voice of Memphis.



When Ivette Monzon came to Memphis 25 years ago, there were only two stores that catered to the Hispanic community. Now, the Costa Rican native says, you can find stores everywhere.

There are a few on Jackson Avenue -- one in a small shopping center with a coin-operated laundry and a crumbling parking lot, another in its own small stone building. In the windows, fluorescent orange letters on butcher paper advertise tomate for 99 cents, liquido carbon for $1.29, and tortillas for $9.99 a jumbo pack. The sign over the door says carnes verdures, abarrotes, musica, cerveza y mucho mas and bears the image of the Virgin Mary, her hands clasped in prayer. There are similar commercial enclaves, as Monzon says, everywhere -- in Hickory Hill, in Bartlett, and in a strip mall in Collierville, next to a sporting-goods store and a hair salon.

Barbara Ellen Smith

The number of retail stores is just one indication of the growing Hispanic community in Memphis. Monzon, who is the Shelby County mayor's assistant for Hispanic Affairs, began officially helping Hispanics last month with such issues as where to get children immunized and how to report a crime. At the Med, Latino Memphis is assisting with a pilot program to train medical personnel to speak more Spanish. And at the University of Memphis, the Center for Research on Women (CROW) is completing a study that documents the growing Latino population and its impact on the Mid-South.

U.S. census data in 2000 showed 27,520 Hispanics in the Memphis metropolitan area, up from 7,546 in 1990. However, another estimate -- using local school enrollment -- put the 2000 population closer to 48,000. Today, Monzon says the number could be as high as 200,000, based on church registrations and visits to county health department clinics by pregnant women.

A CROW estimate puts the local economic impact of Latino workers at more than $1 billion. There are now two Spanish-speaking radio stations and a handful of Spanish publications serving Memphis, with more to come. State and national statistics illustrate similar population trends. In 1990, there were almost 33,000 Latinos in Tennessee. In 2000, there were about 124,000, a jump of 278 percent. Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Latinos had surpassed African Americans as the largest minority group in the nation.

The announcement has spurred discussion across the country about what it means for America. Who We Are, a book by Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington -- due out later this spring -- says that Hispanics are not assimilating like other first-generation immigrants. Instead, they are acculturating, keeping Spanish as their main language, or creating an English/Spanish society. As Hispanics become a powerful voting bloc, other people are interested in the possibilities for African-American/Hispanic political coalitions, the ramifications of which could mean minorities dominating America's elected offices.

What does this mean for Memphis, a city long split along black and white racial lines? The city's official definition of "minority," for example -- the one used for its minority business program -- applies to African Americans and women, which leaves Hispanics, along with other minorities, out of the picture.


José Velazquez

"I think that is an example of paradigms that were in place and worked perfectly 20 years ago that have just not caught up with the times," JosÇ Velazquez says of the city's minority business policy. "You have a community that for so long has focused on black and white in terms of race relations. ... All of a sudden, we can't do that. That may be frightening to some individuals, but to most people, it's liberating."

Velazquez is the executive director of Latino Memphis but works out of the Med, where he coordinates one of the country's 10 pilot programs to increase the number and proficiency of bilingual medical staff. The program started after Latino Memphis found that language was a barrier to Hispanics getting appropriate services.

"Sometimes you think of advocacy in terms of pickets, but that's not the approach we take. We like to be working in partnership," says Velazquez. "It serves no one if we come here and antagonize the only hospital that serves as a safety-net provider for the whole region."

Latino Memphis was started in 1995 after service providers in education, health care, and criminal justice began asking the same question: What do we do with these people? "They may not speak English, or they may speak English, but they come from a different way of looking at things," Velazquez says. "So they are having a challenging time adjusting to our culture in Memphis. I mean, that can be challenging even for someone from New York or Boston or Dallas."

