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magazine home > archives > spring 2003 > features

The University of Memphis Center for Research on Women (CROW) is taking a much-needed first look at the Mid-South's elusive Latino population.

Primer Encuentros
by Benjamin Potter

Primer encuentro" is Spanish for "first meeting." That's what The University of Memphis' Center for Research on Women (CROW) is doing — taking a crucial first look at the Mid-South's growing Latino population. CROW is not only compiling data, but also reaching out to this community.

CROW's "bigger issue" is to address social issues that have a significant impact on women. The center's latest research is proof positive it is making a difference.

Llegadas (Arrivals)

CROW meeting for Latino women and children

CROW-sponsored meetings have been well-attended by area Latino women and children. CROW is in its 21st year at the U of M.

One way CROW has achieved its goals is by joining the Highlander Center in eastern Tennessee and the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta in a community-based research and education project called "Across Races and Nations: Building New Communities in the South."

This partnership is not the only way CROW is getting involved. Additional research has charted immigration and proved Latinos to be an elusive demographic in Memphis; even getting an accurate count has been difficult. The 2000 U.S. Census reported about 23,000 Latinos in Shelby County, but Dr. Marcela Mendoza, a project coordinator at CROW, says that count is conservative.

"Many Latino households include not just a nuclear family, but also extended family or even friends," she says. "But only one census is mailed to the house. Others who are monolingual have a hard time filling them out correctly."

A newer study, completed by Luz Burrell at the University's Regional Economic Development Center, took these considerations into account. By REDC's count, the number of Latinos in the Memphis area roughly doubles the census count.

The Latino migration to Memphis is relatively new — the first significant influx was not until the mid-1990s, when construction for the Tunica, Miss., casinos began.

Mendoza, who immigrated from Argentina, says the reason for continued Latino migration to Memphis is simple: They seek employment.

"We come here to work," she says. "If we don't have a job, we can't survive."

The challenges for Latinos, Mendoza says, deal mostly with building English-language proficiency and networking with the Spanish-speaking community. That's where CROW has made a large impact.

Voces (Voices)

This past December, CROW teamed with Radio Ambiente 1030 AM, a Spanish-language radio station. Mendoza and Radio Ambiente personality Mariel Loaiza hosted a forum at the U of M for listeners of De Mujer a Mujer ("From One Woman to Another"), Loaiza's radio program. At the forum, more than 100 local service providers came to hear speakers and discuss obstacles Latino women need to overcome.

The biggest hurdle, not surprisingly, is the language barrier — immigrants who have not yet learned English are at an extreme disadvantage.

"I'm working at a packing plant, but I was a teacher for adult education in Mexico," one woman said at the forum. "My problem is that I don't understand English well." It was a typical sentiment.

Critics say immigrants are a drain on the economy, but CROW officials dispute this opinion. The center's director, Dr. Barbara Ellen Smith, says immigrants — undocumented workers in particular — are put in a difficult situation.

"To earn wages, you need authorization," Smith says. "What gets tricky is that federal law changed a few years ago to make employers liable if they hire undocumented workers. That is frequently not enforced, although large companies usually comply."

Visas come in different categories, Smith says. Separate visas are given to high-level experts (a Russian physicist, for instance) and low-skill workers (say, a Mexican construction worker). The high-level experts have no trouble getting their visas; the low-skill workers do.

"The irony is that our economy is increasingly dependent on the low-skill workers," Smith says.

CROW research indicates, in fact, that Latinos have a $1 billion impact on the Memphis economy. Without them, some industries vital to the area, such as manufacturing, distribution and construction, would suffer severe losses.

"I only see benefits in immigration," Mendoza says. "Latinos hold jobs, and they create more jobs by working because they spend money and they pay taxes."

Respuestas (Answers)

The attendees of December's forum received a report of "Latino Immigrant Women in Memphis" by Mendoza, and a Shelby County social services directory for Spanish speakers compiled by U of M sociology graduate student Gizelle Alverio. Also at the forum, Latino women panelists networked and shared ideas. Additional meetings, attended by hundreds of Latino women and children, are conducted entirely in Spanish. Community involvement and interaction is typical for CROW.

The center began in 1982 to support and gather academic research that focuses on gender, class and race. But what was innovative research then is now common.

"There are volumes and volumes devoted to these topics," Smith says. "The roles CROW played in the 1980s are not as needed now. We do much more community-based research and outreach, and we promote faculty research collaborations across disciplines. It's in line with the goals of the U of M as a major urban research university."

Latino issues are especially relevant, Mendoza says, as ESL services continue to lag. Health-care interpreting services are of particular concern when miscommunication between doctor and patient could be a life-or-death matter.

"Across Races and Nations" has concluded its initial phase, and CROW hopes to write a series of reports and compile them in a research book within the year. Meantime, the center will stay proactive in its community outreach and work to improve health-care and labor market issues.

Immigration is bound to continue, Smith says, so it's important to be honest about immigration's impacts, difficulties and strengths.

"The larger issue is globalization," Smith says. "Immigration is sometimes called the ‘globalization of labor.' We are living in a new era, and we're excited to be a part of it."

To learn more about CROW, visit their Web site at

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