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  Retorno de los Latinos

¿Habla Ustedes Español? Maybe it's time—Knoxville's vibrant Latino community is growing.

by Jack Neely

At 3 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon in West Knoxville, cars roll across the little bridges over Fourth Creek into the parking lot of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Among them are a considerably greater number of pickup trucks than were seen at the morning masses. Most of the cars carry at least three people; some carry as many as seven. They are mothers and children, mostly, and a smaller number of men who are much quieter than the women. None of the men is wearing a suit or tie; most are in working clothes. None are elderly; few appear to be very much over 40. Almost half of them are children. All of the children have black hair.

As they slowly file into the chapel, the parishioners number almost 200.

Sacred Heart holds a Spanish-language mass here twice a month, usually with music not typical at the English masses. Up front, to the left of the priest, is a small amplified combo with a couple of guitars, bass, and drums. They play Mexican songs and sing them in Spanish.

Today about half a dozen kids are being baptized. Some of the girls are in bright white baptismal dresses. The priest breaks the bread over the goblet to prepare communion and chants the blessing in Spanish; for a moment it sounds like a throwback to the days of Latin masses. But then the band cranks up with an almost rock 'n' roll sound, which gives the service an incongruously modern, almost evangelical flavor.

One of those playing guitar is Jeannine de la Torre Ugarte. Director of Spanish-language services at Associated Catholic Charities, she's nearly everywhere. Torre Ugarte, who is from Peru, also edits the six-year-old bulletin La Cosecha, a Spanish-language monthly of the Catholic church. Everybody knows Jeannine; she has become the Hispanic community's favorite troubleshooter or, as some prefer to think of her, guardian angel. She spends much of her time in hospitals and police stations, translating. Some of her Spanish-speaking clients call her Juanita, because they have difficulty pronouncing her real first name, given to her by her French mother. She's so used to being called Juanita that she includes it on her business card.

That there are any Spanish masses in this area is surprising to some Anglos, but in fact nine Catholic Churches in East Tennessee, including St. Thomas the Apostle in Lenoir City and St. Patrick in Morristown, hold Spanish-language mass every single Sunday. Knoxville's Sacred Heart is the only Catholic church in Knoxville that holds Spanish language services, and they do so only twice a month.

Torre Ugarte expects masses to go weekly, perhaps this fall. It's just one of many signs of Knoxville's growing Latino community.

What has been happening in Knoxville is nothing more or less than what has already happened in many other American cities. For years we've been hearing that Latinos are on their way to becoming America's largest minority. Still, it never seemed likely here, in a state with no seaport or international border. A 1984 reference book lists American cities by their Hispanic population; Knoxville isn't at the very bottom only because Akron, Ohio, had even fewer Hispanics. By the 1990 census, only about 2,000 Knox Countians—two-thirds of one percent of the total county population—were of Latino origin. A decade ago, Spanish translations might have seemed irrelevant here. You could have argued we had more of a need to translate Korean or Arabic.

Hispanic immigrants—Mexicans, especially—have been everywhere this summer, mowing lawns, working in car washes, speaking and even singing in Spanish as they load freight, wash dishes or fire metal. Knoxville seems happy about it. Our unemployment rate is absurdly low; Mexicans don't seem to be taking jobs anyone else wants. Employers brag about Mexican laborers, that they work much harder than Americans, that they get things done faster. They even built some of the latest West Knox megaliths.

And Knoxville consumers suddenly have a greater choice of foods, beverages, and crafts than they ever had before.

No one claims to know for certain how many Spanish-speaking immigrants live in Knox County today. A 1997 Housing and Urban Development estimate put the figure at 2,821, a 40 percent increase in only seven years.

It turns out that's the conservative estimate. In 1998, the firm of Woods and Pool put the figure at 3,710, almost double the 1990 figure. That would bring it up to right about one percent of the total. Some observers believe the real number of Hispanics in Knox County today may be as high as 5,000.

There are several theories of why Knoxville is suddenly popular; some are surprising. Some Mexicans say they moved here because there were relatively few other Mexicans to compete with. Some credit organized worker-exchange programs in the last decade—Philips had one that brought many Mexicans to work in its factories—with priming the pump.

