Knoxville Negocios: Profiles of Local Latino Businesses

A peek inside Knoxville's Hispanic community through some of its small businesses and their owners

It's a hot, humid Wednesday afternoon in June. Mario Alberto Iguilar Irias is working on an old SUV in his shop, a cinder-block building painted in canary yellow, the words "Taller Mecanico Catacamas," or Catacamas Auto-shop, stenciled in blue above the large garage doors in front.

Irias leans into the driver's side of the SUV and combs through a black clump of wired entrails attached to the stereo, which has been removed. A large fan has been propped up on the car's passenger side, just a foot from Irias face, producing a high-pitched whir that's tolerable because it keeps Irias cool as he tries to connect something somewhere. Meanwhile, his 5-year-old son, Daniel, whose smile reveals two missing front teeth, plays around the shop, picking up whatever interests him and then dropping it just as quickly. "Ay, Papito," Irias scolds him, in a way that's completely resigned—the way a father raising his fifth child does, because he knows his admonitions are in vain.

Irias leaves his work on the SUV for his office next door, a place that looks at once well-worn and little used. Siting down behind his desk, he switches on a small fan beside a computer that's left off. An unlit electric sign on the blue door, left ajar like the large doors of the shop, reads OPEN and CLOSED, its mechanics revealed by the glare outside. The walls are painted in pink, green, yellow and blue, like the homes in Central America, or the fruits sold in the markets there. On a pink wall, behind the desk, Irias has hung his business licenses beside drawings from his children, and a framed photo of his daughter, the oldest, in her graduation gown.

In Olancho, the eastern province of Honduras, where Irias is from, there would be nothing unusual about Irias, his son, or this shop. But this isn't Honduras. It's Chapman Highway, where a mechanic who hardly speaks English working in a loud yellow building would stand out even if it didn't broadcast its foreignness with large Spanish words painted on its walls.

***

Since the last census was performed in 2000, businesses like Irias'—owned by Latinos, mostly serving Latinos—have quietly sprouted around Knoxville. Along with the birth of the East Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2004, and the two major festivals held each year—Cinco de Mayo and HoLa Latina—these small ventures represent the most visible sign of a demographic and cultural transition underway.

You may know some of these stores, even if you've never stopped in to see what they sell. In Bearden, there's El Girasol supermarket, and the La Flor bakery, adjacent to Colonel's Deli; nearby, there's also La Rumba, the high-end Latino restaurant and nightclub behind Toddy's; in South Knoxville, La Huasteca and Copa Cabana, a supermarket and nightclub, respectively, flank the Book Eddy and Disc Exchange; at Downtown West Boulevard, Mi Banco sits among CelTech, Los Paisanos, and El Rincon Vaquero: Western Wear; across the street there's Mi Pueblo, a large supermarket, taqueria, and Western clothes store; down the street there's Tienda Nony, a small supermarket/salon at Walker Springs.

Tune the radio to 93.5 day or night, and you'll hear Spanish advertisements and saccharine Latin pop ballads—and until July 11, play-by-play announcing of the World Cup—from WKZX, a new FM radio station based in Lenoir City that delivers "Musica en tu idioma," music in your language. Or visit the Green Acres Flea Market on Sunday mornings, where you'll swear you've left East Tennessee and arrived in Tijuana, the sound of live chickens and ranchero music blending with the smells of mango, fresh cilantro, and skirt steak and onions on the grill.

[Audio slideshow: Check out a morning at the Green Acres Flea Market, just off Alcoa HIghway on the way to Tyson McGhee Airport.]

These stores are not just proof to those inside and outside the Latino community that this population is here, growing, and has disposable income to burn. They also serve as an intersection between two poles within the community—on the one end, business owners and skilled professionals, and on the other, undocumented laborers (see sidebar).

In these businesses' products, services, and owners, the variety of national and cultural traditions of the various groups of Latino immigrants who have chosen East Tennessee as their new home is also expressed. Here in Knoxville, leaders in the community estimate that community is 70 percent Mexican, 20 percent Honduran, and 10 percent other nationalities: Colombian, Venezuelan, Costa Rican, Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, and other countries in Central and South America.

With a faltering economy and persistently high unemployment, it appears now the national conversation is again turning toward the subject of comprehensive immigration reform, spurred by an Arizona immigration law passed in April. Last week, President Obama gave his first speech devoted entirely to immigration, calling on Congress to pass legislation that offers illegal immigrants a path to citizenship but also strengthens the border. Yet for all the talk of immigration reform—and more to come as new measures are debated in state legislatures around the country, including in Tennessee's—next year will mark 25 years since a comprehensive bill was signed into law, by Ronald Reagan.

