The Latino South


The Latino South- Migration, Identity, and Foodways
Brittany M. Brown, University of Mississippi Ronald E. McNair Scholar
Dr. Simone Delerme, University of Mississippi Southern Studies and Anthropology Professor

In the year 2003, Latinos became the largest minority group in the United States (Rumbaut 2009). The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Latinos will account for 60 percent of the United States’ population growth from 2005 to 2050, and by 2050, Latinos will compose approximately one-third of the United States’ population (Rumbaut 2009).

Furthermore, the South has always been a society of polar racial identities, but the increased population of Latinos challenges this racial binary. Latinos face racialization and homogenization, but this research will scope how Latinos challenge the construct of race. It is important to understand how the South is continually evolving into a more “Latinized” or “Nuevo” South to be tolerant, understanding, and supporting of Latinos in the South.

This research examines the demographic changes that result from the migration of Latinos to non-traditional settings in the American South.  The project will document the incorporation of the incoming population, and determine if Latinos are challenging the South’s historic Black/White racial binary using anthropologic research methods.

In an oral history interview, a University of Mississippi journalism graduate shared her thoughts on the Oxford, Mississippi community and whether it is an open environment for immigrants:

On the surface, Oxford is very welcoming.  Come to a football game.  Wave a red pom-pom.  Come to the square.  Yeah, it’s fun, but now that I think about it, if I was an immigrant – if I wanted a backbone or a support system – I don’t know if I would have that.  Maybe it does exist, and that’s the thing: I don’t even know.  I feel like Oxford is welcoming on the surface, but every day is not a football game.  Every day is not a night out on the square.  I would say Oxford and Mississippi – we need to help those people out (Oral History Interview 1).

The interviewee contributed her perspective as a native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast region and a daughter of an African American man and a Mexican American woman.  The interviewee’s mother, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, moved from San Francisco to Mississippi at 13 years old.  The interviewee shared her mother’s story about her transition to Mississippi:

My mom tells me this story all the time.  Now I understand why because I would feel the same way if I was moving from San Francisco, California to Mississippi, of all places.  She told me, “I just remember we made it to Mississippi, and we’re driving.  I just couldn’t stop crying.” And I was like, “Why?”  She was like, “Every house looked like a plantation home.  It was just grass.”  And she said she cried a lot.  And I understand why because I’m sure in California she had a lot of people that looked like her, that came from the same background as her, that kind of understood her and her family, and what they go through.  She grew up in Mississippi having to deal with different things day by day, especially her being with my dad (Oral History Interview 1).

Through telling her mother’s story and her personal opinion of the welcoming state of Oxford, it serves as a microcosm of conditions and experiences of the American South and of Latinos in the South.  The interviewee’s oral history opens the dialogue about Latino migration to the South, Latino identity, and Latino cultural preservation among the flux identities in the South.


One of the most notable demographic shifts in the last two decades is the migration and settlement of Latinos in non-traditional destinations in the U.S. 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 settlements apart. Hence, it is speed, not size, that is defining Latino population growth in southern states.  In addition, the consistent growth in population of Hispanic and Latino people in the South set the precedent for further changes and demographic shifts.

Figure I shows the change in the Hispanic population in the traditional settlement states between 1990 and 2010. Figure II shows the ten fastest growing states between 1990 and 2000, most of which are in the South.  Figure III shows the Hispanic population change in the North Mississippi/Memphis region of Lafayette and DeSoto Counties in Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee.

Figure I: Change in the Hispanic Population, 1990-2010.  Traditional Settlement States (Report no. Summary File 1. Pew Hispanic Center).FIGURE I

Figure II: Change in Hispanic Population 1990-2010. Ten States with Fastest Growing Hispanic Population Between 1990-2010 (Report no. Summary File 1. Pew Hispanic Center).FIGURE II

Figure III: Hispanic Latino Population Change, 1990-2010 (Report no. U.S. Census Data. Social Explorer).FIGURE III

Taking into consideration the South’s historic Black/White racial binary, this research documents the place-specific experiences of Latinos in new destinations of migrations—Oxford, Mississippi; DeSoto County, Mississippi; and Memphis, Tennessee—using anthropologic methods, which include participant observation, informal and oral history interviews as well as content analysis of newspapers articles and archived transcripts from virtually networked environments. The following questions guide our data collection and analysis:

  1. How do Latinos navigate and challenge the South’s historic Black/White racial binary?
  2. What role does food play in the process of cultural preservation, assimilation, and identify formation in non-traditional destinations of Latino migration?
  3. How are Latino migrants incorporated into the social, political and economic life of communities in non-traditional destinations of migration?
Latino Migration and Population in the South

Although drastic population growth of Latinos has been observed in the South recently, this wave of Latino and Hispanic migration to the South is not unusual.  Beginning in the twentieth century, the Latino population in the South began to increase along different trends at different times.  In the 1900s and 1920s, Latinos migrated to Mississippi for the availability of agricultural jobs, such as cotton planters in the Mississippi Delta; furthermore, the Bracero Program attracted Mexican and Tejano migrant workers to the Mississippi Delta region between the 1940s and 1960s, and in the 2000s Latinos immigrated to Mississippi finding clean-up job opportunities following Hurricane Katrina (Hayden 2012, 333-337).  Hispanic and Latino migrant workers contributed to the reconstruction of the South following Hurricane Katrina, and a visible population trend was seen in Laurel, Mississippi, a southern Mississippi city (Ballvé 2011).  From employment opportunities in construction and poultry to restaurants, the range of jobs offered reason for Hispanic and Latino people to immigrate to the South.

In retrospect, many agricultural workers followed the harvest for maximum profit in the 1900s while others stayed within the region and started families.  An effect of this is seen in the Latino and Hispanic population in Memphis, Tennessee.  More Memphis-born Latinos are the cause for the growing Latino population than Latino immigrants, contributing to the overall diversification of the city of Memphis (Charlier 2016).  A reported 81,481 Mississippians self-identified as Hispanic or Latino, which makes up nearly 3% of the entire Mississippi population.  From 2007 to 2011 approximately 50% of the foreign-born population in Mississippi was from the Americas, which include many Latin American and Caribbean nations (Green et al. 2013).  In 2008, approximately 25,000 undocumented immigrants worked in the construction, poultry, and service industries (Ballvé 2011).

To put all of these statistics in perspective, in 2003 Hispanics became the largest minority group in the United States, surpassing the African American population, and the Hispanic and Latino population is expected to be nearly 30% percent of the American population by the year 2050 (Rumbaut 2009, 17).  The growth is imminent and interconnected; additionally, our oral history interviews have shown a common theme across immigration to the South: there is a personal connection to someone, either a friend or family member, who lives in the southern region of the United States.

I never imagined being in the South.  I always thought I’ll go wherever the movies show me to go, which is New York or California.  I never thought I would be here in the South.  When I was in my senior year in college, I met some Christian missionaries from Mississippi, from Tupelo. That’s how I ended up in Tupelo, Mississippi.  Through the years, I would work with them as an interpreter, and I would organize their trips before they came to Cuba.  They always brought pictures, and I saw the South; but I never experienced it.  The first encounter was that Greyhound bus.  When the bus got to Tupelo, Mississippi, I was like, “What am I doing here? This is country!” (Oral History Interview 2).

This is an excerpt from an interview with a woman from Havana, Cuba.  She has been living in the United States for approximately 15 years, and most of those years have been spent in the South in northern Mississippi.  Her experience, similar to many immigrants in the South, portrays the personal connections she developed with residents, which ultimately influenced her decision to move to the American South.

Figure III: Hispanic Latino Population Change,1990-2010 (Report no. U.S. Census Data).FIGURE III
As Figure III demonstrates, there has been a trend of more than 100% percent population increase of Hispanics and Latinos in southern towns and cities within the last decade.  Although the numbers are not as drastic as what is seen in traditional gateway cities, the population growth trends set the precedent for more population growth; furthermore, this growth is becoming increasingly visible in small, suburban cities like Horn Lake and Southaven, Mississippi.

Photos 1-2: At least 2 hair salons on the Horn Lake/Southaven, Mississippi border cater to the Spanish-speaking population. Photos taken in Horn Lake and Southaven on June 2, 2017 by Brittany Brown.

Photos 3-4: An automobile maintenance shop and tax services cater to the Spanish-speaking population in Horn Lake and Southaven.  Photos taken in Horn Lake and Southaven on June 2, 2017 by Brittany Brown.

