cover_story (2005-50)

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MULTI-HUED DANCE FLOOR: Fairbanks attracts a mixed crowd.

LATINOS ON BEARDEN HILL: Soccer Taco owner Mario Navarro (center) with employees Antonio Mayorga and Jorge Bernal.

El Girasol adds ethnic color to the Bearden area.

It’s midnight in Bearden, as announced by the abrupt darkening of a Starbucks sign’s green glow. Most everything else, with the exception of a handful of bars and a couple grocers, is already closed. Emptied of traffic, Kingston Pike unwinds quietly along the strip malls’ edges, a gray ribbon of asphalt with darkness at either end.

Four sets of headlights appear, heading westbound.Passing, they follow one another into the turn lane at Homberg Place and proceed past its cluster of Zen-themed hair salons, chic boutiques and swanky restaurants into the parking lot of Fairbanks Roasting Room. Even on this bitter-cold Friday night, the club’s parking lot is packed, and a line is already snaking out its door. But Fairbanks owner Rob Collignon notes that the party is just getting started. It’s Latin Dance Night, and the crowd—which usually ranges between 250 and 300 people—won’t peak until about 2 a.m.

“In this culture, it’s all about the late-night party,” he says, referring to the nocturnal circadian rhythms of Spanish nightlife, which rarely begins before midnight and extends until sunup. By law, Fairbanks can only stay open until 3 a.m., but the hosts admit that kicking everybody out is no easy task.

Tonight, the dance floor is an animated collage of women in slinky cocktail dresses and agile young men. The dancers’ tilt-a-whirl hips mimic the rhythms of each dance with peculiar ease, and their faces, poised with concentrated seduction, glisten with sweat. The style of music varies from song to song; traditional salsas and meringues segue seamlessly into contemporary Latin pop and Mexican rap. During the latter, a huge film screen overhead displays MTV-style videos, a montage of curvy Hispanic women in revealing clothing and thuggish, dark-featured men.

On the perimeters, conversation abounds—a bilingual hum of angular Spanish dialects and both accented and non-accented English. As neon spotlights illuminate their faces, it becomes obvious that the crowd is not just Hispanic, but a mix of ethnicities: all shades of white, brown and black.

For Fernando Parrado, a native Colombian whose company Fiesta Ritmo Entertainment, L.L.C., founded Latin Dance Night in 2001, it’s a positive social junction. He explains, “Our mission is to promote the Latin culture as well as the power of diversity. Our main concern is to build a bridge between two countries and two cultures.”

But the dance floor Parrado overlooks from his DJ booth hasn’t always been the multi-hued utopia that it appears today. Building a bridge is never as easy as it looks, especially when the water beneath is clouded with decades’ worth of misconceptions.

Diversity itself is a tricky concept, one that exists outside the obvious parameters of nationality, ethnicity and skin color. But there are other factors involved, many of which are invisible from the surface.

Consider, for instance, the Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, whose University of Tennessee chapter was founded in 2001. According to its president, Jeanine Gardner, of the six women currently in the sorority, only two are of Latin descent. Gardner, for instance, is one-quarter Mexican and three-quarters white, and the other members are of mixed Asian, African-American, Hispanic and Caucasian ethnicities as well. “Our motto is diversity by tradition, not by definition,” Gardner explains. “Most of the girls in just didn’t feel like they belonged in either the mainstream white or traditionally African-American sororities. We’re kind of in the middle.”

Hence the definition of minority: “a racial, religious or political group that differs from the larger, controlling group,” according to Webster’s. The concept has as much to do with difference as it does with similarity. Minorities exist because they don’t fit into the mainstream—and that diversion from status quo can sometimes function as a common denominator in and of itself, as the Lambda Theta Alpha sorority illustrates. Therein lies the rationale underlying terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino,” broad categories used to quantify people who don’t immediately qualify as black, white or Asian—although the categories span over 20 different nations. The “Hispanic” designation is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as Spanish-speaking people in the United States of any race, although they may hail from over 20 different countries of origin.

