Transnational communities thrive in ET

 Transnational communities thrive in ET
Photo by Michael Patrick                                                                                          

Friends and family perform "La Vibora" (or "the snake") ceremony during the wedding reception of Ramiro and Yolanda Mejia in July of this year. Their wedding was held at St.Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Lenoir City and the reception at the National Guard Armory in Sweetwater. Ramiro and Yolanda stand on chairs as friends dance around trying to knock them from their perches. Family members help hold them on the chairs.

Transnational communities thrive in ET

Jessie Pounds
LOUDON - For a moment, it looks like Ramiro Mejia will topple.

He is up on a chair, holding one end of a beaded chain. His bride, Yolanda, grasps the other end. Beneath and between dance the guests, linking their arms to form a serpent that writhes its way across the floor.

Men in boots and hats body-slam Mejia as they cavort, but Mejia somehow manages to stay up, bolstered by two young men who lean in, bracing his legs.

For Mejia and his family, the struggle for footing in a new country is a challenge they do not have to face alone.

Ramiro, his bride, his brothers and his parents, Renaldo and Eufacia, are all immigrants to Tennessee from a village in Mexico called El Canario, near the small city of Moroleon.

Approximately 2,000 people from Moroleon and its surrounding villages now live in and near the town of Loudon, their economy centered at the Monterey Mushroom plant, where those with documents find work as pickers or packers.

The connection between Loudon and Moroleon is just one strand of a pattern woven between localities throughout East Tennessee and Latin America.

In the small town of Degollado, Mexico, men and women walk the streets in University of Tennessee hats and T-shirts, in many cases souvenirs sent back from immigrants to Oak Ridge or Franklin, Tenn.

Two states over, in the village of El Naranjo, the numbers 4, 2 and then 3 light up again and again on telephone key pads, as friends and family members of Tennessee immigrants call the Morristown area code hoping to share news or scope a potential job prospect.

Scholars call these groups that hold ties simultaneously in the U.S. and their towns of origin "transnational" communities. Here in East Tennessee and throughout the Southeast and Appalachia, transnational communities give immigrants a mechanism for adjusting to life in a new region. At the same time, the unofficial sister cities they link are changing and being changed by one another.

"It's the most amazing fusion landscape between Latin America and Appalachia," said University of Wyoming geography researcher Anita Drever, previously of the University of Tennessee, describing her experiences watching rural East Tennesseans and rural Mexicans and Guatemalans interact at a flea market south of Knoxville. "These are these cultures at their most authentic."

Planting roots in Rocky Top

Randy Capps, senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, said transnational communities are now probably the most common form of immigrant settlement in the United States, especially for Latin Americans from rural areas.

These communities can provide a destination point for new arrivals and the means through which to obtain a job and/or legal residency.

"Immigrants, they don't usually cross the border and risk their lives to wander around and look for something," Capps said.

Here in East Tennessee and much of the South, the first members of transnational communities planted their roots in the 1980s and 1990s, starting small and later expanding as friends and family members followed the first settled immigrants.

According to Capps, older communities such as these are more often a mixture of documented and undocumented workers, while younger communities may be mostly undocumented.

It's hard to say how many such communities exist because of the sometimes transient nature of the population.

Latin America is the predominant place of origin for immigrants coming to Tennessee, figures show, with Mexico the leading nation, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Since 2000, more than 46,500 immigrants have come to the Volunteer State from Mexico. At least 16,300 more have come from other parts of Latin America, according to institute figures.

Ana, a woman who asked to use only her first name because she is in the country illegally, got to witness the growth of a community firsthand.

Ana's brother Miguel was the first of her family to come to the United States. After working for a short period in Florida, he and two friends from El Naranjo heard about work in Morristown. They decided to break off from the group they'd been with.

Ana crossed into the U.S. in 1994 but spent her first six or seven years in Houston, known in the study of migration as a "gateway city."

The city is full of Hispanic immigrants, but Ana never really felt she fit in. Around 2001, she moved to Morristown to work and to be with her brother.

Then, just a few years ago, while hanging around a soccer field, Ana witnessed what seemed a minor miracle: the appearance of faces she'd known in her village, faces she hadn't seen in more than 10 years.

Ana now estimates there are more than 100 people from her village in Morristown.

"I started feeling very happy when I'd see someone from my pueblo," she said, speaking with help from an interpreter and smiling at the memory. "We'd hug and start talking about how long we've been here, how long since we came."

Homesickness and its cures

When Oak Ridge resident Arturo Fuente speaks about Degollado, the town he came from in Jalisco, Mexico, longing is the strongest inflection in his voice.

"I miss it more and more," said Fuente, who goes back to the town each Christmas.

At the same time, however, he and his wife have found some solace here in East Tennessee, which resembles life in their village more than life in the big city of Seattle, where Arturo used to work and where his inner ears were damaged while working in a saw mill.

He and his wife appreciate both the quieter atmosphere in Oak Ridge and the educational opportunities they see for their children.

"The future is for my kids," Arturo said.

"Probably soon they'll be going to the university," he added.

Even more important in the battle against homesickness can be the ways in which members of transnational communities support each other.

Eufacia and Renaldo Mejia, legal immigrants from Mexico, work at the Monterrey Mushroom plant in Loudon. They have discovered that people from their region hew to the same standards of neighborliness they remembered from their village.

When someone gets sick, a collection goes around at work to help them (the American employees apparently help too). If someone dies, other workers pool money to send the body home.

The ethic goes for challenges and goals at home, too.

When La Callera, the village adjacent to El Canario, needed a new church, the community in Loudon and Lenoir City pooled funds to pitch in too, the same with donations for the annual "Sacred Heart of Jesus" festival in July in La Callera.

Joining the inner circle

But for Eufacia and Renaldo, the proof that they really have in a sense "come home" lies in the after-party celebration of their son Ramiro's East Tennessee church wedding.

By the time the main traditional dancing starts, nearly 600 people pack the National Guard Armory in Sweetwater, the heat in the building rising with the body count.

Word of mouth has spread quickly about the party, and not all the guests are from the Moroleon area. Some are from other parts of Mexico. Others are from Central America. At least two, Joanna Richardson, the mushroom plant human resources director and her husband, are native Anglo-Americans, witnessing an explosion of festivity from a culture outside of their own.

A core third, though, are from Moroleon and its surrounding towns. It is they who are the inner circle, without whom this celebration would be impossible.

Eufacia and Renaldo could not possibly pay for the wedding and party by themselves; nor could the brides' relatives.

Instead, the wedding is being paid for through the gifts of padrinos, special godparents in the community who sponsor the two in their marriage.

Yet it's not even the material gifts that are at the top of Ramiro's mind as he stands outside just for a moment, taking a break from the dancing. He contemplates how barren the celebration of his church wedding would be without the others from the Moroleon area, without the traditions he grew up with.

"If not, without them ... we couldn't do the events we've done," he said, in English, smiling. "We couldn't do the 'Snake.' "

Back inside the hall, the revelers form a ring around the hall's inside perimeter. They circle counterclockwise, passing through the square of light made by the armory's open garage door.

Projected on the concrete floor are the stretched shadows of big men and little children, grandmothers and grandfathers, pregnant mothers and flirting youngsters, a shifting circle of shadows, clasping hands.