Las Mujeres del Sur Finding a voice at the table

By Sandra A. Gutierrez

I arrived in the North Carolina Triangle area as a young bride in 1985. I was born in Philadelphia to Guatemalan parents.

When I was five, we returned to Latin America, and I grew up fluently bilingual as a student in the American School of Guatemala in Guatemala City. I learned the histories of two countries, the lyrics to two national anthems, and the pledges of allegiance to the US flag and the Guatemalan flag. My school cafeteria served hot dogs and guacamole, brownies and churros.

Sandra A. Gutierrez

My journey back to the United States was painful. It cost my husband and me our fortune, careers, family, and connections. We chose North Carolina because he earned his MBA at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and because we thought it the best place to raise our young family. We weren’t welcomed kindly to our new home. Some people in Cary didn’t want our kids to play with theirs because they assumed we were drug dealers. They said it loud enough for us to hear, but didn’t dare tell us to our faces. “Otherwise,” they murmured, “how else could they afford a house in our neighborhood?” Our girls were only six and seven years old. Dispelling stereotypes to clear a path for my daughters became the fire in my belly, the force that inspired me to work harder and to succeed.

I’ve since learned that many Latinas often find it hard to enter (or to be invited) into Southern society. To make things worse, Southern Latinas don’t have a collective voice, so finding a place to belong proves difficult. We come from different countries. We eat different foods. We speak Spanish, but not necessarily the same Spanish. Demographically speaking, Mexicans comprise the largest number of Latinas in the South. Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans, and Dominicans follow closely, in that order.

My food writing career started when I was hired as food editor for The Cary News. I was thirty years old. One week into my job, my editor received a letter from a disgruntled subscriber, upset that her Southern paper had chosen “a Mexican” to write the cooking section. Before I wrote about Southern foodways, I became an expert. I deciphered secrets and history; I learned about biscuits and field peas, cobblers, and fried pies. I read and studied voraciously. In the process, I fell in love with the food, the culture, and the people of the South—my South.

I’ve encountered Southerners who assume that I’m a maid or married to a man who labors in construction. Many of these native Southerners are socially progressive folks who say they’re all about diversity. But they are openly uncomfortable when they learn that I’m a published author. What Latina immigrant could possibly be that?

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The reality is that America sees Latino immigrants inside a working-class framework: the janitor in an office building, the dishwasher in a restaurant, the cleaning lady in your home. Some Latinos do work in those roles. Latinos also work in myriad positions across every professional field. I’m one of them. We’re almost invisible because we don’t fit into a stereotype and because as a group, we’re not often in the news.

We are Latina Southerners. We are food editors, journalists, cookbook authors, chefs, entrepreneurs, social activists, and government employees. We are first-, second-, and third-generation Americans. We may speak Spanish at home, English at work, and Spanglish with other Latinas. We are diverse and ambitious. We found our place in Southern society and we found our cultural voices through foodways. We are las Nuevas Sureñas.

Lis Hernandez, Arepa Mia, Atlanta, Georgia

Lis Hernandez is a Venezuelan who grew up in Caracas and lives in Atlanta. Hernandez moved from Caracas to New Orleans in 1998 to learn English. She planned to stay for six months and then move to Spain, where her father is from. While in New Orleans, Hernandez learned the restaurant business from Phyllis Petite, owner of Le Petite Café. One day, on a bike ride, Hernandez recalls, “I found the statue of Simon Bolivar, which is a replica of the one in Venezuela—to me that was a sign that I belonged there.”

Eventually, Hernandez settled in Atlanta. A friend convinced her to sell arepas as an outside vendor at Sweet Auburn. The history of the market, founded in 1924, wasn’t lost on her. During the Jim Crow era, black customers could purchase inside, but could only sell their produce outside. Race is no longer an issue when it comes to buying or selling at Sweet Auburn. Hernandez set up her first arepas stand outside, never dreaming she’d operate inside one day. “I think Southerners like my food because they recognize it,” Hernandez says, pointing out the similarities between arepas and hoecakes.
Hernandez opened Arepa Mia inside the market in 2011. “The first day I opened, civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis, a friend of Martin Luther King’s, came to the market and we talked for a long time. I was touched once again to see how close that I, a Latina, was to the history of my new home,” she says.
Today, Hernandez owns two Arepa Mia restaurants in Avondale Estates and the Sweet Auburn Curb Market.

