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The Latino Experience In Appalachia


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Let's take a visit to Appalachia now, the region that stretches from Southern New York all the way down to northern Mississippi. The stereotype of Appalachia is a mountainous area sparsely populated by poor whites. But there is a lot more to that region, including a growing Latino community with rich traditions in the arts.

A new project documents their experiences. It is called "Las Voces De Los Apalaches." It's produced by the University of Kentucky's Appalachian Center. Ann Kingsolver directs that center, and Pedro Santiago Martinez leads the project. They both join us now from member station WUKY in Lexington, Ky. Welcome.



HEADLEE: Ann, I think many people would be surprised to know that there is any kind of significant population of Latinos in Appalachia. How long have they been there?

KINGSOLVER: De Soto actually put the word Appalachian on the map in 1540 because of the Native American group Apalachee. And there has been - in the late 1880s, 25 percent of the coal mining workforce in southern West Virginia was African-American. There were people coming from all over the world recruited by the coal industry. So I would say there were Spanish speakers from the late 1800s, early 1900s in the coal industry all through Appalachia.

If you walked down the streets of Harlan in the 1920s or earlier, you would've heard over 25 different languages spoken. So Appalachia is a much more multicultural and diverse region and always has been than it's portrayed in the media. Those portrayals are very persistent and pernicious of a homogeneous region.

And that's one reason why I wanted to start this project, "Las Voces de los Apalaches," to create a platform through which people could talk about their own identities and choices to be in the region, their experiences and perspectives because whole groups of people get silenced in the region.

That's why the Affrilachian Poets movement started. Twenty years ago, Frank X. Walker and other poets - Nikky Finney and many others - started the Affrilachian Poets movement because African-American voices in Appalachia have also been silenced through those portrayals, as you said, of white Appalachians.

HEADLEE: Well, Pedro, you know, one of the aspects of the Appalachian region is that it's very mountainous. Sometimes you'll have communities which are close to and yet still isolated from others.

So what is the Latino community like? Are they - do they all gather and live in the same places? Have they maintained the culture of whatever country they - or state that they originally came from?

SANTIAGO: The Latino community has not been isolated at all, but the people migrate back and forth to many places through, you know, rural, urban areas to different states. And they do kind of take their culture with them, and they really interact with the community members in whatever places that they go.

KINGSOLVER: There has been a rapidly growing recent Latino immigration. In 1990, Appalachia was about 1 percent residents who identified as Latino or Latina. And then in 2000, it was about 2 percent, and then that doubled to over 4 percent now.

Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the region. The third most commonly spoken language in the region is Vietnamese, and then after that Arabic, Korean Urdu, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian. And so there are a number of different new immigrant communities.

HEADLEE: So, Pedro, how does this look on the ground? There's many ways in which cultures came to the Appalachians, often for coal work.

It became a melting pot of sorts into which there are specific foods, specific music that can be heard and eaten only in Appalachia. How does that relate to Latino culture? What things still survive of the Latino culture that they brought in and what has been kind of evolved to mix with others?

SANTIAGO: Everyone shared their own cultural specialties. For example, when they celebrate, let's say, birthday parties, family gatherings, Latinos with known Latinos in the Appalachian region, they always share different foods so that everyone can enjoy.

HEADLEE: Well, let me move on to a bit of this music here. I wanted to talk about the theater show that you mentioned. The University of Kentucky produced a theater show and a concert this past weekend as part of this project, "Las Voces de los Apalaches." And it includes music from the group Appalatin. So we want to give people a taste of their music. Here is a clip from the song "Shady Grove."


APPALATIN: (Singing) Shady Grove, my little love. Shady Grove, my darling. Shady Grove, my true love. I'm going back to Harlem. Shady Grove, my little love. Shady Grove, my darling. Shady Grove, my true love. I'm bound for Shady Grove. Vamanos.

HEADLEE: Pedro, what can you tell us about this group and how they formed?

SANTIAGO: The roots are bridging music from Latin-American and Appalachian folk tradition. They use many instruments and wooden flutes and the congas, the bongos, cajon.

Cajon, this is like a drum kind of type of instrument, and a charango is an Indian string instrument that they use in their music. And the band members are from Kentucky, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Australia, Mexico and Guatemala.

HEADLEE: It's almost like I'm surprised to hear them say vamanos 'cause it sounds so much like folk music. It sounds so much like what we associate with very traditional Appalachian music, and then they say vamanos. That's surprising to me. What are we hearing when we listen to them?

KINGSOLVER: I would say Appalachian music itself is fusion music. The banjo has African roots, and all of the immigrant groups that I spoke about earlier contributed to the music of Appalachia.

And so I think any time artists get together from the Andes, from the Himalayas, from the Appalachians there are a lot of different folk and musical traditions that have a synergy.

HEADLEE: What's the greater benefit outside the Appalachians, for someone living in Utah, for example? Why is it important that they know that the Appalachians are diverse? What difference does that make to the rest of the country?

KINGSOLVER: Over and over again, people have talked about what it's like to be known as a person not as a category of identity. And in Appalachia, there's a really long tradition of that.

So in the coal camps, where people were living together in really close quarters from a lot of different linguistic backgrounds, they were not segregated in some camps in times when the region around them was segregated. And so I think we have a lot to learn from the Appalachian region actually about listening across diverse backgrounds.

HEADLEE: Ann Kingsolver is the director of the Appalachian Center and Appalachian studies program at the University of Kentucky. And Pedro Santiago Martinez leads the "Las Voces de los Apalaches" project. Thanks to both of you so much.

KINGSOLVER: Thank you.

SANTIAGO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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