Or Mexico, such as Angel. He came to the United States in 1989, originally settling in Los Angeles for four years. He is slim with thin brown hair and now works as a painter for a maintenance company. He considers Mexico a beautiful country, but after his parents died when he was 10, he knew he had to take care of himself. He tried to find work in Mexico but couldn't.

"At that moment," he says through an interpreter, "I decided I needed to go to the United States. I would have opportunities I wouldn't have in Mexico."

Angel spoke last month at a panel at Rhodes College to commemorate Francisco Javier Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant who died while working on the school's new Paul Barrett Jr. library. Angel says his experience has been very sad, but it is also typical in that he arrived undocumented and unable to speak English.

To find work, he would wait with other immigrants for day labor. "A truck would pull up, and I'd go up to the truck," he says. "They needed painters to work, but the other people had clothes that were stained with paint and mine weren't. They didn't pick me, so I decided I needed to stain my clothes with paint."

Angel is trying to learn English and ends his comments with a clipped "Thank you very much" in English. "If I don't speak English," he says, "I will not understand what my supervisor tells me. If we're communicating with just hand signals and gestures, he might try to take advantage of me. He might pay me less than the minimum wage, or he might make me work more hours than I'm supposed to work."

People who deal with the local immigrant population say that such things happen often. At Latino Memphis, every week or so a worker will come in and say they've done work for someone who now won't pay them or gave them a check that bounced. Fearful of having their illegal status discovered, there's little the workers think they can do.

Roxana Rodas-Pais is originally from El Salvador and speaks heavily accented English. She looks too young to be a grandmother. Rodas-Pais also knows about being taken advantage of: Once an employer paid her with food from Taco Bell.

Rodas-Pais began her working life in the U.S. as a housekeeper but because she loves numbers, she begged her way into a job at a bank. In 1994, she moved from Boston to Memphis to get married. She describes this Southern city as a "last frontier."

"There was one [Hispanic] here and one there, and suddenly, there's an explosion of people here," she says. "It's like California and the gold rush. People are opening stores and restaurants."

Belinda Mendoza has helped quite a few people mine new opportunities in Memphis. As membership director of the Hispanic Business Alliance (HBA), she gets a lot of calls from Hispanics in other states who are eager to start businesses here, as well as local non-Hispanic companies that are ready to tap into the growing population. "We're a young community still, but we're growing in leaps and bounds," she says. "You wouldn't know it to drive around, but we're a population of 200,000. You wouldn't see it because it's spread out, and there are a lot of people who don't want to be seen."

Mendoza says there are many immigrants who don't access products or services because of the language barrier. They are afraid of getting exploited. She tells local businesses the best thing they can do is hire Spanish-speaking employees.

The Bank of Bartlett is one such business. A member of HBA, the bank has hired bilingual tellers from a variety of countries and has recently begun hiring bilingual lenders, as well.

Many of the bank's customers are builders. Bank employees saw their customers' Hispanic laborers cash their paychecks and then walk out with all the money in their pockets. They began issuing checking accounts to immigrants who had two forms of identification and teaching them about the money system. As one bank official says, it was profitable, but it was also the right thing to do.

Latino Memphis' Velazquez points out that the Hispanic community has had an enormous positive effect on the local economy. Hispanics have provided much of the labor for numerous recent construction projects, and at least part of their wages have been reinvested in housing, food, and transportation. CROW estimates that Latino workers spent $45 million in local grocery stores and $74.8 million on housing in 2000.

"Kroger is really happy that they're here," says Velazquez, citing the grocery stores' section of Latino foods. "Trust me, they're not doing it for decoration. The bottom line is that people want these products."

®El Venir Junto?

Not everyone is as pleased as Kroger. "The short-term implications are that there is, unfortunately but predictably, a good bit of tension against racial ethnic lines" in the South, says Barbara Ellen Smith, the acting director of CROW. "Race and Nation: Building New Communities in the South" is a partnered study sponsored by CROW, the Highlander Research and Education Center of New Market, Tennessee, and the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta. It seeks to identify areas of potential conflict as well as collaboration among different racial-ethnic groups. All three organizations have histories in activism and the civil rights movement. Researchers hoped to encourage multiracial efforts to address common needs.

