Defining El Sur Latino | Von Diaz

In 2017, SFA explores El Sur Latino. To approach a multidimensional understanding of this moment in the U.S. South, we’ve enlisted over a dozen scholars, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs to reflect on what “El Sur Latino” means to them. Today, Smith Symposium Fellow Von Diaz describes growing up Puerto Rican in the Atlanta suburbs.

Buford Highway tacos. Plátanos at Publix. Grits vs. funche (Puerto Rican grits) vs. mangú (Dominican grits made of plantain).

Growing up, the only other Puerto Ricans I knew in Jonesboro and Riverdale—suburbs 20 minutes outside of Atlanta—were other military kids like me. Our families gathered to cook out on the weekends, making arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), and costillas (pork ribs) marinated in adobo all the while dancing salsa, (parents) drinking rum, speaking Spanish so fast it was impossible to keep up. Georgia summers felt as hot and humid as those on the island.

What are you called: Spanish, Hispanic, Latin, Mexican? Is your food spicy? Do you eat burritos? Chimichangas? What does your name mean?

In el Sur Latino, I constantly corrected people who assumed I was Mexican, and came to feel resentful solely because I was being called something that I was not. My parents also taught me to resent Mexicans, sneered at Mexican grocery stores, mocked Mariachis. This racism and cultural essentialism created a rift within Latino communities that should have been allies. Instead, our identities were shaped by imagined divisions, perpetuated by cultural ignorance and adherence to narratives about our communities invented by others.

In Puerto Rico we called each other negro, negrito, trigeño, morenito—but in el Sur Latino we are now known only as black.

El Sur Latino is deeply connected to black communities, and immigrants from other parts of the world. We were forced early to reconcile the ever-present legacy of African slavery, to understand our shared histories as People of Color, and then to make connections through our shared culinary heritages. We put bits of pork in our beans and greens. Cornmeal made into a dozen or more dishes, Okra, and deep-frying made simple foods rich and satisfying to keep the workers going in the fields.

Today, El Sur Latino is in transition: pupuserías, cevicherías, and taquerías can be found in cities like Atlanta. There are dozens of grocery stores and farmers markets that supply Caribbean staples such as yucca, yautía, and herbs like culantro used to make sofrito. The Latino South is becoming ever richer as we find new ways to connect through the diverse foodways and stories of the Latino world that illustrate all that we share in common.