The commercial visibility of Hispanics and Latinos in Horn Lake is a direct result of the population increase witnessed in the area within recent decades.  According to Figure III, the Hispanic and Latino population increased from 49 in the year 1990 to 2,093 in in the year 2010.  Between those decades, the Hispanic and Latino population increased 4,171%, and within the last decade of 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic and Latino population grew by 247%.  This growth trend correlates with the new visibility of business owned by Hispanic and Latino residents; furthermore, the businesses reveal the diversity of services offered to the public outside of food and restaurant service.  Business-owners are able to reach a new clientele while catering to the Spanish-speaking population with a diversity of services apart from restaurants.  More importantly, the cultural visibility of Hispanics and Latinos supports the imminent trend of population growth seen throughout the South.

Race and Racialization of Latinos in the South

I am Latina.  Both ways.  You know, my skin is white, but I know I’m mixed with something because in Cuba most people are mixed.  My father’s side, in the back-back, some ancestors were from Italy and Spain.  And in my mother’s side, they don’t talk much about it, but I know there were some Black people involved.  I know I’m mixed, so I just say I’m Latina.  I don’t say I’m White, I’m Black, I’m Brown, or I’m mixed.  I just say I’m Latina (Oral History Interview 2).

As a Cuban woman in Mississippi, this interviewee faces a decision: to be Black, to be White, or to be “some other race.”  For her, she identifies as Latina in a region that is still largely entrenched in the historical Black/White binary of the South.

As history reveals, Hispanics and Latinos have been misrepresented by the U.S. Census Bureau.  The year 1930 was the first time a racial category for a specific Hispanic population was included on the Census: Mexican (Rodríguez 2009, 40).  In decades following until 1980, Hispanics and Latinos were “classified as ‘white’” until the year 1980 when the Census offered a “Hispanic identifier (Rodríguez 2009, 40).  The new term “Hispanic,” based on language, was soon followed by the term “Latino,” based on geography, and it created a new ethnic category (Rodríguez 2009, 41).

At its most fundamental level, the creation of race was based upon the ideology of separation according to physical characteristics.  Race is a product of history.  It is a product of constructed power hierarchies and social status differences believed to determine the superiority of certain people against the inferiority of other groups of people (Rumbaut 2009, 15-16).  The idea of race thrives on the subjugation of people deemed inferior within “the centuries-old white racial frame” of White versus non-White (Cobas et al. 2009, 12-13).

As previously mentioned, Hispanics and Latinos were one time identified as White in America, but today there is greater recognition of Hispanic and Latino as a separate, homogenous identity (Rumbaut 2009, 17).  The creation of the labels Hispanic and Latino evolved over time through the systematic internalization and racialization of Spanish-speaking people, from the language used in the U.S. Census Bureau to recent legislation and rhetoric surrounding the Hispanic and Latino population.  Today, the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are being used as racial identifiers although Latino and Hispanic are ethnic groups.  This fosters the creation of a new racial category and the rejection of not only identifying the labels as ethnic markers, but also the recognition of a third, wholly new race in the South’s historic Black/White society.

A unique aspect of this research includes the intimate oral history interviews with both Latin American immigrants and people who identify as Hispanic and/or Latino.  Their responses elaborated upon their personal experiences with race and racialization within the realm of the United States and the American South.  Two interviewees were asked:

How do you feel the dialogue surrounding Spanish-speaking immigrants has affected the view of the immigrant population in the South?

The first response is from an interview with a University of Mississippi student from Maracaibo, Venezuela.  Although she had traveled to the United States since she was a pre-teen, her first time in Mississippi was her freshman orientation, and she is now approaching her senior year.

I think the political climate has tensed up the relations, for sure.  Especially because as people that you might not have ever thought about their immigrant status, now you’re thinking about it.  Are they ‘illegal,’ basically because there’s a growing fear of that “illegal immigrant.”  Also the idea that the only immigrant is Mexican, when in reality tons of people from Latin America are immigrating (Oral History Interview 3).

The interviewee from Havana, Cuba, a woman who had never encountered the South or expected to live in the South prior to immigrating to Tupelo, Mississippi, provided her viewpoint of the role of the United States in relation to immigrants.