Irma Paz-Bernstein, Paletas, Nashville, Tennessee

Irma Paz-Bernstein co-owns Paletas with her sister, Norma Paz. They specialize in Mexican-style popsicles and offer more than one hundred flavors, all made with fresh, seasonal produce.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico (“the home of mariachis and tequila,” she says), Paz-Bernstein worked as a producer for Spanish-language television networks Telemundo and Univision. Her sister asked her to help open a business in Nashville. This meant a career change for Paz-Bernstein, who was a well-established media professional. Upon arriving in the United States, many educated Latinos must redirect or reinvent their careers. Even highly valuable educational degrees earned in Latin America aren’t accepted in the American job market. Few connect with a new professional passion, as Paz-Bernstein did. She says that food helped her find her place in Nashville and in the South.

Paz-Bernstein pushes the envelope with her flavors: cucumber-chile, chocolate-wasabi, rose petal, and charcoal. She wants her sons to appreciate Mexican foodways, too. Beyond paletas, “we teach them about the holy trinity of Mexican cuisine: lime, salt, and chile,” says Paz-Bernstein.

This Latina entrepreneur realized that she belonged in the South—that it was really her home, when she listened to a 2008 campaign speech by then-candidate Barack Obama. “I remember candidate Obama speaking about ‘all of us’ having to do the work. His words made me realize that I, too, needed to do the work for my country; he made me feel like I mattered. I became an American citizen so I could vote for him and serve my country.”

Carrie Ferguson Weir, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, Nashville, Tennessee

Carrie Ferguson Weir is a former journalist who works as a communications officer for the state of Tennessee. Weir was born in Miami. She is the daughter of a blue-eyed American of Scottish, Swedish, and Norwegian ancestry and of a brown-eyed immigrant from Banes, Oriente, Cuba. Weir is a brunette with light skin and brown eyes. Appearance has been pivotal in her life. There is a common assumption that all Southern Latinas are brown-skinned. But Nuevas Sureñas come in many colors. For a long time, Ferguson Weir didn’t know how to define herself. Her looks and her name allow her to pass for white in the South, but half of her heritage was Cuban. Who was she?

“When I was a reporter, there were people who stood up at a public meeting and said things such as, ‘it wasn’t like this before they moved here,’” Ferguson Weir recalls. “Those people were talking about Hispanic immigrants. I finally said something. I wrote an editorial column saying that I was ‘those people.’ And I never stayed silent again.”

Today, Ferguson Weir calls herself a “Cuban American, raising a Southerner,” and says she considers herself a Nueva Sureña, despite the fact that she still gets asked where her people are from. She cooks Cuban staples like picadillo and lechón to teach her daughter about her roots. “When my house smells like cumin or sofrito, or when I flip a flan out on a platter, that is a link to my people,” Ferguson Weir says.

She wishes that many traditionally defined Southerners were not afraid of change. “I realized early on that I had moved into a different and rich culture that required my respect and deep understanding. The South has changed and will continue to change. But the good stuff—the hospitality, the food, the music, the love of a good jump into a cool river—all that won’t go away. It will just be loved by a more varied kind of people who will, if they stay long enough, become Southerners, too.”

Renata Soto, Conexión Américas, Nashville, Tennesse

Renata Soto was born in San José, Costa Rica, and moved to Nashville in 1998. Soto is a founding member of the board of directors for Conexión Américas, a nonprofit that helps the immigrant community in Nashville. When Soto arrived, she found that local agencies didn’t understand the complexities—sociocultural, legal, and political—of immigrants’ needs.

Soto envisioned a one-stop center that would serve Nashville’s immigrant and refugee community, a place where they could launch businesses and claim a sense of belonging by contributing to society.
Soto helped raise six million dollars through private and public donations. Casa Azafrán (which means Saffron’s House) opened its doors in 2012. Inside, recent immigrants receive important services they need to build new lives: a law center, daycare, medical office and more, including Mesa Komal, a shared communal kitchen and business incubator.

