Defining El Sur Latino | Tore Olsson

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’s analysis comes from Tore Olsson, professor of history at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville.

Lumumba Ajanaku, Meals On Wheels Hot Tamales and Tacos, Yazoo City, MS. June 2005. Photo by Amy Cameron Evans.

What is “El Sur Latino”? To me, its definition must be understood in two ways. The first is obvious – the term describes the impact Latin America has had upon the US South. For most folks, this brings to mind quite recent transformations – the carnicería abutting the Piggly Wiggly; the taco truck parked at the strip mall; the juxtaposition of Spanish and southern drawls. Yet historians now acknowledge that such linkages stretch back centuries. Spanish colonists were often the first European explorers and settlers of what we today know as the South. Latin American immigrants long predated the twenty-first century, and not just in Texas. Mexican and Mexican-American families could be found in New Orleans in 1910, in the Mississippi Delta in 1930, or in rural south Georgia in 1970. The same is true of their foodways – how else can you make sense of the long history of the tamale in Mississippi?

Yet to me, “El Sur Latino” also communicates the deep impact that the US South has had upon Latin America. Back in the nineteenth century, southern slaveholders instigated a war with Mexico that seized more than half of its national territory. Later on, southern expansionists envisioned a vast slave-holding empire stretching across the Caribbean and into Central America; only the Civil War squashed such dreams. Into the twentieth century, the South’s influence continued to be felt across Latin America. My own research examines how during the 1940s, rural development experts with experience in the southern Cotton Belt sought to transform Latin American agriculture in the image of the American South, a campaign that would ultimately impact millions of campesinos – peasants – across the western hemisphere. Then, during the Cold War, hundreds if not thousands of Latin American counter-revolutionaries convened for training at the US Army’s School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia – thus embedding the rural South in the tempestuous political violence that plagued Latin America for so many decades.

Ultimately, “El Sur Latino” is a hybrid world that has been in the making for hundreds of years. The American South and Latin America have long been entwined, for both good and ill.

Tore Olsson is a historian of the twentieth-century United States in international context, with an emphasis on agrarian, political, environmental, and food history. His book Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside is due out in June, 2017.