5 Questions About: Latino Memphis and Oxford

We’ve asked creators of non-print and media projects reviewed in the pages of Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should explore them. In our next installment of this series, Simone Delerme discusses the Latino Memphis and Oxford project, produced for the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Read Joshua Lopez’s review of  Latino Memphis and Oxford, from issue 47.1 of OHR, available online

What’s it about and why does it matter?

The oral history project, Latino Memphis and Oxford, is part of a larger book project. My second book project, International Memphis: Migration and Transformation in the Mid-South, documents the history and transformation of Summer Avenue—a commercial district in Memphis, Tennessee— due to changing residential patterns and the influx of migrants and their families. Through participant observation, oral history interviews, archival research, and analysis of new media, I document the migrant experience and examine how these individuals are incorporated into the social, political, and economic life of communities that were non-traditional destinations of migration. Memphis is a city with a history of segregation and a historical black-white racial binary. This book questions how migrants are navigating that binary and how they articulate their racial, ethnic, and social class identities as they pursue their goals of upward mobility.

How does oral history contribute to your project?

I worked on an oral history project for the Southern Foodways Alliance where I identified Latino restaurant owners and employees in Oxford, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, to document their experiences and in particular the challenges they face in the U.S. South. Through this oral history project, I discovered a geographic concentration of restaurant owners and merchants from other countries that are responsible for changing the place-identity of the community. I used the oral history interviews to learn about their lives prior to migrating to the U.S. and about their path towards entrepreneurship and upward mobility. The Southern Foodways Alliance has archived the interviews and transcripts on its website to share the individual stories and provide exposure for the business owners.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

I use oral history interviews to complement the other methods I use to collect data. With oral history interviews I get a much deeper understanding of the push and pull factors that have brought migrants to the U.S. South. The stories they share convey emotion, struggle, and aspirations that can give outsiders a deeper look into the migrant experience and reveal these individuals’ humanity.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in the project?

Latino Memphis and Oxford documents the experiences of a population that has been largely invisible in academic research and writing about new destinations of migration in the U.S. South. These individuals are not only low-wage, service-sector employees, agricultural workers, or laborers in meat processing plants; Latino migrants in the south are also successful business owners who have achieved upward mobility, and in some cases, obtained significant economic capital.

What is the one thing that you most want the audience to remember about the project?

I hope the diversity of the Latino population comes across. Often these individuals are thought of as a homogeneous ethnic group and the unique history and culture from each Latin American and Caribbean country is glossed over instead of celebrating the diversity within the Latino population.