Nashville's new "sonido": Latino migration and the changing politics of race

Research output: Chapter in Book/Entry/PoemChapter

21 Scopus citations


In 2000, the urban and labor scholar Mike Davis wrote that "even Nashville ha[d] a new sonido"(sound) and was feeling the effects of Latino migration. In a clever rhetorical maneuver, Davis highlighted the ubiquity of Latinos across the United States by calling attention to their presence in the most unlikely of places, Nashville, Tennessee, the country music capital of the world and a city virtually absent from the map of urban and immigration studies. Davis mentions Nashville to signal the reach of Latino influence to the very edges of urban America and, in so doing, alludes to a historically powerful trope of southern distinctiveness and exceptionalism (Woodward 1960/1968, 1971; Greeson 1999; Winders 2005b). His allusion to this discourse of southern exceptionalism is, however, meant to be ironic and to mark its contemporary failure. Southern cities, long positioned outside the influences of transnational migration, are increasingly central to Latino movements to and within the United States, a fact which, for Davis, offers irrefutable evidence that Latino migration is a powerful force across the country. If "even Nashville" is swinging to the rhythms of a norteño beat (a style of music popular in northern Mexico), Latinos clearly deserve a central place in urban studies. Even as Davis quipped about how Latino culture had penetrated the bastion of the urban South, Nashville's rapidly growing Hispanic population was challenging the image of southern cities as exceptional. By 2000, "even Nashville" had a Latino community that numbered somewhere between the official metropolitan census count of just over 40,000 and local estimates of 110,000. In response to this growing Latino population, Nashville was grappling with a new regime of social services and urban politics and was witnessing the expansion of a Latino business district across southern parts of the city. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, "even Nashville" was retuning the "old-fashioned black-and-white screen" upon which its social relations and urban politics had historically been calibrated to accommodate what Davis (1999, 7) describes elsewhere as "the living color of the contemporary big city. This chapter examines the retuning of Nashville's black-and-white screen and the city's reaction to the "living color" of Latino migration. Focusing on how Latino migration has influenced both understandings of race and belonging and social interactions between racialized communities in Nashville (Straughan and Hondagneu-Sotelo 2002), it analyzes how the arrival of Latino men and women has been framed within two key social spaces: Nashville's public sphere, especially public discourse around the city's changing racial politics and composition; and its local labor market, especially its low-wage work sites and their transition toward an increasing dependence on Latino workers. In considering these two contexts, the chapter examines changing racial formations and ethnic relations (Omi and Winant 1986; Peake and Kobayashi 2002) and investigates how understandings of race are redefined through daily practice by immigrants and non-immigrants alike in the Music City (Goode and Schneider 1994; Pulido 2004). In cities like Nashville, with almost no previous experience with voluntary international migration, critical attention to the ways that longterm residents adjust to new arrivals-and that new arrivals adjust to their new home-can shed light on the reworking of community boundaries of race, ethnicity, and belonging more broadly (Zúñiga et al. 2001). To develop this argument, the chapter proceeds in two parts. The first reviews existing research on the emergence of southern American towns and cities as popular destinations for domestic and international Latino migrants and points to some of the differences between Nashville's experiences and those documented in other, particularly rural, southern locales. This background information lays the groundwork for the chapter's second part, which examines Latino migration's effects on understandings of race and belonging in Nashville's public discourse and low-wage workplaces. By comparing how Latino migration is framed in these two social spaces, the analysis highlights this migration's uneven effects across Nashville's social institutions and underscores the need for both multisited ethnographic research on Latino migration to southern cities and more attention to the social spaces and contexts within which understandings of this migration are constructed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNew faces in New Places
Subtitle of host publicationThe Changing Geography of American Immigration
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9781610443814
ISBN (Print)9780871545862
StatePublished - 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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