Jennifer Justus interviews Renata Soto about the deliberate diversity of Nashville, Tennessee.

Undocumented Latina immigrants face tremendous obstacles in the South. It’s up to women with careers, education, and economic stability to lift up other Latinas. Our collective success matters. We believe it’s our responsibility to make social change that will advance others. Soto embodies this by helping women like Karla Ruiz, who started Karla’s Catering and Prepared Foods in Mesa Komal and has now opened her own brick-and-mortar kitchen. Javaneh Hemmat, who also began at Mesa Komal, now sells her brand, Hummus Chick, in retail stores like Kroger and Whole Foods.

Liz Balmaseda, Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach, Florida

Liz Balmaseda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was raised in the greater Miami area. She was born in Puerto Padre, a port town on the northeastern tip of Cuba, during the Cuban Revolution. She was ten months old when her parents, young Cuban exiles escaping Fidel Castro’s government, brought her to the United States. Her father became a salesman in Miami and her mom found work as a seamstress.

Like many first-generation Southern Latinas whose parents did not attend college, Balmaseda’s parents worked hard to make sure their daughter did. After graduating from Florida International University, she began her career in journalism. She worked as a reporter and feature writer for the Miami Herald, as the Central America bureau chief for Newsweek, as a field producer for NBC News, and as a screenwriter for HBO. Today, she is the food and dining editor at the Palm Beach Post.

Balmaseda’s career path wasn’t always easy. “When I was a columnist in Miami, writing on Cuban American politics and identity matters, I experienced tremendous backlash (and a couple of death threats) from anti-immigrant folks,” she recalls. “Even some who ostensibly supported pro-immigrant causes made generalizations about me because exiles were supposed to think and act a certain way.”
Some of Balmaseda’s readers resented that a Latina was writing political op-eds and articles on social justice. She says that one editor tried to sideline her from exile-related stories because he didn’t trust her to remain objective on Cuban American issues. Balmaseda persisted and went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes: one for a story about Cuban and Haitian immigrants; the second for a story on the government raid to deport Elián Gonzales to Cuba.

Like me, Balmaseda believes that the histories and foodways of Latin American countries reflect the melding of races and cultures through time. Latin American heritage is one of inclusivity and diversity. She is fascinated by the way Southern and Latino flavors blend at the table in the Nuevo Sur. As food editor for the Palm Beach Post, Liz finds ways to write about people from different cultures and the food they eat. She says we still have work to do.

“What bothers me is the misused language, like when people call immigrants ‘legal’ or ‘illegals.’ Drugs are illegal. People are either documented or undocumented,” Balmaseda says. “As a journalist, I try to highlight the stories that may not be obvious to the community at large, the stories of the mom-and-pop restaurants and of inspiring cooks. I hope it helps to spread awareness and understanding among cultures—and stirs up a little curiosity about the lives of others.”

Our foodways, ourselves

We need more women in this conversation about Southern identity, because as far as I can see, many men are stuck in an intractable dialogue about racism. Women, including all of these Nuevas Sureñas, lead the way by talking past the anger. We are moving forward, beyond demagoguery and division. We’ve started to speak. We have enough passion to risk persecution. We have enough objectivity to work through the discomfort.

We mujeres del Sur found our voices at the table. That is where we first tasted diversity, where we found commonalities, were we dared to speak without fear. Breaking bread—or tortillas—together is sacred, intimate, and powerful.

Balmaseda encourages non-Latinos to try our food because “if you like it, you may become more accepting of us.” So eat more Venezuelan arepas, Cuban arroz con pollo, Guatemalan pepián, Mexican paletas, and Costa Rican gallo pinto. Join us at the table. Underneath our disagreements, our different accents, and our diverse heritages, we are all created equal.

Sandra A. Gutierrez is the author of four cookbooks, including The New Southern-Latino Table. She delivered a version of this article as a talk at the SFA’s 2017 Fall Symposium.

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