I just wish that people were more tolerant of one another and understand that this country is a country made of immigrants.  This is a melting pot.  That’s what I always heard in school, and it’s the truth.  There’s all kinds of people here, and you cannot just pick on an ethnic group and say you don’t belong here because everybody belongs here.  This is the country for people who want to come and work and succeed in life.  It’s a country that’s always welcomed immigrants.  You have the Statue of Liberty in New York for a reason (Oral History Interview 2).

Both responses explain the context of the challenges immigrants, especially Hispanic and Latino immigrants, face systematically in daily life and interactions.  The responses assume an uncomfortable or intolerant environment for immigrants in the United States based on their individual observations as Latinas living in Mississippi.

A case of the systematic racialization Latino and Hispanic people face in the South is exemplified within legislation in the state of Georgia.  As a result of the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act of 2006 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, Dominican and Guatemalan immigrants in the Atlanta-metro area faced greater challenges and legalized discrimination simply based on their Hispanic and Latino identities in the South.  Primarily, legislation of this type further homogenizes Hispanics and Latinos into a third “race,” outside of Black or White while dissolving the myriad cultural differences among not only Guatemalans and Dominicans, but also other Latin American immigrants and people whose appearance subscribe to the stereotypical Hispanic or Latino phenotype.  Due to the implications of these laws, Latin Americans, specifically Guatemalan and Dominican immigrants in Atlanta, faced restricted access to basic resources such as healthcare, housing, and education; furthermore, Latinos and Hispanics in Atlanta were subject to increased surveillance from their employers, law enforcement officers, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers (Browne and Odem 2012, 321-37).

Apart from the Black/White racial binary ever-present in the southern metropolis of Atlanta, the creation of a third “race,” Hispanic or Latino, was and is slowly growing from laws such the aforementioned examples, and this pattern is seen throughout the South as more Latin Americans immigrate to and contribute to the Southern economy (Browne and Odem 2012, 333-34).  More importantly, the rhetoric and practice following laws such as observed in Georgia create a context for the discussions: Who is Latino or Hispanic? What does a Latino or Hispanic person look like, talk like, or act like?

In this case, Atlanta serves as a microcosm for the South meaning that race still affects everyday life through, but not limited to, social interactions and statewide legislation.  Because race is so deeply anchored in the South, today there is still a need to racially define groups of people based on appearance and other characteristics of a population’s identity.  The passing of the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act of 2006 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011 fostered an environment of fear of immigrants in Atlanta, and it stereotyped Hispanic and Latino people as, “…illegal, Mexican, unwanted” (Browne and Odem 2012, 333-34).

Despite the construct and role of race in the South, Hispanic and Latino people do not have one specific phenotype, language, or culture; for example, there are people from Latin America who speak pre-Columbian, indigenous languages; and there are Latin Americans with blonde hair and blue eyes who would be racialized as White and other Latin Americans with brown skin and curly hair who would be racialized as Black in the American South.  Altogether, these observations suggest the pliability and ambiguity of race in a region almost blindsided by the construct and hierarchy or race.

Latino Foodways in the South

Along Summer Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee sits a Colombian and Mexican restaurant named Mi Tierra.  The two owners, one from Colombia and the other from Guatemala, chronicled the history of their restaurant when they opened in the mid-1990s.

When we first opened it was supposed to be just Colombian food, but that was back in 1995.  So when customers would walk in the restaurant, they love the place, but when they look at the menu, they didn’t know what Colombian food was like.  They said, “We’ll come back next time and try it out.”  So we decided to add the Mexican food to our menu and serve both menus (Oral History Interview 4).

Now, the restaurant serves food from full Colombian and Mexican menus, but the original plan was to serve solely Colombian food.  At the time of the restaurant opening, customers were not familiar with tradition Colombian cuisine, such as plantains or yucca root.  To accommodate customers and keep business steady, they added traditional Mexican cuisine to the menu, but now customers are ordering food from both Mexican and Colombian menus frequently.

With the opening of Mi Tierra in Memphis, a city with not much Latin American influence in the 1990s, the owners were able to introduce a new culture to the city through food.  Observing the growth of the restaurant, speaking with the restaurant owners, and experiencing the restaurant atmosphere on a normal weekend allowed insight into the ways in which Mi Tierra has been able to introduce Caribbean and Colombian foodways to Memphis, a city known for its famous barbecue and Southern cuisine.

