Emory Report
December 10, 2007
Volume 60, Number 14

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December 10, 2007
From religion to reggaetón, immigrants reshape Atlanta

By carol clark

Maurice Shelton browses through the selections of a Vietnamese music and video store at Asian Square on Buford Highway. It’s not a store that Shelton — a junior history major from College Park — would likely have entered if he hadn’t enrolled in the American Studies course “New Immigrants in the New South.”

The Vietnamese-American store clerk, Linh Luong, hopes to attend Emory next year and is happy to discuss Vietnamese culture with visitors from the University. “The Vietnamese movie industry is having a tough time right now,” he says. He points to the rows of glamorous actresses smiling on the covers of the videos. “A lot of them are here working in nail salons.”

Political hot potato
Shelton and his fellow students who have been exploring Asian Square pile back into a van to continue their field trip through metro Atlanta’s Buford corridor. A hodge-podge of new immigrants have built up a dizzying array of small businesses along the highway through Doraville and Chamblee.

Although she is an Atlanta native, Kristen McLean says she has rarely set foot in the Buford corridor. “Immigration is such a political hot potato,” says the junior linguistics major. The class “is a chance to see, on the ground, the impact it’s having.”

The new course is team taught by Mary Odem, associate professor of history, and Regine Jackson, assistant professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts. Jackson’s research has focused on Haitian immigrants, while Odem has been exploring Hispanic immigration in metro Atlanta and the South.

Anti-immigrant hot spot
Beginning around the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta has experienced the fastest immigrant growth rate of any major metropolitan area and the trend shows no signs of stopping, Odem says. “The ’90s and the first part of 2000 were periods of tremendous economic growth for metro Atlanta and immigrant labor has been critical to that.

Atlanta is not a traditional immigrant gateway, and immigrants here have not followed the traditional pattern of settling in the inner city. Instead, their impact is being felt in suburban areas. While many people find the ethnic mix enriching, others find it intrusive.

“Georgia has become a hot spot of the immigration resistance movement,” Odem says, citing the state’s 2006 Security and Immigration Compliance Act, one of the strictest state laws in the nation aimed at undocumented residents.

Soccer, church, nightclubs
The van rolls past a bus station advertising non-stop tickets to Monterrey and Matamoras, and a 10-foot-tall green, plastic Statue of Liberty.

The students talk about the research papers they are working on for the class. Shelton wants to delve into the effects that the surge of immigrants is having in the African-American neighborhood where he grew up. “The barbershop talk is that people are concerned about job competition, political power and economic loss,” he says. “When immigrants come here and are successful, where does that leave a community that’s already here and still struggling to find its niche in the mainstream?”

Rachel Rosenberg, a religion major, is looking at how immigration has affected Catholicism. The Catholic demographic has shifted in Atlanta to a Hispanic majority — although many of the Hispanic practitioners are not officially on the church rolls, Odem says.

Cory Patrick, a senior economics major, plans to attend practices of soccer clubs for refugee youth — including the Fugees of Clarkston — to learn how sports help immigrants build a community. “I’ve played soccer my whole life and I wanted to do a project that combined my personal interest,” he says.

Brendan Dolan, a senior who is director of Emory’s “No Strings Attached” a cappella group, is researching how Latino immigrants are affecting Atlanta’s music scene. Through visits to Buford’s La Rumba nightclub, and interviews with immigrant disc jockeys and musicians, he has learned that a Caribbean music known as reggaetón is taking on an entirely new, pan-Latino flavor in Atlanta.

“It’s really cool. Some Latino musicians here are even being influenced by Atlanta’s own ‘crunk’ movement,” Dolan says, referring to a form of hip-hop pioneered by Atlanta rappers.

Tortillas and tacos
The class stops for lunch at Plaza Fiesta, where a food court is nestled amid booths selling alligator-skin cowboy boots and bandanas printed with multi-colored Madonnas.

Dolan sits at the counter of a taqueria, beneath dangling plastic skulls left over from November’s Day-of-the-Dead celebration. The server does not speak English so Dolan, who is majoring in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, orders in Spanish. As a woman pats out tortillas by hand, the server tells Dolan that he has lived in the United States for 10 years, but has not been able to visit his parents in Tabasco, near Acapulco, due to the expense of the trip.

The mall, which serves as a community-gathering place for Latinos, as well as a shopping center, is relatively empty. “It’s usually packed on a weekend,” Odem says. She asks some of the merchants why there are so few customers. They tell her that people are afraid to go out: since the new state law went into effect, arrests and deportations of immigrants have increased and the police have been more aggressive in stopping Latinos in the streets.