The following is an excerpt from Making The Latino South: A History of Racial Formation by Cecilia Márquez, which is available wherever books are sold. Making the Latino South is the first book in our new Latinx Histories series.
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Race and the “Nuevo South”
It was both push and pull factors that drew Latino people to the South starting in the 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s. Economic crises in Mexico and civil wars in Central America pushed Latino people to come to the United States. Latino people were also drawn to a more peaceful life away from urban centers like Los Angeles, freedom from tight immigration enforcement in places like California and Texas, and access to some of the abundant jobs they heard about from friends and relatives who had already migrated to the South. Roshell, a Latina college student in Alabama, remembered that her family wanted to escape the fear of violence, the noise, and the immigration restrictions of Los Angeles. In 2003, only two years after moving from Mexico to Los Angeles, Roshell’s parents relocated the family to Alabama. Los Angeles had “too much going on,” she remembered. “They didn’t want to raise the family there.” A combination of limited jobs for her father in California and the slower pace of life drew them to Alabama.
Southern industry also actively sought out Latino workers, offering incentives to existing Latino employees for every person they could recruit. By 2002, southern companies like Gold Kist poultry were purchasing billboard space in Tijuana, Mexico, advertising “Mucho Trabajo en Russellville, Alabama” [There’s plenty of work in Russellville]. As southern manufacturing and food processing sectors continued to expand while other parts of the country saw slower economic growth, the South became an appealing place for Latino migrants.
It was both push and pull factors that drew Latino people to the South starting in the 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s.
During this period, race began to change for Latino southerners. The category of “Hispanic,” which had been rarely used in the South before the 1970s, was beginning to cohere. By the 1980s and 1990s Latino people’s provisional whiteness had been replaced by Hispanicness. As a result, at the exact moment that previously small southern Latino populations expanded into thriving and settled communities, the Southeast was beginning to coalesce with the Sunbelt—California, Arizona, and Texas—where anti-immigrant, and specifically anti-Mexican, racism had long flourished.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that Latino people were not initially absorbed into western and southwestern ideas about race. Instead, in the 1980s and 1990s South, the “hardworking Hispanic” replaced what had formerly been a provisionally white racialization. Many southerners, particularly white southerners, in the 1980s and 1990s imagined Latino people as industrious, family oriented, and religious. This new racialization marked a departure from earlier forms of Latino racialization.
Before the 1970s, with some notable exceptions, there simply were not enough Latino people to meaningfully impact agricultural labor throughout the region. However, as weak labor and environmental standards drew manufacturing and food processing to the South in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a growing number of jobs, and Latino workers became the “lifeblood” of many of these industries.
Race, both within and outside of the US South, has long been a tool to manage labor under capitalism.
The production of this category of “Hispanic” also served an economic utility. Race, both within and outside of the US South, has long been a tool to manage labor under capitalism. In previous eras, the preservation of anti-Blackness through social and legal mechanisms of control served to immobilize Black workers and communities and cement their ties to plantations, sharecropping regimes, and prison labor systems. In this new era, Latinos came to occupy many of the same jobs Black southerners had previously held. As the southern economic system was becoming increasingly reliant on Latinos, it also became important for manufacturing and food processing companies to control the Latino labor population. The veneration by many southerners of the “hardworking Hispanic” naturalized a new kind of hyperproduction required by late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century corporations.
Cecilia Márquez is Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History at Duke University.