According to Mares (2012), foodways are defined as “the eating habits or food practices of a community, region, or time period” (Mares 2012, 334).  Caribbean and Latin American foodways were brought to the South through the menu and atmosphere at Mi Tierra.  From the vibrant foods to the colorful decorations, one cannot help but to feel as if he or she has been transported to Latin America once stepping foot inside the restaurant.

Photos 5-6: Mi Tierra serves traditional Colombian dishes, and the restaurant is fully embellished with authentic Colombian flags, artifacts, and decorations.  Together, the food and decorations create an atmosphere of being in Colombia.  Photos taken in Memphis, Tennessee on June 10, 2017 by Brittany Brown.

The owners have been living in the United States for approximately thirty years and have been in the South since the 1990s.  One of the owners said she moved to Chicago, Illinois from Guatemala when she was fourteen years old.  To put this into perspective, the process of migration is a process of dislocation, of being separated from one’s culture and homeland (Mares 2012, 334).  The process of immigration can sever personal cultural ties to cultural identity, especially when relocating to a region with little to no Latin American influences or presence.  In this sense, food serves a cultural staple and preservation.  Food, recipes, and food practices are simple transport across any border.  Latin American foodways serve as an enactment of culture and as a window to a culture’s history, people, and practices (Mares 2012, 334).  The importance of food expands beyond the kitchen as food is a tangible item to be recreated and passed down through generations; furthermore, food itself is changeable and adaptable.  For example, the owner from Guatemala refers to herself as knowing how to cook “very Colombian,” but she also knows how to cook Mexican dishes because the restaurant adapted to a Mexican menu to serve their clientele.  Although food is simple to recreate, not all ingredients are readily accessible here in the United States or in certain regions.  The owners discussed how they adapted a staple Colombian dish to be served in Memphis.

On our menu we have a plate; we called it bandeja mi tierra, but actually it’s called bandeja paisa.  Anywhere in Colombia they call it bandeja paisa, but we call it bandeja mi tierra because when we first opened the restaurant, there’s a sausage – we couldn’t get it in Memphis.  So if we would call it bandeja paisa, it had to have the sausage, and we couldn’t get it.  It was so hard to make, so we just took out the sausage and call it bandeja mi tierra.  But it brings a little bit of everything like the whole red Colombian beans that are made with plantains.  It also has white rice with fried eggs, sweet plantains, and it has a steak.  It also has pork rinds and avocado on the side (Oral History Interview 4).

Altogether the introduction of the type of food served in Mi Tierra broadens the perspectives and experiences of Memphians and restaurant-goers.  It creates a bridge between traditional Southerners and traditional Latin Americans; furthermore, it exposes Southerners to restaurants outside of the label of just Mexican restaurants, and it exposes the vast diversity of food and culture found in Latin America.  With each unique restaurant like Mi Tierra comes an exchange of cultures which further increases Latin American influence in a region once thought to be not influenced by Latin Americans.  In addition, it accommodates Latin American immigrants and descendants who want to partake in Latino culture through food, and it provides representation and exposure.  With more representation and exposure, there is more tolerance and even a welcoming environment for Hispanics and Latinos in Memphis and in the South.


Even today race is still an influential factor upon populations and establishments in the U.S. South.  With the increased immigration of Hispanics and Latinos to the South have come innovation and change, although history shows this change has not always come easily.  From the observance of empirical, statistical numbers reflecting population growth of Hispanics and Latinos in the South was born a question for research: How are Hispanics and Latinos affecting society in the South – through race, food, and/or migration?

Through knowing this history of race in the South and the presence of the Black/White racial binary, the presence of Hispanics and Latinos is creating space for a “separate” or “third” racial or ethnic category in a region so invested in the construct of Black or White.  Furthermore, the presence of food-spaces, outside of the traditional Mexican restaurant, have not only increased commercial visibility of Spanish-speaking Southerners, but also increased awareness of the diversity of food and cultures among Latin Americans.

This research examined just a small sample of Latinos and Hispanics in the South, but it sought to expose and tell the stories and experiences of this small group of people alongside precise literature and data review.  Further research could focus on one aspect, migration, racial identity, or foodways, to rigorously examine a certain facet of Latino and Hispanic identity, culture, and assimilation in the South.


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2 thoughts on “The Latino South

  1. Pingback: Moments: A Conversation Series – isthatbrit

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