Emory Report
August 3, 2009
Volume 61, Number 36


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August 3, 2009
Essays chronicle dramatic shift of Latinos in South

By Patti Ghezzi

In the late 1980s, Latino immigrants came to the Southeast seeking jobs. They built houses, mowed lawns, washed dishes in restaurants and toiled in poultry plants. The new arrivals transformed a culture that had long been starkly black and white into a multicultural society representing a range of hues, languages and ways of life.

But by 2002, attitudes toward Latino immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, had grown hostile. Many Southerners accused them of crowding the schools with their children, draining hospitals of resources and stealing jobs from American-born citizens.

The experiences of recent Latino immigrants in the South is the subject of a new book co-edited by Mary E. Odem, an associate professor in the Departments of History and Women’s Studies and the director of undergraduate studies for women’s studies.

Published by the University of Georgia Press, “Latino Immigrants and the Transformation of the U.S. South,” is a multidisciplinary collection of essays. The book examines the phenomenon from many angles, such as racial conflict in Mississippi poultry plants and the “Mexicanization” of carpet-capital Dalton, Ga.

“Based on a variety of methodologies and approaches, the chapters present in-depth analyses of how immigration from Latin America is changing the U.S. South and how immigrants are adapting to the southern context,” write Odem and co-editor Elaine Lacy, a professor in the Department of History, Political Science and Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Aiken.

The book grew out of a 2004 conference hosted by Emory and Georgia State, with contributions from scholars in the South as well as Mexico.

In an essay titled “Hispanic Newcomers for North Carolina,” authors James H. Johnson Jr. and John D. Kasarda show that Latino immigrants are not the economic drain on Southern society they are often accused of being. “For every dollar spent on essential services for Hispanics,” they write, “the state received a $10 return on its financial investment in 2004.”

Odem’s interest emerged as she recognized the Latino population boom as a dramatic historical development. “There was so little research on it because it’s so new,” she says.

She had studied anti-immigrant sentiment throughout American history and wanted to find out how growing hostility toward Latino immigrants would play out in the cradle of the civil rights movement. In an essay, she reveals how Latino immigrants struggle to carve space for themselves in Atlanta, often seeking refuge in their Catholic faith.

“Despite their importance to the economy,” Odem writes, “many Latin Americans in Atlanta, particularly the large number of undocumented immigrants, lead precarious lives.”

Odem is continuing her immigration research with a focus on remittances, both monetary and social. Immigrants send to their homelands not just goods and money earned in the U.S. They send American ideas and values as well.

“Latino Immigrants and the Transformation of the U.S. South” is aimed at anyone interested in Latino immigration, including scholars, professionals who work in social services, students, policymakers and any other interested readers. Says Odem: “This is about a new era in Southern history.”