In a quarter-century, and especially in the past 10 years, Latino Knoxville has grown up quite a bit, evolving, adapting, and influencing the broader culture here.

***

Like many Latino businesses around town, Irias' shop, on the corner of Chapman Highway and Martin Mill Pike, is not alone. It marks a concentration of Latino businesses in South Knoxville, one that includes La Huasteca, Copa Cabana,, Del Potosi, a bakery, and La Tortilla, a Mexican supermarket.

Irias has lived in the U.S. for 15 years but in Knoxville for three years, relocating from Greeneville, S.C., (where he had another shop) because of problems with Daniel's mother. A father of five—the eldest now completing her studies in Guatemala, where her mother is from—Irias has proudly named his shop after his hometown, Catacamas, in Honduras.

Irias speaks little English, and says when he does receive American customers, he must communicate mostly through gestures. His Spanish is rapid and choppy, like the sound of a tailpipe as an old car accelerates. He says he came to the U.S. because there were few opportunities in Honduras, and that he was searching for a "new horizon." He says some immigrants come to "do damage"—a reference to crimes like drug trafficking—while some come to work. But most, he says, like him, just come to provide more for their children.

Lately, business has been very slow—"bien despacio," he says, mentioning that many clients have left to return to their home countries. For a while, that small exodus meant some work—as families decided to leave, they came by for tune-ups before the long trip home. A silver lining, perhaps, but he doesn't find much consolation in it.

As he talks Irias frequently says he is "siempre luchando," always struggling—at the shop, for his kids' future, in his life. He often concludes his remarks about how difficult things are with a practiced "Gracias por Dios," thanks to God, and seems confident that things will work out for the best.

***

Just below Taller Mecanico Catacamas, in the shopping center housing an old abandoned hotel, a pawn shop, and a thrift store, is La Tortilla Market, a small Mexican tienda, or store.

These tiendas have become fixtures in the four corners of Knoxville, and most specialize in products from Mexico and Honduras. Up the road there's La Huasteca. In North Knoxville, there's La Esperanza, The Hope. This one, La Tortilla, is owned by Jenny Lara, a short, middle-aged woman who wears dark eyeliner, and who moved from the Yucatan Peninsula to Los Angeles when she was 12. Seventeen years ago, she and her now ex-husband moved from L.A. to Knoxville because they thought it would be a safe place to raise their three children. In 2001, she bought La Tortilla.

Mexican and Honduran soccer jerseys hang from the ceiling near the entrance of the tienda. Candies in the colors of the Mexican flag can be found everywhere. Baptism gift baskets sit behind glass. La Tortilla, like many of these tiendas, seems to try to include the whole of Mexican products in one place, so it sells everything—clothing, CDs, DVDs, foreign foods, spices, Mexican soft drinks, phone cards, and Paris Hilton's perfume, "Heir" (kept behind glass, near the Baptism baskets). And like those others, there's also a taqueria, where you can buy tortas, sopes, huaraches, and other staples of authentic Mexican cuisine on the cheap. Today a single customer sits and eats while he watches a Spanish-language soap opera.

Lara's English is inflected with an accent reflecting her many years in the States. She's short on words, but says in her 17 years in Knoxville the number of Hispanic stores has grown a great deal. "Back in those days, there were like two, and now there's a lot," she says.

Like Irias, she says business has been slow, and that things were much better three or four years ago, when construction was booming. She, too, knows families who have packed up and returned to their home countries. Asked what she'd like to tell Knoxville about this community, she says, "Working and working and working. That's how life is for the Latinos, just working." Asked where she goes out to eat for the best Mexican food, she says Cancun, just down the road, but adds she rarely has the chance since she works from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

While Lara speaks, a man quietly takes inventory of the phone cards behind the counter. His name is Brent Hardiman, and he's a representative of the American Phone Card Company, a small business based in Maryville. He's been stocking phone cards in the Latino grocery stores in Knoxville for four and a half years, and says when he began, he knew "zilch Spanish." He still can't hold a conversation, but he says he understands a lot.

In his time in the Hispanic community, he's come away with this: "The thing that I've learned more than anything else is they're good people. They really are good people. Hard working, friendly, very family oriented."

Behind his remark lurks the suggestion that perception is to the contrary, something Hardiman acknowledges head-on. "Now you see a lot of newspaper articles about the Hispanics that are here illegally, and that type of thing, and they are," he says. "I mean, I cater to them every day. But the people that are here, and have got their roots here, and are raising their kids here, are very good people, and very good family people."

In some ways, Hardiman thinks Knoxville is missing the boat in responding to this market. He notes that most people now catering to this community are from other cities, like Atlanta and Nashville.

