The great American melting pot bubbles inconsistently, particularly in East Tennessee. Different lumps of humanity melt into the porridge at different rates.
Hispanics have been coming to the mountains since the days of DeSoto, and East Tennesseans like Sam Houston and Davy Crockett were among the 19th-century Anglo-Americans who reached out to Hispanics on their own turf (and eventually annexed large chunks of that turf into the U.S.).
Now the outreach has swung in the other direction. The unprecedented influx of people from Mexico and Central America into East Tennessee results in new and lively contributions to the local culture, but it’s clearly going to take a while for both the locals and the newcomers to process the changes that are taking place.
One good place to watch the cultural transformation in action is El Noa Noa Mexican Market, and the attached El Tacayo Tacqueria (taco shop), on Alcoa Highway (4516 Airport Highway). Located next to Green Acres Flea Market and in business only two months, El Noa Noa is a full-fledged, full-service supermarket specializing in Mexican and Central American food. Hispanic markets are popping up all over town, but this is the largest I’ve seen yet.
The exterior is impressive, painted gold (not yellow or UT orange, but gleaming, rich gold), blue, and red, with matching red tiles on an awning running the length of the store.
Inside is fresh produce, fresh meat, frozen foods, a full complement of canned goods, beans, spices, cereals, laundry supplies, soccer balls, piñatas, enormous cooking pots, clay bowls, and an admirable selection of devotional candles. There are at least four different dried chiles in the produce section (including big, wonderfully puffy, ominously black, mulato chiles) and an extensive collection of bagged spices—mullein, eucalyptus, cuassia, horehound, palo azul, zarzaparilla, and more.
I ask Ephraim Zapien, the manager on duty the day I visited, to identify some of the tropical fruit and vegetables on display in the produce section and, while he is able to name and describe some of the produce, others, he says, are used in Central American cuisines—Honduran, Salvadoran, Guatemalan—that are unfamiliar to him.
I can pick out the pineapples and potatoes, but others are a mystery, and for some of the exotic fruits, Zapien says he doesn’t know the English word. I ask about little wads of herbal matter labeled flor de jamaica, and he leads me into the tacqueria for an iced cup of tangy, grapy tea brewed from the herb. It tastes great.
Visiting this store is like visiting a Jewish deli on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1900. My Spanish is non-existent, and the English of the shoppers and workers in the store appears to be limited. This is all new to me and all new to them.
At the front of the store, a bank of phones installed by different financial companies allow patrons to wire money to relatives back in Mexico. A free bilingual newspaper by the checkout delivers news on the Hispanic communities in Knoxville, Nashville, and Chattanooga, including advice on housing and jobs.
In other parts of the country, in Texas, New Mexico, and California, the Hispanic community is so much a part of the established scene that it produces national presidential candidates with names like Bill Richardson.
That’s not what’s going on at El Noa Noa. This is an outpost for people who are new in town. Its purpose is not just to sell groceries, but to help people feel at home in a strange environment. El Noa Noa sells Clorox, the same Clorox you can buy in the nearest Kroger, but Clorox here comes in the bottle with the labeling that the company prepares for sale to customers in Latin America.
Zapien asks me why I want to write about the store, and I tell him that many people in Knoxville don’t know about people from different parts of the world who now live and work here, that they aren’t even aware that they exist. He says nothing, but a look of recognition flashes across his face.