Tennessee Map

Changing Social Relations in Tennessee

Although Latinos have much in common with generations of rural Tennesseans who migrated to midwestern and northeastern cities, Latinos are often perceived as racially, culturally, and linguistically different from black and white Tennesseans. This perception of Latinos leads many long-term residents to assume that all Latinos in Tennessee are Mexican, recently arrived, and undocumented. In discussions of Tennessee’s Latino community, for example, differences between a young mexicano working in Morristown for a few years and a middle-aged colombiana moving to Nashville to start a new life are often overlooked.

Such differences, however, affect how Latinos experience life in Tennessee. In cities like Nashville and Memphis, Latino businesses and nonprofit organizations are often led by Central and South Americans, who publicly represent predominantly Mexican populations and speak for the immigrant community. Such class and nationality distinctions among Latinos are complemented by differences in legal status, which impact both how Latinos interact with state agencies, such as law enforcement, and where they go to voice concerns and obtain help.

In addition to intra-community distinctions, Latinos in Tennessee also face new relationships with black and white residents. Many small Tennessee towns were unprepared for a Latino influx, creating rocky adjustments. In Morristown, for example, local organizations discovered in 2000 that the county hospital was not filing citizenship paperwork for children born to undocumented parents. In 2002, the Ku Klux Klan rallied in Morristown, protesting the influx of nonwhite migrants into the area. Amid hostility toward Latinos, however, are equally strong efforts to welcome them. The East Tennessee Catholic Diocese, for instance, was one of first institutions to reach out. In 2003 the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride came through Nashville; in March 2006, several thousand people took to Nashville streets in support of migrant rights. These initiatives point to both new challenges and new opportunities for Latinos and long-term Tennesseans.

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