The study primarily focuses on the growing number of undocumented Mexican immigrants, and much tension was found in the lower levels of the labor market. In Knoxville, for example, researchers saw a climate of deindustrialization that was ripe for conflict.

When manufacturing plants originally moved to the South from the North, it was often because of the economics of paying lower wages to nonunion workers. "Now, of course, they can pay far lower wages in Mexico or China or elsewhere," says Smith, "so you have workers who have suffered significant job loss tied to the movement of their jobs overseas. And now they see people coming into their communities who are themselves foreign-born, whom they blame for their economic distress. When you combine that with the rhetoric we hear these days in the wake of September 11th, I think that it unfortunately enhances a kind of hostility toward immigrants.

"The rhetoric tends to be 'immigrants take our jobs' versus the argument that immigrants take the jobs no one else wants. But it never moves to an examination of who controls the labor market," Smith says.

The study found that employers in the South were hiring Latinos over American-born workers, often African Americans. One reason is that employers don't have to pay undocumented workers as much as legal residents. Another is that first-generation immigrants tend to have incredibly strong work ethics.

"People don't leave their country of origin, uproot themselves from their family, and come to a strange new place just for fun. They do it to make a living," Smith says. "The mindset with which they approach a job tends to be very different from native workers. It's not about their ethnicity. It's the context of immigration."

Smith also notes that within the lower end of the labor market, many employers tend to be white and many of their employees are African-American. "You're talking about the fact that employers can see in new immigrants a way of alleviating their historical dependence on African-American workers, and, I think, that's partly about racism."

Rebekah Jordan, the director of the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice, says that in her work with union organizations, she's seen several instances where employers try to pit African-American workers against Hispanic workers.

"The general trend," she says, "is that there are layoffs of African Americans and then they replace them with Latino workers." She explains that this prevents workers from organizing and makes native workers accept lower wages and worse working conditions. "We're not just talking about issues that immigrants face but issues that are detrimental to all races."

That is partly why many minority leaders are excited about the prospect for African-American/Hispanic coalitions. Darryl Tukufu, head of the Memphis Urban League, says he has mentioned a possible coalition several times, but no formal plans have been set. Having been involved in coalitions of people of color in Cleveland, Portland, and Los Angeles, Tukufu says they're important because "subconsciously or consciously, folks tend to pit so-called minority groups against each other. If there's a dialogue established, you can keep that from happening."

Narquenta Sims is the manager of the city's office of Multicultural and Religious Affairs, located on the fourth floor of City Hall and decorated with art from a variety of cultures.

Sims thinks the Hispanic and African-American communities have much in common, citing similarities in family structure, preferences for spicy foods and bright colors, and a range of complexions within each family. Yet one issue that clouds local communication between the two groups is the victimization of Hispanics by African-American gangs.

Last November, a young Guatemalan woman was killed in her half-Hispanic, half-African-American apartment complex after three robbers followed her husband home. Sims set up a community meeting to talk about crime, bringing a Hispanic police officer with her.

"When we got there, the room was packed," she says. "I thought it was just going to be the Hispanic residents in the complex, and I was like, 'Oh, my goodness,' because there were African Americans and Latinos there. I said to the apartment guy, 'We don't normally do this. We usually just have one group.' He says, 'Well, everybody is affected by crime.'"

At the meeting, a Hispanic man began to say some negative things about African Americans, and Sims says she thought to herself, Uh-oh, this is it. Luckily, just as several African-American families in the room began to leave, other Hispanics calmed the man down, and a conflict was diverted. Sims realized she was using the wrong approach. "I realized that Hispanic, black, white, or whatever, people have the same problems with crime."