Several say they like the climate; Loida Velazquez is in charge of a UT-sponsored program to train Spanish-speaking immigrants in basic marketable skills, including speaking English. She says many of the Hispanic laborers who had been settling in the Gulf states were unsettled by a series of hurricanes in the last few years. "A lot of people started looking for a more stable area," she says. The Southern Appalachians seemed the closest hurricane-free zone.

Perhaps the biggest reason, Velazquez and others agree, is the economy. The Knoxville area has a very low unemployment rate, even compared to Tennessee and the rest of the country, which are also historically low. "Locals are finding jobs not as hard as farmwork," she says, "but farmers still need produce picked and processed."

The same phenomenon operates on other sorts of jobs in the city. Cars still need to be washed, tables still need to be cleared, lawns still need to be mowed, chickens still need to be butchered, trucks still need to be loaded, factories still need to be run. Mexicans are happy to take jobs Americans would reject, sometimes accepting work for less than minimum wage, in a lopsided conspiracy with an employer who's happy to exploit them. Many migrants aren't here for themselves, but on missions from their families back home, earning money to build a house or pay for a child's education.

Dozens of small businesses line the old strip malls along Chapman Highway, but one jumps out at you. MEXICO LINDO, a sign painted in rich colors that you won't see anywhere else in East Tennessee. "In Mexico, the houses are painted that way," says proprietor Susana Guijarro. "Very bright. People like the colors of the store. They feel like they are in Mexico again."

Mexico Lindo—it means "beautiful Mexico"—is actually only one of three Knoxville groceries that serve a mainly Spanish-speaking market.

Guijarro is from Juarez. She moved to Tennessee five years ago and worked for a time at a restaurant in Alcoa. Back then, she observed that the only Mexican store was in Cedar Bluff; El Mercado was convenient enough for the Mexicans who live in West Knoxville, but not for those closer to town.

Mexico Lindo sells groceries and crafts. It's like an old-fashioned general store, or a supply post in a remote place. They have hundreds of CDs (a six-man band called Los Tigres del Norte is hot right now) and over 500 videos, mostly of Mexican-made movies, but with a few Hollywood films, subtitled in Spanish. There are Spanish-language magazines and greeting cards.

Prominent are spices that are hard to find in American stores: dried hibiscus flowers, used to make a sweet drink. Avocado leaves, for hot tea. Dried, ground shrimp. Pumpkin seeds for mole sauce.

Guijarro says she gets perhaps 100 customers a day, maybe twice that many on weekends. Some are open-minded Americans, but most are Mexicans. She has a table up front where customers gather to talk, as if in a cafe.

That in itself might seem a remarkable thing on old white-bread Chapman Highway; but, as it happens, Mexico Lindo isn't the only Mexican grocery on this little stretch. Another opened in April, just a quarter mile down the street, to give Mexico Lindo some competition. La Tortilla is much more like an American convenience store, some groceries, probably more pre-packaged stuff than Mexico Lindo offers—and lots of soda pop and junk food, even if it's all Mexican soda pop and junk food.

The oldest one is still across town in the Cedar Bluff Center, where it opened over six years ago. Though El Mercado offers a small selection of records and videotapes, it's something more of a grocery store than the others, and owner Luis Pavon says he has the best selection in town. A personable guy born and raised in Mexico City, he's been in America so long he hardly has an accent. He had also lived in Wisconsin, but says he prefers the Tennessee climate and temperament. (He speculates that the weather makes Wisconsinites grumpy.) An Alabama alumnus, he was encouraged to move to this part of the country after his sister had opened a Mexican grocery in Hendersonville, N.C. In early '93, he took a chance and opened what was probably the first Mexican grocery in Knoxville history.

"We struggled in the beginning," he says. He developed his inventory by request. "People kept telling us what to get." He mentions a few items hard to find elsewhere, like cheeses—manchego and queso blanco are just a couple—as well as frozen cow heads (for boiling) and tongues, a Mexican delicacy. "If you can get past it, you'll like it," he says. (A few local restaurants, like Jalisco and Polo, also serve tongue.)

Pavon doesn't handle the crafts trade that Mexico Lindo does, but he does carry a few non-grocery items, like the popular board game Loteria, which is worth its $3.99 price for the colorful tarot-like playing cards alone—plus some hard-to-find kitchen appliances, like molcajetes, a corn-grinding mortar-and-pestle made of volcanic rock.