As Hardiman returns to his work behind the counter, copies of free Spanish newspapers sit near the entrance. One is called Hola, from Nashville. Another—Mi Vida Today—is based in Morristown.

***

Mi Vida Today is coming up on its second anniversary, the brainchild of Carlos Gracia and Bill Wadlington, a property owner and manager in Morristown.

Gracia is from Mexico and has been in East Tennessee for seven years. Sitting in the mostly empty taqueria at El Girasol, the supermarket in Bearden, in front of a large plate of chicken enchiladas—for around $6—and a large agua de sabor, a kind of fruit juice, Gracia excitedly describes, in awkward English, how he came to find himself in East Tennessee, running a newspaper. He and Wadlington—who Gracia came to know by finding Latino tenants for his apartments—say they knew next to nothing about starting and managing a newspaper, and a cursory glance at the bi-weekly publication reveals it's a work in progress. Still, the fact his advertisers are split between Latino and non-Latino businesses, and the existence of a local paper for Latinos, by Latinos, with wide distribution—in Knoxville, Maryville, Lenoir City, Loudon, Gatlinburg, Greeneville, and Morristown—are more signs of the community's growth.

Gracia's goal is to create a bridge from one culture, the "Anglos," to the other, which is why he prints each article in both Spanish and English. "My thought is we are trying to enhance this community, this society, this part of this country," Gracia says, his eyes inviting you to join his excitement. "And you want to hear my answer—this is the better place to live. I don't change it for nothing. Even if it's at the beach or a better place. No. This is the better place to stay, because you can see the opportunities to live. That's American! Seriously. That's American."

Wadlington, who still owns a portion of the paper, minimizes his role in its operation, calling himself the "token white guy." He's forthcoming about the change he sees under way in the Hispanic community. "The deal is, their babies are now graduating high school. They're graduating Pellissippi States. And of course, they're legal," Wadlington says. "So what I think the biggest shift is going to be is that all of a sudden, instead of a bunch of tomato pickers, you know, the people that whine that ‘Pedro's taking my job,' are pretty soon going to look up and find out that they work for Pedro. And it's going to be hard hit."

Edwar Avila, a 27-year-old Colombian who works as manager of La Rumba, as a consultant to local Latino businesses, and was a former banker at First Tennessee, also sees a shift from laborer to business owner. "Back in 2003, a lot of the construction businesses I did loans for—most of them were American owners with Hispanic workers. Now, the Hispanic workers open their own business. They still work together, but they say, ‘Okay, I work so long putting shingles, now I know how to do the job. I know how much it costs, and I can do it for less because I'm working doing the job.'"

***

Another concentration of Latino commerce in Knoxville lies from Downtown West boulevard to South Gallaher View Road. Within this space there are no less than seven Latino businesses: three supermarkets, a cell phone store, a salon, a Western clothing store, and a bank.

Beginning with Tienda Nony, at Gallaher View Road, you have in its owner a prolific entrepreneur, Nony Martin, 41. Since 2001 she's opened three Tienda Nony stores—in North Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and here. And in December of 2009, she opened a salon just below this store. This Tienda Nony, #1 it's sometimes called, contains the most variety, with products from at least six countries—Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Honduras, Argentina, Venezuela, and some from Peru—which, for all but the ones from Honduras and Mexico, Martin travels to Atlanta twice a month to purchase. She's also a licensed Cricket phone dealer and can cash checks here.

Martin is originally from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Asked why she moved to Knoxville, she smilingly says, "I married a Gringo." That Gringo had been studying with her cousin at Tennessee Tech when he decided to visit him in Honduras. The two met, dated for a couple of years, and moved to East Tennessee in 1993. She opened her stores because she says she saw an opportunity in the emerging market. "We didn't see a store that carried different products. It was only Mexican products," she says. "And at that time there were more and more people coming from other countries, and we could not find anything around here. And that's when we came up with the idea to import from other countries, not just Mexico. And to serve the community."

While acknowledging the growth of these stores and community, Martin says this market may be a little oversaturated with Latino stores now. "I think Knoxville is a little bit small for so many stores that are opening in the area. And I guess they're thinking that more and more people are going to come soon, but right now it's tough to be here with so many people opening on every corner, almost," she says.

***

Back in the strip mall at Downtown West, just behind Hooters, there are no less than five Latino stores—Mi Banco, the only Knoxville bank focusing primarily on the Latino community; CelTech, a retail cell phone store; Mi Pueblo, a large supermarket, taqueria, and Western wear store that just opened at the end of 2009; El Rincon Vaquero, a western wear store; and Los Paisanos, another tienda/taqueria combination store, like La Tortilla.

