The Latino South
One of the most notable migratory patterns in recent decades is Latino migration, settlement, and community formation in non-traditional destinations in the US South. In the 1990s, there was a Latino population boom driven by immigration and high fertility rates, and the dispersion of the population became evident in urban, suburban, and rural communities throughout the South. These settlements are much smaller than the communities that formed in traditional gateway cities; however, the rate of population growth and community formation is what sets these places apart. Hence, it is speed, not size, that is defining Latino population growth in southern states. An examination of the geography and demography of “new destinations” revealed that the initial population of immigrants tended to be foreign born, young, undocumented, Mexican, and attracted to the employment opportunities. In less than two decades, however, this migration transitioned “from a seasonal, agricultural migration of young mexicanos into Georgia and North Carolina to a regional settlement of Latino families from other US cities and towns, all parts of Mexico, and much of Central and South America.”[i] Between 2000 and 2010, Mississippi and Tennessee were among the top 10 states in the nation for Latino population growth.
There was little growth in Memphis’ small Latino population of 5,225 between 1980 and 1990; 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—from 331,779 in 1980, 266,490 in 1990, 216,174 in 2000, to 177,735 in 2010—while the number of Latinos continued to increase. Between 2000 and 2010 there was a 117.3% change when the population grew from 19,317 to 41,994. Some migrants were drawn to the employment opportunities in the construction industry or to jobs in the many warehouses. In Memphis, the communities of Berclair, Hickory Hilll and Nutbush became “receiving communities” where new immigrants began settling in the early 90s. Although Latinos were present throughout the South since at least the early twentieth century, these early Latino communities “have not lingered in the collective memories of these locales.”[ii] However, in the contemporary south the Latinization of communities demands attention and becomes evident through the concentration of Latino residents and Latino-owned businesses, like those that can be found on Memphis’ Summer Avenue.
[i] Jamie Winders and Barbara Ellen Smith, “Excepting/accepting the South: New geographies of Latino migration, new directions in Latino studies,” Latino Studies Journal, Volume 10, Issue 1-2 (2012): 222.
[ii] Ibid., 222-223.
From Memphis, TN to Oxford, MS
“I mean, like I say, I haven’t had a food business like this in my life. I started like three years ago. My grandma helped me out. We had to do this, had to do that. My sister-in-law helped me out with the salsas. And that is the secret, the salsas.”
Manuel Chavez was born in Mexico City on October 12, 1966. Twenty-two years ago he came to the United States, and worked in the construction industry. Three years ago he opened Taco Torro, but was only open on weekends to make extra money. The success of the business led Chavez to dedicate more time to Taco Torro, and involve his family. His mother-in-law taught him how to cook, and helped him for the first year and a half. The outdoor taco shop serves street tacos and quesadillas with the option of Chavez’ unique offerings, which include buche (pork stomach) and lengua (tongue). The secret, according to Chavez, is the sauces: tomatillo with jalapeno peppers or chile de arbol with tomatoes. Customers claim they feel like they are in the streets of Mexico when they come to Taco Torro. Both his daughter and wife help run the operation.
Mirna Garcia and Maryury Rodriguez,
Mi Tierra Restaurant
Business partners Mirna Lissette Garcia and Maryury Rodriguez opened Mi Tierra Restaurant on Memphis' Summer Avenue in October of 2003. Mirna Garcia was born in Guatemala City on November 17, 1964 and Maryury Rodriguez was born in Colombia on August 29, 1959. Mirna migrated to Chicago when she was fourteen years old and in 1995 decided to move to Memphis with her son. Maryury spent thirteen years living in Chicago before moving to Memphis, where she has lived for the past seventeen years. Mirna was a pre-school teacher in Illinois with no experience in the restaurant industry. After moving to Memphis, however, she found employment in one of the first Mexican restaurants opening in Memphis where she learned everything she knows, from dishwashing to cooking. Maryury's brother is the owner of a restaurant in Chicago, and helped the two women get their business started as they strive to give Memphis a little of Colombia, and preserve the culture. They later diversified their menu and added Mexican cuisine since their customers were not familiar with Colombian food. Their unique vision transformed the interior of the building to replicate the houses that can be found in Colombia. After 10pm the lights of the restaurant go down and the music of Latin America pulsates through the restaurant as customers enjoy the sounds of cumbia, salsa, merengue and reggaeton.
Cesar Gonzalez was born in Maracabo, Venezuela on October 5th of 1972. Ten years ago Gonzalez came to Memphis. In Venezuela, he owned a bakery, deli, and has a background in graphic design. When he came to Memphis he worked for El Norte, a Spanish language newspaper, and as a freelancer before venturing into the food industry. His grandmother was a great cook and he credits her with passing along the flavors that he now cooks with. Three years ago, Gonzalez started by offering lunches to offices until he built a food truck approximately a year later. Little by little he saved money to purchase the equipment he needed for the food truck until opening Sabor Caribe restaurant. In the interview, Cesar discusses the challenges to opening a business and the transition from food truck to restaurant. Additionally, he describes the differences between Venezuelan cuisine and the food from other Latin American and Caribbean countries. His goal is to teach people about Venezuelan culture through food, to show another flavor and another culture.
The Rojas Family, Sabrosura Restaurant
Mario Rojas was born in March of 1972 in Chiapas, Mexico. He initially migrated to California, but only remained for a few months before moving to Memphis, Tennessee where he has resided for the past fifteen years with his wife and children. His wife, Maria Rojas, is the cook at Sabrosura, the restaurant they opened in October of 2015. Her passion is cooking, and her dream was to open a restaurant. Their twenty-year-old daughter, Jessa Rojas, who was born in Mexico on October 9th of 1986, helps in the restaurant. In addition to managing the restaurant, Mario Rojas is a Pastor, and his daughter runs their local church youth group. Mario and Jessa Rosas discuss their experiences living in Memphis, and describe the fusion Maria Rojas brings to the kitchen by combining recipes from her mother-in-law and mother, one from urban Mexico and the other from rural Mexico with the different place-based culinary influences.