Dr. Loida C. Velazquez, a member of Knoxville’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a native Puerto Rican, explains, “These are labels that have been used to identify us here in the United States. Most of us would prefer to be referred to by our specific countries of origin, but we’ve accepted it. In the majority of the nation, either ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ is effective, just as long as we are addressed and addressed with respect.” 

From the outside looking in, Knoxville’s Hispanic community appears to maintain a unified front—perhaps even one that lives up to its single-word moniker. It seems well-organized, proud of its culture and willing to share its heritage with the city via festivals such as Fiesta de la Americas, an event held in Market Square earlier this fall; Hispanic Heritage Month, an annual period of awareness observed by entities ranging from UT to TVA; and the weekly Latin dance nights hosted by Fairbanks and other venues throughout the city.

But within its boundaries, a silent divide has historically existed. In Knoxville, Hispanics tend to fall into one of two categories: One is bilingual, educated, and well off; the other has a limited comprehension of English, a limited social network, limited formal schooling, and limited financial mobility. The community’s middle-class is developing, but still relatively weak. And money is only part of it. From green cards to educational and business and social opportunities, resources for Hispanics are readily available to some sectors of the population but inaccessible to others.

To understand this disparity, it’s useful to consider the city’s Hispanic immigration history. The influx of Mexicans migrant laborers seeking seasonal work in East Tennessee began as early as 1848, following the U.S. Mexican War, but the bulk of the immigration has taken shape over the past 40 or so years. Velazquez recalls that when she first moved to Knoxville from Puerto Rico in 1977, the Hispanic demographic consisted of a handful of scientists and professionals. Since then, the demographic has undergone a transformation she describes as a timeline of three distinct immigration waves that would divide the once almost exclusively white-collar population into various socioeconomic classes. 

The first wave occurred during the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Hispanics were drawn to East Tennessee by the affirmative-action efforts of federal programs like the Department of Energy and Tennessee Valley Authority. “They were mostly professionals, mostly bilingual and all very educated,” Velazquez says.

A second wave of migrant and service workers began arriving in the mid-’90s, attracted to East Tennessee by employment opportunities in construction , industry and farming. Central American refugees fleeing war-torn counties through religious organizations also found their way to Knoxville during this time. Some came legally and eventually ended up opening small businesses of their own; others were and still are undocumented.

The third wave is still new, having developed over the past three to five years. It’s another class of professionals—translators, teachers and outreach agencies—seeking to meet the needs of an increasingly bilingual population.

Communication between the first two waves, however, remains somewhat limited. While the first wave of professionals has had four decades now to establish close-knit social and professional networks, the later migrant influx remains somewhat disorganized; isolated from mainstream society by language and socioeconomic status, their everyday orbits exist within the boundaries of a community within a community within a community. Meanwhile, the older Hispanic demographic has managed to strike a balance, with varying degrees of success, between integrating itself into American society and preserving its own culture.

Integration, however, requires an intuitive sense of cultural balance. In the Bearden area, for example, this balance is particularly striking. Though it’s hardly the first area that comes to mind at the mention of Hispanic immigration (most established communities exist in outlying areas of South and East Knoxville), a handful of Hispanic-owned businesses have developed an unusual relationship with Bearden’s predominantly white, upper-middle class demographic—either catering to them or, alternately, ignoring them altogether.

Starting at the top of Bearden Hill, there’s El Charro, a local Hispanic success story owned by Mexican immigrant Juan Aranda. The grown-up progeny of an ethnic vendor at the 1982 World’s Fair, it now boasts two locations in Bearden and Farragut in addition to an express location near the UT campus. In a 1999 study by the Tennessee Arts Commission, “Report on Latino Culture and Traditional Arts in Tennessee,” the authors noted the restaurant’s prominence: “We had dinner at the El Charro restaurant which, like fast-growing Mexican food businesses across the state, enjoys a very healthy Anglo customer base.”