As part of the CROW study, researchers interviewed civil rights activist Reverend C.T. Vivian, who said he was a strong proponent of black/brown coalitions, not as an effort to retain African-American political power but as part of a long-term vision of common interests.

"On the other hand," Smith says, "we talked to people who said this whole mess with immigration is just diverting attention from the core issues of social justice and civil rights."


While black or white refers to race, Hispanic and Latino are ethnic distinctions. Depending on skin color and self-identification, a person could be ethnically Hispanic but also considered "white" or "black," especially if their first language is English. Pop singer Christina Aguilera, for instance, played up her Ecuadorian side by recording a Spanish-language album in 2000, learning the lyrics phonetically, since she didn't speak Spanish.

"The popular conception is [Hispanics] as another race -- as brown, in effect," says Smith. "And there are many Latino activists who promote that position." But it's difficult for some African Americans to see Hispanics as a true minority group. Smith suggests this is why the city has yet to adopt Hispanics under the minority-business umbrella.

"Understandably, I think," she says, "African-American activists are wary of the extent to which it makes sense for Latinos as a group to be classified as a minority when the understanding of that is in terms of race. It's a complicated issue."

It's also one that engenders tense feelings. Members of the HBA have been asking since the organization was formed in 1997 for the city to change its minority definition. Sims points out that there's nothing barring Hispanics from submitting bids for government work. But what the HBA sees as unequal treatment has left a bad taste.

In 1994, a city study was done that determined that African Americans and women faced discrimination. That study became the basis of the minority-business program. Sims says a similar study will have to be done for other groups.

"The hope is that when we win, we would look at not just Latinos but Asians. We wouldn't do just one group. We would do everybody," says Sims. "If we lose [the case], everybody else can forget it. If African Americans and women cannot prove they've been discriminated against in this country, nobody can."

Complicating the issue even more is the diversity within the Hispanic community. The Hispanic designation includes people from 21 countries, some of whom do not speak Spanish. But they are called Hispanic once they're here.While much of the Hispanic influence is being driven by undocumented immigrants, Rodas-Pais is quick to identify herself as a "dry legal." She takes a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to her nationality because other Hispanics look down on Salvadorans.

"I couldn't care less about [Mexican president Vicente] Fox. Immigration is not an issue for me," she says. "Property taxes are an issue for me."

In places where the influx of immigrants was steady and slow, service providers had time to create programs to help them. In places like Memphis, where the population rise has been meteoric, service agencies haven't been able to keep up.

"[Hispanics] really haven't had time to form nonprofit organizations or begin activist efforts. Those organizations that do exist tend to have resources and, in many cases, include members that are U.S.-born," says Smith.

Problems facing the newly emerging Hispanic community are many: crime, unsafe working conditions, a lack of on-the-job training, and the fact that there are not enough bilingual attorneys in the area.

The language barrier is a major part of the problem. Sims' office has had fliers printed with terms such as height, weight, hair color, eye color in Spanish and English. The hope is that Hispanic crime victims can fill it out and give it to the reporting officer, so they can quickly begin looking for a suspect.

What will happen next is difficult to predict -- except for the obvious fact that Memphis' Hispanic population is going to continue to grow. There are hopeful signs: African-American clergy and Hispanic immigrant clergy are talking. And cooperation may happen more organically. Sims notes that the census bureau uses predictors to estimate future populations and that they rely on the assumption that Hispanic mothers will birth Hispanic children. "Looking out there, I see a lot of multiracial children," she says. "You can't assume that children will be the same as their mothers."

And despite the language barrier, Velazquez says the Hispanic influx is a great thing for the city because it brings more restaurants and markets:

"You better be able to offer these people the kinds of things they want to see in a metropolitan area. If we have any hope of competing with the Chicagos of the world, we have to get out of the 1960s and move forward."

Sims says one thing her office is trying to do is make sure Memphis doesn't simply raise the stakes in the racial divide.

"We were a black/white town," she says. "Let's not just become a black/white/brown town."

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