El Mercado also serves as a sort of bus station. Los Paisanos, a bus line with direct service to Mexico, picks up and drops off here.

Pavon says 90 percent of his clientele is Mexican, but that he also gets a few Brazilians, Argentineans, Colombians—plus a few former Californians who crave true Mexican delicacies. He adds frankly that most Mexicans in town are undocumented. "Of course they are," he says. He seems concerned about what the future will hold. Not many Knoxville entrepreneurs have to worry that most of their regular clientele may one day be arrested and deported.

Some Mexicans, their friends, and their employers are concerned about a threat looming in the very near future.

Based in Memphis, the center of a region that covers much of Arkansas and Mississippi, the regional Immigration and Naturalization Service hasn't gotten out to Knoxville all that often. In the past, detainees have often been released due to lack of facilities for detention.

Undocumented immigrants may have much more to fear soon. The INS announced four months ago that the federal agency will be opening a full-time office in Knoxville: a "Quick-Response Team" of four agents and two detention officers; originally reported to arrive by September, officials now say it will be in place here "before the end of the year." The office, they say, won't be there to help prospective immigrants file their papers; it will be for enforcement only.

Nearly everyone has heard rumors about the motives of the INS office. Some Mexicans, legal and illegal, are fearful of massive deportation, that they'll even be raiding restaurants and factories. Officials at the national office say the team's priority will be dealing with "smuggling issues and criminal aliens," that is, those who are arrested for breaking laws. However, documents describing the INS operation also state that one of the QRT's goals will be "blocking employers' access to illegal workers."

Fran Ansley, UT law school professor, has been working for several years on a project to study the Latin-American community here. She's careful to clarify that many Mexicans and Central Americans in Knoxville are legal or pursuing residency by legal means. "Just because they can't speak English," she says, "people shouldn't ever assume they're undocumented." She mentions several ways to gain legal status: via family, refugee status, or guest-worker programs. One known as H2A is a temporary worker permit which allows workers to live here to work on farms or in meat and poultry plants—but only if the employer can demonstrate that the jobs they're taking aren't wanted by American citizens.

None of those permits are easy to get. We encountered one professional with a Ph.D., married to an American with whom she has children, who after several years in Knox County is still trying to get a green card. "It's a mess," she says.

Refugee status is especially touchy, particularly when the refugees in question are fleeing regimes, however oppressive, that the U.S. is on friendly terms with.

Ansley emphasizes the fear that many immigrants live with. One story that has made the rounds is of an immigrant who told his story to a North Carolina reporter, who published his picture. Since then, many illegal aliens have been reluctant to talk to reporters.

"People are even afraid to come to a place to congregate—they might draw attention," says Ansley. She mentions a couple of recent attempts to sponsor Latin American festivals. The last annual festival at the Unitarian Church, in June, sponsored a mariachi band rare in these parts. It drew far more Anglos than Latinos.

Most Hispanics seem more than happy with Knoxville. They like the jobs. They like the climate and the easy-going ways of the people. They like the fact the city's just barely big enough to supply most of their needs for food, and big enough to have some Spanish-speaking health and legal professionals—they advertise in local Spanish-language publications like Mundo Hispano, a new general-interest monthly that seems to suggest Hispanics are catching on to what makes Knoxville tick. Its first photocopied issue features a cover story about the Volunterios de la Universidad de Tennessee. This is, the headline proclaims, La Temporada del Futbol. Its advertisers are predominantly local businesses that habla espanol.

Susana Guijarro says Knoxville is bigger than her home town. "It's a big city, but it's still got the things like a small town," she says. "It's very peaceful, very secure."

Some even say Knoxville feels familiar. Roselia Morales is from Guatemala, and she likes East Tennessee: moist, hilly, and green, it reminds her of home. Roofer Andey Chapparro's home in Chihuahua isn't as moist as East Tennessee, but he still says our hills remind him of his own home near the mountains. "It's a nice, nice, nice, town," he says, above the squawking of a tropical bird in his North Knoxville home. "I like it."

When pressed, some bemoan the lack of cultural opportunities, especially music and places to gather for dances. Some attend occasional UT, Jubilee Arts, and church-sponsored festivals, but they're not frequent. A while back, the Knights of Columbus hall in West Knoxville sponsored monthly dances, but some of the organizers moved away. Now, Hispanics tend to gather in the homes of friends. "It doesn't take that many of us," says Patricia Robledo, of Colombia. "Two or three, it's party time."