The observation highlights a trend that is common among other well-to-do Hispanic establishments: a willingness to cater to American patrons. Such was the business plan of another entrepreneur Mexican, Mario Navarro, when he first moved to Knoxville five years ago. Following the popularity of his first endeavor, Agave Azul, a contemporary Mexican restaurant in Western Plaza, he opened another restaurant, Soccer Taco, atop Bearden Hill just four months ago and says he is already thinking franchises.

Navarro, a burly Mexican with a childish smile, explains that he saw a connection between his native country’s passion for soccer (or “football,” as the rest of the world would have it) and the sport’s growing popularity in the States. The connection would become the premise of his new restaurant/bar, fitted with multiple television screens and glassed-in display cases of jerseys and sports equipment. During an initial visit to Soccer Taco in October, most of the screens were tuned to international soccer matches, and Navarro seemed enthusiastic about the sport as a metaphor for unified diversity. “It is the world’s sport, a sport that the whole world plays,” he said.“I want to share this with all of Knoxville.”

But success requires flexibility. Navarro now emphasizes Soccer Taco’s attention to American sports, from baseball to basketball to golf. A second visit in December reveals as much; television screens display American football and pro bull riding rather than soccer. When asked about the ethnic makeup of his clientele, he responds that it’s approximately 80 percent North American and 20 percent Hispanic, and the day’s lunch crowd mirrors his statistic. Of eight tables, diners of apparently Hispanic descent occupy only one. They speak in English, however, and one of them wears a Nike hat.

Further down the hill to the east, on the opposite end of Kingston Pike’s Bearden stretch, another Mexican restaurant accommodates the ethnic inverse of Soccer Taco’s customer base. The El Girasol grocery/café, along with a Mexican-owned pool hall and bakery, is sandwiched between a new Smoothie King and the upscale strip mall that houses a gourmet ice cream shop, fashionable Persian rug outlet and drive-through dry-cleaner.

With its run-down exterior and parking lot full of rust-bucket pickups, El Girasol sticks out as a shabby memoir of some blue-collar heyday—an anomaly in the heart of clean-cut, consumer-friendly, bourgeois Bearden. Inside, the store’s aisles are crammed with dried peppers and stacks of tortillas, fresh fruit and cans of refried beans, tipped-over piñatas and a dusty selection of rainbow-hued cowboy boots. The scent of raw meat and sautéed onions permeates the air. During lunch, the dining area is standing room only—and loud, although it’s rare to hear a single word spoken in English.

The adjacent Mexican-owned businesses thrive on an almost exclusively Hispanic customer base as well. Happy hour sends a line out the pool hall’s door. The bakery, with its pink cinderblock walls, Rubbermaid tubs of 60-cent loaves of sweet bread, and Spanish-speaking cashier, seems plucked from some antiquated border town. But authenticity comes at the price of a narrower clientele; for American customers in the market for a pastry, the Panera Bread chain just a few doors down may seem a less intimidating proposition.

Mexican cuisine, of course, is a clichéd Hispanic icon perpetuated by the reality that it’s the only way by which many Anglo-Americans access Hispanic culture. But the icon offers a good example of the overgeneralizations that are so often applied to the Hispanic community at large, aggravating further the disparity between the mostly-Mexican working class and the Hispanic professionals. Caroline Naar, a Ph.D. student in microbiology at UT and native Colombian, says that non-Latinos are constantly mistaking her culture with the culture of Mexico.

“They say, ‘Do you like hot food?’ I don’t know; we don’t eat hot food. Hot chilies are from Mexico. Colombia’s culture is different,” she explains.

Mexicans do, however, make up 58.5 percent of the national Hispanic population. Puerto Ricans and Central Americans fall second and third, but neither represents more than 10 percent of U.S.’s total Hispanic population. Although no exact statistics are available, the local Hispanic population likely follows suite. Velazquez points the majority of these Mexicans arrived during the second wave of immigration during the ’90s and, although the wave is sandwiched between two waves of professionals, it has become the most prominent. “In a way, it has probably given us visibility. Before, we were invisible to the population,” she explains. “But it would become the basis of a stereotype—poor, involved in manual labor—that’s been propagated nationwide by TV, you know, and the movies.”