Caiman Venezuelan Bakery
Allen Ampueda was born on June 14, 1961 in Achaguas, Venezuela, and migrated to Wynne, Arkansas in 2004. In November of 2016, Ampueda and his sister opened Caiman, a restaurant and bakery serving authentic Venezuelan cuisine, on Memphis’ Summer Avenue. Everyone in his family works together to make the restaurant operate with his wife and sister serving as the primary cooks. Ampueda describes his childhood in Venezuela, the family’s career trajectory, Venezuela’s current political climate, and draws parallels between life in the US South and Venezuela.
Patricia Aguilar was born on August 8, 1978 in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. She and her husband, Pedro Aguilar, are the owners of La Herraduara Restaurant on Memphis’ Summer Avenue. The restaurant opened in December of 2016 after expanding from a retail store specializing in Mexican pottery and decorations. Patricia Aguilar migrated to California at the age of five years old and has lived in Memphis for the past twenty years. Aguilar learned to cook from her mother, who serves as her inspiration, and Aguilar has incorporated her mother’s recipes in the restaurant’s menu. La Herradura Restaurant, which the family calls the “Mexican Cracker Barrel,” aims to bring back a little history from Mexico through the art, decorations, dresses, shoes, and other items that are sold in the retail section. In the interview, Aguilar discusses the growth to Memphis’ Latino community, and the challenges faced by the most recent immigrants.
Leslie Barker & Elijah Townsend, Caritas Village
Leslie Barker, Executive Director of Caritas Village, was born in Boonville, Mississippi, but grew up in Clinton, Mississippi. Elijah Townsend, the Chef and Restaurant Manager at Caritas Village, was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Caritas Village is a restaurant, community center, and cultural arts center in the Binghampton community in Memphis, TN. The mission of Caritas Village is, “To break down walls of hostility between the cultures, to build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor & to provide a positive alternative to the street corners for the neighborhood children.” Barker and Townsend discuss community engagement and activism, the Binghampton community that they call home, and their experiences working at Caritas Village.
El Sol Azteca Mexican Restaurant
Cesar Reyes was born in Oaxaca, Mexico on February 6, 1979, and moved to Southaven, Mississippi in 2004 to join his family working in the restaurant business. Three years ago he opened El Sol Azteca after over ten years in the Mexican restaurant industry. Reyes describes how he began as a dishwasher and worked his way up to manager before opening up his own restaurant. Additionally, Reyes describes life in Mexico, adapting to life in the south and preserving Mexican cultural practices and tradition, and the challenges running a restaurant.
Madison Craig is an 11th grader at White Station High School. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, the sixteen-year-old is a youth activist involved with Latino Voices, a group at her high school that aims to expose others to the growing Latino community and foster awareness. Additionally, she is a participant in Abiertas Puertas, a college access program sponsored by the non-profit organization Latino Memphis. In the interview, Madison Craig describes her involvement with local protests; the challenges facing undocumented youth and monolingual Spanish speakers; her first job at La Michoacana and their unique offerings; her quinceañera; her passion for politics and the arts; and her immersion in Latin American culture.
West Coast Burrito
Jose Rodriguez is the General Manager of West Coast Burrito, located just outside of Memphis, Tennessee in the suburbs of Horn Lake, Mississippi. Rodriguez was born in Mexico City, but migrated first to Los Angeles. After living in California for 10 years his family moved to Mississippi where they have resided for the past six years. He and his wife decided to open the restaurant after moving to Mississippi and being unable to find a restaurant with authentic Mexican street tacos and cuisine within a forty-five minutes drive. They realized that the Latino population in Horn Lake and nearby Southaven, Mississippi was growing, and identified a need in the community. Their goal is to bring the Mexican food they know to the south, with an emphasis on seafood. The family’s goal is to expand to other locations. In the interview, Rodriguez compares life in California and Mississippi, acknowledging the growing population of Latinos and the role of the church in preserving traditions and customs in the south.
Ramiro Munoz Jr.,
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, twenty-one year old Ramiro Muñoz Jr. manages the restaurant Casa Mexicana in Oxford, Mississippi. Soon after his birth, Muñoz moved to Oxford, where he has lived for the past twenty-one years during which time he witnessed the expansion of his family’s restaurant business and the growth of the Latino community. With a background education in the culinary arts, Muñoz focuses primarily on managing the restaurant and kitchen while his sister focuses on other aspects of the business. With over twenty restaurants in the mid-south and growing, Muñoz describes his family’s introduction into the food industry, first in California and later in the South. Recognizing a need for Mexican restaurants in many small, southern towns his immediate and extended family collaborated to create an important legacy and brought Mexican cuisine to places like Oxford, Olive Branch, and Southaven, Mississippi.
Moises Lemus & Juan Leon, El Agave Mexican Grill
Moises Lemus was born in Jalisco, Mexico on August 25, 1989, and migrated with his family in 2000, at the age of eight years old. They lived in Nashville for a few months before moving to New Albany, Mississippi. Juan Leon was born in Mexico on November 16, 1978. In 2012, the business partners opened El Agave Mexican Grill in New Albany, Mississippi. In 2016, they expanded their brand and opened a second store in Oxford, Mississippi. Lemus and Leon discuss cultural preservation, adjusting to life in the south, the growth of the Latino population, and their experiences working in the restaurant industry.