Chapparro sees Tennessee as a future "Golden State," like California. He says, "my best dream is in Knoxville, maybe next year, have a radio station in Spanish." He says he sees so many Mexicans, especially along Kingston Pike, he thinks the city's ready for it. "Radio is the most, most important thing in Knoxville," he says. "Moves the business, moves the money, moves everything."

Jaime Fernandez Baca is a physicist at ORNL; alone among those we spoke with, he doesn't seek Hispanic social opportunities. "I speak with a Spanish accent," he says, "but I don't feel the urge to speak Spanish." However, he wishes his new home were more like his hometown of Lima in several more general respects: He'd like to see more parks, more common areas, and more life downtown—and more of a sense of camaraderie.

A few observed what they saw as a lack of community here. In public places, they observe, Knoxvillians are "cordial" with one another, but little more.

Several Hispanics we spoke with expressed a possibly related concern about the atomized American family, with old people segregated off in one place and adolescents off in another. In Latino culture, three generations live in one house, and children live with their parents until they get married.

However, one complaint is nearly universal. Isaac Valejo, the Mexican pastor of Seventh Day Adventists' Spanish-language services, says the biggest problem his 40-odd parishioners face is being able to drive. In Knoxville, cars are required for most jobs.

A driver's license is impossible for undocumented aliens; a state law passed last year requires a social security number for every driver's license issued. There are other barriers even for documented immigrants, even those who can afford a car.

While the computerized driver's test is available to be taken in Spanish, the guidebook prospective drivers study to take the test is still available only in English. (Unaminos, a group out of Nashville, has translated the TDL manual; it's available through local groups for $10.) Torre Ugarte sometimes accompanies drivers' license candidates to their tests; she says examiners have sometimes barred interpreters from joining candidates during the driving exam.

It's especially frustrating to Torre Ugarte. She has had to deal with all sorts of problems, including landlords who don't want to rent to Hispanics. However, she says, "the drivers' license issue is probably their biggest worry. These are good and honest people. The least we can do is provide safety for everybody."

It's symbolic of the double standards many immigrants find here. "On the one hand, we say we want them here, to do jobs we don't want to do," she says. "On the other hand, we say, 'you don't get access to this...'"

Torre Ugarte says complaints of overt racism against Hispanics in Knoxville are unusual, but the language and cultural differences often cause problems. A few Latinos are annoyed by what they see as an anti-Catholic bias, mainly from evangelical Protestants who don't believe they're already Christians. Some Knoxvillians get frustrated with Spanish-speakers, or even those who speak English with a strong accent. Even vision tests can be a trial; the names of letters have different pronunciations in Spanish, and a slow-witted examiner could flunk a Mexican with 20-20 vision just because he pronounced E like A.

Torre Ugarte says she often has to translate not only the spoken language, but even body language that would otherwise be misunderstood. She speaks of a recent case in which a policeman was convinced a Mexican was lying, only because he wouldn't look him in the eye. Torre Ugarte had to explain that Mexicans never look their superiors in the eye under the best circumstances; it's considered an insult.

Developments in Cocke County are more troubling. It happened over 50 miles away, but nearly every Latino in Knoxville has heard some version of the story. After years of effort, the non-profit group Telemon broke ground in the tiny farming community of Bybee on a Head Start school for children of migrant laborers who would otherwise have been trailing behind their parents in the tobacco fields. But then a group of neighbors rose up to oppose it on various grounds, gathering several hundred signatures on an anti-school petition; some opponents eventually admitted they didn't want a concentration of migrants and/or Mexicans in their vicinity. Soon after making their case in a public meeting, the farmer who was to lease the land found his barn on fire. Nearby was a bizarre effigy stained with ketchup.

Torre Ugarte tries to be understanding. "This is just people who are scared of others who look different," she says.

Soon afterward, the real corpse of a man believed to be Mexican was found not far away in the French Broad River. His identity and his fate remain unknown.

Spanish-speaking people aren't new to town. The first non-Indians to cross First Creek probably called it an arroyo. Recent theories hold that Hernando DeSoto himself followed the northern banks of the Holston and Tennessee Rivers and camped for a night along the north shore, probably in what would be Knoxville, in 1540.