The fact that an unknown percentage of these immigrants are undocumented has impacted all Hispanic immigrants; over the past decade, country-to-country mobility has been significantly hindered as the government tightened its grip on visas. When Naar got married here last June, for example, several members of her family in Colombia were not allowed to make the trip—including a nanny who raised her and has lived with her parents for 32 years. “They couldn’t get a visa,” she says. “The U.S. government thinks that if they leave Colombia, they will stay in the United States.”

William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration, an organization that is allegedly supported by members of both the black and Hispanic community, adds, “No one is angrier about the illegal immigrants than the legal immigrants that went through years of processing to honor and respect our laws and our citizenry.”

But in Knoxville, at least, the tide is beginning to turn, thanks to a growing network of professionals—the third wave of immigration, as Velazquez puts it—ranging from translators to ESL schoolteachers, business bureaus to cultural organizations. This wave is bridging the Hispanic community with mainstream American culture, in addition to solidifying relationships within the Hispanic community itself.

On a sapphire-skied autumn afternoon, 25 or so aspiring entrepreneurs are seated inside a conference room at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Northshore Drive. A charismatic man paces the length of the room before them, using slides and gestures to articulate business principles and financial advice. He speaks in Spanish with the exception of a few key phrases, like “Social Security” and “Workers’ Comp.”

Today’s workshop, hosted by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of East Tennessee, is entitled “Starting and Growing a Successful Business,” and its participants seem eager to learn. They lean forward in their seats, scribble notes, and raise their hands with questions.

The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is one of several resources now available to local Hispanics seeking to better their lives, acclimate to American society, and advance their socioeconomic status. Others focus on social outreach, including Alianza del Pueblo; religious consultation, including the Catholic Hispanic Ministry; or culture, such as the Hispanic heritage group HOLA.

Communication, both within the Hispanic community itself and as a link between minority and majority culture, is also critical, and it’s an area in which Knoxville has seen tremendous improvements over the past five years. Carlos Nicho’s founding of East Tennessee’s only bilingual newspaper, Mundo Hispano, in 1999 stands out as the crowning landmark. From its makeshift beginnings as a legal paper-sized newsletter to its current incarnation as a professionally staffed publication with a circulation of 30,000 and an online presence, the paper has worked to fulfill a dual purpose, Nicho explains.

“When the paper was getting started, I noticed that there were different groups of Hispanics separated by maybe an hour of driving, and they didn’t know anything about each other. They were living isolated.” He adds that the paper connects Hispanics with the mainstream community, bringing various resources to their attention and aiding their comprehension of English. “Part of our mission statement is to help integration. The English and Spanish translations are side by side, so maybe the readers think, ‘I can read Spanish, so maybe I can read English, too. Maybe it’s not that hard.’”

HOLA’s Angela Masini echoes Nicho’s statement, but admits that sometimes too much integration can cut into the preservation of one’s own ethnic heritage. “There are some people that have lived here for a long time and perhaps they have really integrated, they have acculturated so to speak, to the mainstream. And then there are some of us that, in a way, operate in both worlds.”

Maintaining a presence “in both worlds,” however, is a difficult task. To use examples from Bearden Hill, El Girsol and Soccer Taco fall at opposite ends of the spectrum. One is isolated by its Hispanics-only appeal, and the other has compromised its roots to some extent in an effort to appeal to the American mainstream.

But with the help of individuals and organizations that promote relations between Hispanic and mainstream cultures, kept in check by those that emphasize the maintenance of ethnic heritage, achieving such a balance is now a very real option. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Velazquez says she hopes this type of balance will be adopted by future American-born Hispanics as well. 

“I’ve always been concerned about having my third generation lose their identity,” she explains. But a recent visit from her young grandson, who also lives in Knoxville, renewed her confidence. “The first thing he did was show me his tennis shoes, and he’d drawn the Puerto Rican flag on them. My heart just melted.”

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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