Mi Banco is run by Santiago Cuccarese, a mild-mannered, 36-year-old Argentine from Buenos Aires who moved to Knoxville six years ago with his wife for work. Mi Banco is the first of its kind, both for Knoxville and for its parent company, the Bank of Camden, an 80-year-old, state-chartered, FDIC-regulated bank from about 100 miles west of Nashville. About 70 percent of Mi Banco's customers are Hispanic, and most come from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Mi Banco represents the new services being offered to Latinos, and Cuccarese, who served as the Hispanic Chamber's president from 2007-08, says its mission is to bring this population into a more secure system for managing their money. "We have a lot of young Latinos," he says, "hard-working people that don't have access to the formal banking system, and that before Mi Banco opened, used to go to grocery stores to cash their checks or wire money, which is probably not the most efficient way." He says many Latinos living here come from rural areas in their home countries, and have a natural prejudice against financial institutions, which may have been far less secure there than here in the U.S. "It takes time for some Hispanics to start trusting in an institution that, you know, this time it's not going to behave as banks in their home country behaved," he says.

Avila, of La Rumba, agrees. "Most Hispanics don't use banks. They get cash and send it back home, or they'll use banks for general things like checks," he says. "But with most of their savings they buy things. They buy houses, or they buy cars, or they buy a business. That's what people spend their money on."

During the World Cup, Cuccarese has allowed his employees—young bilingual men and women born both abroad and in the U.S.—to wear their teams' jerseys at work. Before the U.S. and Mexico were eliminated, one employee, a young man named Diego del-Castillo, from California, alternated between the two.

***

Farther west, out on Campbell Station Road, just off I-40, is Border Tacos, the latest venture from Mario and Claudia Navarro. Previous part-owners of Soccer Taco on Bearden Hill, since bought and expanded to locations in Market Square and Maryville, the Navarros have been working in restaurants in the Farragut area for 10 years. Mario is from Sinaloa, Culiacan, on the northwest Pacific coast of Mexico, and Claudia is from Guadalajara, in the central part of the country. They met when Mario opened a business in Claudia's hometown. After marrying, they moved to Knoxville to help Claudia's brother with a restaurant while he opened another in Atlanta.

Although the two speak English well, Claudia sometimes acts as translator for Mario, who then responds in English. They've seen a fairly marked change in the decade since they moved here. "I really don't know the statistic," Claudia says, "but I think we were the only Mexican people in Farragut. And I think there was another family from Colombia. But it was just very few. If you wanted to get Mexican products, you had to drive all the way to Lenoir City. And I say all the way, and it's not very far, but at that time it was far because we used to work from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and we were at the restaurant all the time, so we didn't have too much time to go there."

Compared with the hole-in-the-wall feel of the taquerias, Border Tacos is clean, polished, and feels like a franchise. The smart design of the logo, a cartoon desperado, and the assemblage of Mexican icons on the walls and tables, created by local Venezuelan graphic designer William Arthur, make it seem pre-packaged, like something ideally suited for suburban Gringos. The clientele is heavily American, 85 percent, estimates Mario, but he and Claudia pride themselves on the quality and freshness of the ingredients, and of the authentic Mexican dishes they serve. Theirs seems to be a true hybrid of Mexican cuisine and American expectations, perhaps a glimpse at what some other establishments may become with time. For example, here you can find tacos and burritos, and the Navarros have included things not traditionally eaten in Mexico. "Like we never work with black beans," says Claudia, but "now that we work here with black beans, all kinds of people—Indian, American, Hispanic people—they love black beans. So that means...I don't know if that's called the culture or the traditions. I don't know how to say it, but it's changing because of the mix of the cultures."

You can also find the more authentic fare, the kind found in taquerias, like tortas, sopes, and huaraches. "Anybody understand what is the huarache?" Mario asks his wife, rhetorically. Claudia responds "Nobody," as if performing a routine. Mario then confirms her answer, "Nobody understands what is the huarache."

"It's a flat tortilla of homemade corn," he then explains. "We put cheese, and different kinds of meat. We have chipotle steak, barbecue chicken, grilled chicken, carne asada, or carne adobada. You put all the meat you like, then black beans or rice or refried beans, then lettuce, pico de gallo. You make your huarache the way you like it."

The Navarros say they've already received calls from people interested in opening up Border Tacos franchises elsewhere in the next year. For now, they're focused on opening their new full-service restaurant, Meksiko Cantina, on Kingston Pike.

For the Navarros, it's good to be Latino in Knoxville. Claudia says in Mexico, many people say "in the United States, you are just like a number," Claudia says. "For us, that's not what we have lived. Here, for us, Knoxville has been great. They know us by name, they know our kids. They protect our kids."


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