A quarter of a millennium later, when Knoxville was capital of a territory that bordered on Spanish claims, chances are that many local pioneers had overheard Spanish spoken hereabouts.

Some local leaders claimed that most Tennesseans, loath to wait around for statehood in Philadelphia's tentative republic, wanted to be subjects of King Carlos of Spain. In 1788, even future Gov. John Sevier, temporarily disgruntled with the American government, was jailed for treason over his interest in Spanish rule.

To John Sevier, James White, and the first generation of Knoxvillians, the names of Spanish colonial leaders like Don Estevan Miro and Don Diego Gardoqui were as familiar as the names of Adams and Madison—and probably more relevant. Part of Tennessee, in fact, was named the Miro, or Mero District, in Don Miro's honor.

Among Knoxville's boldest founders was a Spaniard from the Mediterranean island of Minorca. Dark-complected and short of stature, he came to America to fight the British, then moved to the new capital of Knoxville with his friend William Blount. During his 17 years here, George (or Jorge) Farragut married and started a large family. Although he never learned to speak English well, he was popular with the locals, known for the funny stories he told in broken English. Capt. Farragut lived downtown for about a decade, then moved to West Knox County, where he operated a ferry across the river in what's now Concord. When President Jefferson bought Louisiana, he needed loyal U.S. citizens to administer it; he combed through the states for people of Spanish ancestry, believing they'd have a much easier time dealing with New Orleans' Anglo-hating Creoles. Farragut floated his family downriver and never returned.

The Farragut community is named for Jorge Farragut's Knox County-born son David. The torpedo-damning Union hero spoke English without an accent, but felt such strong ties to his father's native home that he made a publicized pilgrimage after the war.

For 140 years after the Farraguts' departure, it's hard to find Spanish names in Knoxville. To say there were none would slight a few intriguing exceptions—like one spectral outfielder for the Knoxville Reds who's listed in the box scores of the 1880s as J. Lopez—but there were very few.

Latinos remained rare until after 1945, when a number of Hispanics, most of them associated with either UT or TVA or ORNL, begin to appear in city directories. A few became successful and prominent.

"What people don't know is that Hispanic people have been here for over 30 years," says Coral Getino. Originally from Spain, she has lived here for nine of those years. "But 30 years ago, they were not as proud of their culture as now."

The perception that there are fewer Hispanics in Knoxville than there really are has inspired at least one organization: the East Tennessee Hispanic Business Association. Formed two years ago, it comprises 20 Hispanic-owned business in Knoxville and Oak Ridge. "We wanted to change the perception that there were no Hispanics, and no Hispanic businesses in town," says founder Susana Navarro, a nuclear engineer and president of Navarro Research & Engineering in Oak Ridge.

At the moment, all 20 of their businesses are in science and engineering; not one of the members is a restaurant or grocery.

There are actually two distinct Latino cultures in town: One is working class, manual laborers, mostly unskilled, living on sweat and muscle. The other is professional, grad-school educated, upper middle class.

Some pick tomatoes; some split atoms. That much is like America as a whole, an extreme diversity of skill and lifestyle. However, what makes the Spanish-speaking community different is that bifurcation: some are much better educated than the average Knoxvillian; some are much less well educated, even illiterate. There may not be many Hispanics here similar to the median Knoxvillian, a high-school grad with some college. The merchant, the salesman, the contractor, the true middle class—and maybe the ones most likely to stay a long time—seem scarce here.

This congregation contains both South Americans and Mexicans. The Catholic faith and the Spanish language are two things they have in common. It's not easy to make assumptions about Hispanics. To some, Knoxville's a "big city," the most urban place they've ever lived; to others from metropolises like Mexico City or Lima, Knoxville looks like a very small town. Jaime Fernandez Baca is from Lima and laughs recalling when his mother visited his home in a heavily developed residential area of West Knoxville. Amazed by the green trees and grass, she went home and said, "My son has a nice home in the countryside."

The fact that Anglos tend to confuse South American culture with Mexican culture amuses some and frustrates others. Lillian McDaniel, who is from Peru, insists, "I have to educate people" about the fact that Latin American cultures are distinct. "The food and everything is different. We don't eat hot chilis all day long. We don't eat tortillas."

