Latinos in Tennessee, 1950-Present
From the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Tennessee leaders attempted to recruit European migrants, but the state’s foreign-born population remained small as late as the 1980s. In the 1930s, for example, a small number of migrant Latinos were in rural Tennessee; in the 1950s, a few Colombian families came to Nashville to escape La Violencia. In the 1960s, a handful of Cuban children and families were brought to Tennessee when Castro took power but they, like previous Latino groups, often blended into local communities. In the 1990s, however, this situation changed, as Tennessee experienced dramatic Latino population growth. From 1990 to 2005, the state’s foreign-born Latino population grew by 1,476 percent, with much of this growth occurring after 1995.3
Despite this rapid growth, Tennessee’s Latino communities remain small in comparison to those in gateway states like California. In 2000, Latinos constituted less than 3 percent of Tennessee’s population; in Nashville, home to the state’s largest Latino population, Latinos constitute around 6 percent of the metropolitan population.4 Substantial census undercounts are suspected, however, and Tennessee’s actual Latino population may be significantly greater. In Nashville, local organizations place its Latino population closer to 200,000, and a 2001 survey conducted by the Nashville dioceses showed an undercount as high as 40 percent in rural middle Tennessee.5 As is the case in many new destination states, Tennessee’s Latino population is set apart not by its size, but by its growth rate. From 1990 to 2000, Hamblen County’s Latino population grew by 1,785 percent.6 Between 1994 and 2004, Nashville’s public schools saw an 1,133 percent increase in Latino students, who now constitute 13 percent of the district’s student population.
As Tennessee’s Latino population has grown, its composition has also changed. In the early to mid-1990s, young, single Mexican men began to arrive from Texas and California. Very quickly, this domestic migration became an international migration of Latina women, children, and other family members from many parts of Latin America. As word of available jobs and affordable housing drew more and
more Latinos to Tennessee, Spanish-language newspapers and radio stations, Mexican groceries and video stores, and money-sending shops and bus companies popped up across the state, changing local communities in crucial ways.