Friday, 05 May 2017 11:54

Latinx in the New South

MightyLatinas SeanRayford

Young participants at the Indie Grits Visiones Festival in Columbia, SC. Photo credit: Sean Rayford 


Latinx in the New South


Between 1980 and 2000, Latinx populations in Charlotte grew 932 percent. The numbers are staggering. They capture how the city, along with other metropolitan areas such as Raleigh and Atlanta, experienced so-called Latinx “hypergrowth.” Behind the numbers there are histories of individuals coming to North Carolina to work in migrant labor as well as construction, business, and finance. How does the rapid demographic growth at hand translate to the Latinx arts and culture sector? What does it mean to be Latinx in the South today? These questions inform our next convening-- the NALAC Regional in Charlotte on June 2-3, 2017 in partnership with the North Carolina Humanities Council.

In February of this year, Banu Valladares at the North Carolina Humanities Council organized a meeting of Latinx leaders at the Mexican Consulate in Raleigh. Artists, organizers and leaders from a number of organizations including El Centro Hispano in Durham (a leading grassroots organization and model for LGBTQ and undocumented organizing), the Boys & Girls Club of Wake County, and Casa Azul of Greensboro (one of the few Latinx arts and culture spaces in the state) shared their experiences. Some of the overarching themes centered around how we work together considering the incredible diversity that exists across Latinidades, geographies, socioeconomic realities and legal status. “¿Como lidiamos nosotros entre nosotros mismo?”

Corresponding sentiments resonated just outside our meeting room where consulate offices were bustling with individuals addressing their concerns and updating their documents. With ongoing announcements of detentions, a consular official noted that people will avoid going out as much as possible [“van a evitar salir lo más posible].” Our current political climate affects our communities in diverse ways from their priorities to their practices.

Geography also shapes relationships, and sometimes, it serves as a barrier to creating networks across the state and the region itself. The NALAC Regional in Charlotte can be an opportunity for participants to build alongside others who hail from the region’s towns and cities not just in North Carolina, but in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina, too.

Only 90 miles south of Charlotte is the capitol city of Columbia, South Carolina. NALAC visited Amada Torruella, an alumna of the NALAC Leadership Institute and this year’s curator of Indie Grits Visiones at the Nick. Made possible in part by a NALAC Diverse Arts Spaces Grant, this year’s multidisciplinary festival set out to look at individual visions for the future of the Southern Latinx community. Torruella noted, “More than half of Latinxs in South Carolina have ties to Mexico, followed by Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia. Artists are taking the lead in uniting the disparate and oftentimes marginalized Latinx community and shattering stereotypes.” Torruella, who hails from El Salvador, is also a writer, cultural organizer and artist, who serves on the board of Palmetto Luna Arts, the only non-profit in South Carolina fostering Latino art.

North Carolina itself has three distinct regions— the beginnings of the Appalachian mountains in the west, the central Piedmont plateau, and the coastal Tidewater plain in the east. 248 miles east of Charlotte you’ll find Greenville, NC (not to be confused with South Carolina’s larger Greenville). The metropolitan area of Greenville, NC, includes 175,842 residents and serves as an anchor for the rural, eastern part of the state. One of the key Latinx leaders here is Juvencio Rocha-Peralta, the Executive Director of the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, Inc. (AMEXCAN). Rocha-Peralta’s organization responds to the needs of his community; lately that means building relationships with law enforcement organizations such as the Wilson Police Department and organizing anti-bullying workshops for middle schoolers. Since the election, the organization has received a handful of reports of students who have been told they are not welcome in the United States.

AMEXCAN supports the Latinxs who call eastern North Carolina home, including many farmworkers. Over 150,000 farmworkers reside in the state and contribute to its $70 billion agricultural industry through major crops that require hand labor such as tobacco, Christmas trees, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers. Farmworkers represent the second lowest-paid workforce in the nation— a farmworker has to pick and haul 125 buckets of sweet potatoes in order to make fifty dollars.

For AMEXCAN, culture is a key factor alongside leadership development, advocacy and health education that is used to strengthen the community. Their annual Festival Latino gives community members an opportunity to practice their heritages. In our conversation with Rocha-Peralta, he noted that folclórico groups aren’t allowed to practice in churches, so they go to the park for rehearsal space and find a way.

Two recent national exhibitions have begun to tell the larger demographic story of Southern cities. At the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum in D.C., Gateways/Portales explores the Latinx populations in Charlotte as well as Washington, Baltimore, and Raleigh-Durham using “gateway” as a term that reflects these cities’ status as major migrant hubs and also as a metaphor for community access points—through social justice, festivals, and community spaces.

It’s notable that Gateways/Portales explicitly employs the term Latinx, perhaps a first for a major institution; moreover, it highlights the diversity within that term. In the exhibition, one encounters Baltimore’s Dominican salons, worn boots belonging to Cornelio Campos when he arrived from Mexico to work as a farmworker, and even a photo from 1987 of a young Quique Avilés, the DC-based Salvadoran poet who will deliver the Keynote at the Charlotte Regional.

¡NUEVOlution! which can currently be seen at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, opened in 2015 at Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South and presents a comprehensive survey of the cultural legacy of Latinx people in the South. ¡NUEVOlution! gathers stories, experiences and voices reflecting the diverse communities that now call the region home. Despite the fact that Latinx people make up 14% of Charlotte’s population, visibility of our emerging communities remains low and initiatives like ¡NUEVOlution! and Gateways/Portales play a role in shifting narratives.

What’s harder to find in Charlotte and in other communities in the region are dedicated Latinx arts venues, so artists are developing creative solutions. Visual artist Rosalía Torres-Weiner’s latest initiative is the Red Calaca Mobile Art Studio. Her artmobile brings to mind other endeavors that marry culture with the streets such as José Torres-Tama’s Taco Truck Theater in New Orleans or the First Peoples Fund’s Rolling Rez Arts that criss-crosses the Pine Ridge reservation. Rosalía Torres-Weiner is on the road filling up her calendar. So far, she says, “I’ve been meeting people who are hungry for the arts.”

Latinx leaders in Charlotte are shaping engagement and programming. At Queens University in Charlotte, Dr. Michel Shaul with support from artist Edwin Gil organize the Arte Latino Now project that includes an annual exhibition and publishing opportunities. Situated in a hulking building amid the nation’s second largest financial center, The Mint Museum has launched several initiatives to promote Latinx art and culture in the Charlotte region from an innovative Latin Music Concert Series to Bilingual Stories & Music on Wheels taken to the families at Camino Community Center. The Mint’s Claudia Soria knows a simple invitation to community is not sufficient, “You have to build that trust.” Nearby, LaCa Projects is a high-end gallery that situates Charlotte as part of a growing Latin American art market between New York and Miami.

As we watch Latinx communities continue to grow roots in the South, we are also excited to see what this means for the arts and humanities in the region. We hope you will join us in Charlotte to envision future possibilities. Register online at this link, join the facebook event, or keep an eye on our Facebook and Instagram pages for updates from afar.

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