Another Peruvian says she never even saw a tortilla before she came here. A Colombian says she never tasted spicy food before she came to Knoxville.

Colombian Patricia Robledo says she and her 15-odd Colombian friends are a little frustrated with Knoxville restaurants. She says the closest thing to Colombian food she's found is the simple beans-and-rice dishes at Havana Cafe in Homberg Place.

Through the West Knoxville Latin food store, El Mercado, she finds some things to compensate. Only there they sell South American-style queso blanco, a crumbly white cheese something like feta but with a milder taste. She's glad to see some mainstream supermarkets are now carrying plantains, the larger relative of the banana which is cooked for dessert. With a special cornmeal mix from El Mercado, she makes arepa, a South American breakfast food somewhat like a tortilla, but much thicker.

For a while she missed aguardiente, a Colombian liqueur that tastes something like ouzo. She was flabbergasted to find it in Bob's Package Store, a brand made in her own home town of Manizales. "It floored me," she says.

At El Mercado, Robledo buys a soft drink from her home town called Colombiana. She mixes it, half and half, with beer, to make a refreshing Colombian beverage called refajo.

Pavon, the Mexican merchant who stocks Colombiana, says he has never heard of the practice; he seems curious.

Unlikely as it may seem, some Hispanics have found in Knoxville a chance to find out about other Hispanic cultures.

Coral Getino's blue eyes and Castillian accent set her apart from most Hispanics; she was unfamiliar with Mexican food before she moved here. Still, one of her favorite restaurants is Jalisco, a Mexican's Mexican restaurant, where she and Ana Piazzetta, who is from Argentina, meet for lunch.

Over burritos, they laugh about the different meanings of the word tortilla. In Spain, a tortilla is a thick potato pie, and the notion that someone might order several Spanish tortillas to eat in one dinner strikes them as funny.

Piazzetta (her ancestors were Sicilian) and her daughter, Camila, agree that, at least in the makeup of its population, Knoxville seems more cosmopolitan than their hometown of Buenos Aires. Patricia Robledo knows what they mean. Here, she has friends from India, Pakistan, Iran. "But in Colombia," she says, "I never met someone who was not from Colombia."

Getino and Piazzetta are co-editors of a newsletter called Hola! which serves a growing social group of Knoxville-area Latin Americans, mostly women, who meet twice a month to celebrate Hispanic culture and the Spanish language. Made up of former citizens of 20 Latin American countries, plus Spain and the U.S., the four-year-old group has swelled in size to 131 members. They have just launched Holita, a junior club for kids, to help preserve the language and culture; first-generation immigrants are sometimes dismayed to watch their kids growing up without speaking Spanish well.

The success of the group has encouraged Piazzetta, a former Argentine journalist and copywriter, to propose a new bilingual magazine to be called La Paloma.

Hola is a predominantly West Knoxville group, with a generous smattering of folks from the university area and Oak Ridge.

Where the other 97 percent of Knoxville's Latin community lives will be hard to determine before next year's census. There are reports of concentrations of Mexicans in South Knoxville, North Knoxville, Fountain City, West Knoxville, but there are no distinct Hispanic neighborhoods, no barrios. Latinos seem as spread out as the rest of us are.

Ana Piazzetta talks about how different South American cultures are, one from another, each with its distinct accents. She's proud of her Argentinean heritage, and rapidly ticks off the names of Borges, Peron, and several other Argentineans who changed the world—but she seems equally proud that Tennessee has the sixth fastest-growing Hispanic population in America, largely due to Mexican immigration.

For many educated Spanish-speakers, more Hispanics of any nationality means more work translating. Some volunteer, some do it for a living; they all seem to enjoy it. The influx of Mexicans also means more opportunities for social interaction and more support for Latino businesses.

Torre Ugarte wants Knoxvillians to know about the differences between different Hispanic cultures, but she prefers to emphasize the common ties of Spanish-speaking peoples. "We are united by language, love of music, deep faith, devotion to family," she says.

"I'm very happy to see it happening," says Robledo, the Colombian who has lived in Knoxville for most of the last 20 years, of the influx of other Latinos. "Suddenly I'm finding people I can share many things with: language, food, music, laughter. I didn't get to do that for 10 years."