A Mexican traveler reflects on a decade exploring the South
By Gustavo Arellano
A decade ago, I was livid in Louisville. It was my first time vacationing in the South, and I was excited to encounter a region I had long romanticized as a place of bourbon and belles, of country folk and simple living.
My best friend, his girlfriend, and I had just ordered hummus at a hipster café. It was happy hour. Even though we were the only people there, service was slow. When the waitress finally appeared with our appetizer, she pushed it on the table and quickly turned away. Her sharp eyes did all the talking. The indie music on the speakers stopped and didn’t play again.
No one threw insults at us or denied service. Instead, an overwhelming sense of hate swept in, and we Mexicans got out as soon as we could.
“Did that just really happen?” my friend wondered as we sped away. We went to pick up my future wife at the Louisville airport. As we drove to our hotel, I told her we had made a mistake to travel in the South. It was not a place for us.
Flash forward to this past October, outside the Inn at Ole Miss around one o’clock in the morning. A dozen people of color—Vietnamese, Nigerian, African American, Puerto Rican, Colombian, and Mexican—sat on the curb and shared bottles of wine. It was the last night of the Southern Foodways Symposium; this year’s theme was “El Sur Latino.” We raved about the food, presentations, and music we had just experienced. We marveled at this New South.
I lay on the asphalt and stared at the cloudy night sky. What a difference ten years make! I never thought I’d return to the South after that initial trip to Louisville. Now, here I was in Mississippi, far away from my Southern California homeland, and I remembered a quote that former Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak gave when anti-immigrant opponents questioned his American bona fides: “It’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could.”
I’m no son of el Sur—but now, I can’t imagine my American life without it.
I have visited the South for at least a week each year since that unfortunate Louisville experience. The reasons have evolved. At first, it was for college lectures, from Georgia Tech to the University of South Carolina Upstate, where I spoke to a cheering Veteran’s Day crowd of over three hundred about why Mexicans were as American as them. Then came leisure—my wife and I haunt central Kentucky and Tennessee for the World’s Longest Yard Sale. After I spoke at the Southern Foodways Symposium in 2013, the reason became reporting and documentary work for this organization.
Now, I come for friends. I’ve built a network of good people I can count on for dinner and a room for the night, from Appalachia to Oxford, Gainesville to the Ozarks. Those amigos are transplants and native daughters, academics and farmers, citizens and DREAMers.
In my decade traversing el Sur, it’s become browner. I remember the first time I spotted breakfast burritos in the South, near Grimsley, Tennessee—back then, a Southern California staple little seen elsewhere in the United States. That meant el Sur was open to new Mexican food traditions. Meeting a Latino in a small town once surprised me; now I’m more perplexed when I only encounter white and black folks.
Most of all, I value the people I’ve met, and the stories they’ve shared. I befriended the queer son of an old Virginia family who has devoted his life to investigative reporting. A daughter of Indian immigrants who argued white supremacy with me over pilau rice off Buford Highway in Atlanta. (She said it was systematic; I merely argued it was endemic. Ah, youth….) A Guatemalan American college student who came to Winchester, Kentucky, when he was only three, who spoke no Spanish, and whose English carried a twang befitting a bluegrass star. Whites shunned him for his dark skin; Latinos thought him a traitor for not speaking español. He thought he could escape to Los Angeles, but the Left Coast treated him like such a freak show, he moved back to the Bluegrass State.
“I don’t belong anywhere,” he told me after my lecture at the University of Kentucky. “I might as well make myself belong in the South.”
He didn’t say it with pity, but resolve. That’s what I’ve learned from the South. Politeness sometimes conceals prejudice—I’ll never forget the taxi driver who said he “loved” Mexicans, yet railed against illegal immigration the entire drive. But challenges create opportunities, and I’ve been awed to see Latinos leap into the fray and help make el Sur a better place. This New South is where I recharge my batteries with food, friends, and inspiration.
The post-symposium crowd slowly peeled off until it was just me, Oscar Diaz, and Charlie Ibarra at four o’clock in the morning. Diaz and Ibarra own and run Jose and Sons, a Raleigh, North Carolina restaurant praised by The New York Times for its Sur-Mex cuisine (think collard green tamales and chicharrón and waffles). The restaurant is named for Ibarra’s dad, a pioneer of Raleigh’s Mexican restaurant scene. He moved his young family from Southern California to the Triangle in 1992, when Ibarra was six, because there were better business opportunities there. For the next twenty-five years, the Ibarras built a mini-empire with El Rodeo and La Rancherita by selling Tex-Mex style combo plates to Anglo customers, especially A.C.P. (arroz con pollo—chicken and rice covered in a cheese sauce).
“We’ll just do the South our way, and wait for everyone else to catch on.”
I had interviewed Charlie and Oscar for my SFA presentation on the A.C.P. phenomenon. What fascinated me more was how forward-thinking they were. They’d just opened a seafood spot called The Cortez, where chef Diaz offered Peruvian and Mexican versions of ceviche, along with Carolina oysters and salads tossed with country ham and sautéed butterbeans. Ibarra boldly told me they weren’t going to market their restaurant as “Mexican” but rather “Chicano,” a term used by politically engaged Mexican Americans during the 1960s and 1970s and not usually heard outside of the Southwest.
“When you say ‘Mexican,’” Ibarra told me, “you let people have a preconceived notion of what you’re about, which lets them dictate who you are. With ‘Chicano,’ no one in the South knows what that is. Not only do we get to teach people about that history, but we set our identity according to our terms.”
Later that morning, I reminded Diaz and Ibarra of that conversation as people left the Inn to catch their flights out of Memphis. I told them that no one back in SoCal would believe I had such deep conversations about Chicano identity and restaurants with Mexicans from North Carolina.
“Of course not,” Diaz said with a laugh. “But that’s fine—we’ll just do the South our way, and wait for everyone else to catch on.”
Gustavo Arellano is Gravy’s columnist, even though he lives in Orange County, California, because that’s how much he loves and knows the South. He has told tales of food, corruption, history, humor, and Latino everything since 2001.