Map of Tennessee

Latino Migration to Rural and Urban Tennessee

Latino migration has affected both rural and urban Tennessee, but not in uniform ways. In Tennessee cities, Latino population growth has been linked to economic growth, tight labor markets, affordable housing, and (until recently) favorable social climates. Urban Latinos work in nearly all sectors of Tennessee’s labor markets, from low-wage, temporary labor in construction and fast food to high-profile work as lawyers and business leaders. In rural Tennessee, by contrast, Latino population growth is more strongly connected to particular industries or agricultural products. In Bells, for example, many Latino workers are employed by the local Pictsweet Vegetables packaging plant.7 In Shelbyville, Tyson Foods employed 40 Latinos in 1993. By 1997, that number had grown to nearly 500 50 percent of the plant’s workforce.8

A second difference between rural and urban areas involves the composition of the respective Latino populations themselves. In rural Tennessee, many Latino communities are almost exclusively Mexican. Shelbyville’s Latino population, for example, is 95 percent Mexican.9 In Tennessee cities, however, Latino populations represent a wider range of nationalities. Nashville’s Latino population, while predominantly Mexican, has long-standing Colombian and Cuban communities, as well as newly arrived Central and South Americans, some of whom come from U.S. cities like Miami and some of whom come directly from Latin America. Latinos in smaller towns may also bring different education levels. Across Tennessee, Latino education levels are on par with national trends, but in Monterey, the proportion of Latinos with less than a high-school education reaches 70 percent.10

A final difference is the size and impact of local Latino populations. Tennessee cities have significantly larger Latino populations, as most Latinos in Tennessee are urban or suburban dwellers. In rural Tennessee, Latino populations are smaller, but often more visible. Bells, for instance, had around 500 Latinos in 2000, compared to approximately 26,000 Latinos in Nashville-Davidson County.11 Whereas officially, Nashville was 4.7 percent Latino in 2000, Bells was almost 23 percent Latino.12 Furthermore, in Tennessee cities, Latinos often live in particular neighborhoods. In smaller towns, however, they spread across neighborhoods and business districts, making even a small Latino community highly visible in shared public spaces, neighborhoods, and schools.

Tennessee cities themselves also show key differences. Knoxville’s Latino population, for example, has strong links to Georgia and Florida, while Nashville’s Latino population is larger and represents more national groups. In Memphis, in contrast

to both state and national trends, Latinos’ 2000 per-capita income was slightly higher than that of African Americans.13 Additionally, whereas Nashville’s Latinos have settled in white working-class neighborhoods built after World War II, Memphis’s Latino neighborhoods overlap with historically black neighborhoods. All of these characteristics impact the ways that social relations between Latinos and long-term Tennessee residents unfold.

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