The Nuevo South: A Changing Landscape

The South hasn't exactly rolled out the welcome mat for Latinos. These three institutions, on the other hand, have, and they and the communities they serve are better for it.
07/14/2014 06:22 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2014

Having arrived in Pelham, Alabama, several years ago and establishing a construction business, Joel Rivera walked into a small Mexican grocery store looking for a specialty item. "Necesitaba nopales y me querían cobrar cinco pesos para una bolsita. Con la cantidad de mexicanos por aquí pensaba que eso estaba mal. Fue cuando decidí abrir una tienda para servir a la comunidad." ("I needed cactus paddles and they wanted to charge me five bucks for a small packet. With all the Mexicans living around here, I thought that was unacceptable. That's when I decided to open up a store that served the community.") Mr. Rivera told me the story as we toured his flagship Mi Pueblo (My Town) Supermarket. He and his wife, Isabel, will soon open another 41,000-square-foot Mi Pueblo in Homewood, a neighboring southern suburb of Birmingham, which, like Pelham, continues to experience rapid Latino population growth. Alabama's Latino population expanded 154 percent since the last Census.

Isabel Rivera, known as La Jefa (The Boss), also operates three Spanish-language radio stations serving a broad swath of mid-northern Alabama. Isabel's flagship FM station is also known as La Jefa. Importantly, Isabel is also an active member of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute's Latino advisory committee. Two doors from Mi Pueblo, the Rivera's are close to finishing a hall that will serve the community's social function needs (e.g., coming-out parties, wedding receptions, etc.). And, then there's the construction company, the goose that's laid the community's golden egg. These entrepreneurs have come a long way from their small towns in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí.

The Rivera's are now citizens and have four children, all born in the U.S. I note this because demographers following the rising Latino population in the region find birthrate, not immigration, as the principal factor driving the growth. Of the seven states experiencing the fastest Latino population growth, six are in the South.

The Birmingham area was the third stop on my recent Southern swing. I began in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a visit to the Levine Museum of the New South. The Levine is the lead museum in a tri-party collaboration that is looking at what is now commonly referred to as the Latino New South (El Nuevo South). The other participants are the Atlanta History Center and the previously mentioned Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. What unites these institutions is that they are cultural flagships in major "receiving communities," committed to "immigrant integration," no small task given the legacy of racial discrimination in the deep South, and nagging anti-immigrant fervor and legislation.

The South hasn't exactly rolled out the welcome mat for Latinos. These three institutions, on the other hand, have, and they and the communities they serve are better for it. Encouragingly, they are really listening and paying attention (creating what they call a "learning network"), and not shying away from tackling tough issues. While in Charlotte, I met Mexican artist, Rosalía Torres-Weiner, who worked with the Levine in creating Papalote Mágico (The Magic Kite), a 2012 exhibition featuring kites made by area children whose parents had been recently deported, which shed light on our dysfunctional immigration system and the over-determined role of local law enforcement. The list of thought-provoking exhibits at the Levine is a long and already distinguished one.

The Atlanta History Center takes a more traditional, formal route in interpreting and unpacking Atlanta's complicated racialized history. Fortunately, they've committed existing and new curatorial and program staff to carry forward, and have actively engaged with local Latino civic organizations in the design and promotion of ongoing programs targeting the Latino community. Before driving to Birmingham, I stopped by La Michoacana, a Mexican restaurant located in Plaza Fiesta, a huge mall along Northeast Buford Highway. I hadn't had a huarache (an open-face sandwich sitting on a thick corn tortilla) that good in a long time. I smiled all the way to Birmingham.

While waiting for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to open, I crossed the street and I sat on the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church -- holy ground. On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, a bomb, planted by white separatist terrorists, exploded, killing four Sunday-school-bound children, ages 11-14. The bombing marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. It is this history to which the Institute is dedicated. Remarkably, when I entered the Institute, the first thing I saw was Para Todos Los Niños, a modest exhibit about Méndez vs. Westminster, a 1946 federal case finding separate "Mexican schools" in Orange County, California unconstitutional -- eight years before the more famous Brown vs. Board of Education. Not surprisingly, the exhibit was organized by the Levine Museum of the New South. While at the Institute, I had lunch with its Latino advisory committee, dedicated local volunteers who understand that, in the Institute, they have an organization dedicated to addressing the immediate civil rights issues confronting their community.

In 2015, the Levine, in collaboration with its two partners, will open NUEVOlution (working title), a watershed exhibition comprehensively examining the Latino New South. The show will travel to Atlanta, Birmingham and other cities. If we're lucky, perhaps we can bring it to the Smithsonian.

While browsing the Levine's gift store, I came across The New Southern-Latino Table, a cookbook by Sandra Gutiérrez exploring the culinary confluence of Latin America and the American South. I smiled, at once understanding that Latino communities in the South are there to stay, and that we all have a role to play in ensuring that their lives are enabled and enriched, and that their experiences become truly part of a continually unfolding American Story.