Constructing and Deconstructing Knoxville's Latino Community

In 1977, Loida Velazquez, 68, came to Knoxville from Puerto Rico by way of Illinois, with her husband, Luis, 71.

Of course, as Puerto Ricans, the Velazquezes were American citizens by birth, and they had moved to Chicago in search of treatment for their son's hearing impairment. While living there, Luis, who was trained as a civil engineer, found work with the Department of Energy at Argonne National Laboratory. A few years later, a friend at the Oak Ridge lab suggested he transfer there, and that's how they found themselves settling in Knoxville.

When they first came to East Tennessee, the Velazquezes say they felt fairly isolated as Latinos, and that restaurants and the Catholic church were the only real avenue for meeting others in the area. Today they see a wealth of small businesses and organizations that cater to the Latino community, and not without their help: Back in 1987, through a Department of Education grant to the University of Tennessee, Loida began an 18-year career working to help educate migrant workers through a High School Equivalency Program. (She discontinued that work in 2005; the program ended shortly thereafter.) And Luis, now retired from DOE, is the executive director of the East Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which he helped found in 2004 after creating a directory in response to the rapid growth of Hispanic businesses in the area.

In the work Loida and Luis have done, the two major components of the local Hispanic community are represented: on the one end, the professional, educated class and entrepreneurs; and on the other, migrant laborers and unskilled workers who have decided to make East Tennessee their home.

There isn't a great deal in between these two worlds, says Roberto Martinez, a banker at SunTrust who emigrated from Mexico City in 1996, and who earlier this year stepped down as president of the Chamber.

"We have two different poles," Martinez says. "People who have a lower income usually have a tendency to live in larger groups because they have the need to survive in this economy without any assistance. They do not qualify for any benefits if they get laid off. They're undocumented... and it's very harsh for them to have to live a normal life in this country. On the other hand, with all these professionals, they don't have any issues. But at the same time, there are times where the Latino community tries to help the people from other countries who also need assistance because they don't qualify for any of that."

Loida says the Hispanic community arrived here in three major waves. The first comprised people like her and her husband—educated professionals, many of them trained in the sciences, coming here in the 1970s to work at Oak Ridge and TVA.

The second is the group most outsiders think of when they consider the Hispanic community. In the 1980s, '90s, and 2000s, droves of migrant workers, rather than returning south to their home countries or to border states after the harvest, took root in East Tennessee. In mostly rural counties, they found work in construction, processing plants, manufacturing, landscaping, and the restaurant business. Loida says she thinks the broad economic downturn of the past two years has paused this influx momentarily, and that rising unemployment and economic anxiety have increased tensions between Latino immigrants and the native population.

The third wave, the one we're now witnessing, she says, is made of bilingual Hispanics relocating from other states with large Latino populations—California, Florida, Texas, New York. Many of these are second- and third-generation Americans, some the children of those migrant laborers who entered 20 or 30 years before. Velazquez says they are generally less skilled and educated than the first wave of professionals, but were likely educated in the American school system and have some college or a bachelor's degree.

All of this touches on the complexity of this community. Latino and Hispanic are shorthand terms for referring to a broad class of people who emigrated from Spanish-speaking countries and their descendants, but they often mask the diversity in language, food, religion, and customs of the population. From one area to the next, the makeup of the community changes in often subtle but important ways. To give an example, some Guatemalan immigrants, having been raised on one of the many Mayan languages, can hardly speak Spanish. To give another, while Knoxville's hispanic population may be roughly 70 percent Mexican, 20 percent Honduran, and 10 percent a grab bag of Central and South American nationalities, those percentages don't hold true for surrounding counties and cities. For example, in Pigeon Forge, people say the numbers are reversed, with a much greater influx of Hondurans than Mexicans.