In Dallas we couldn’t get good service at a bar no matter what we tried. Benny would go up to the counter himself, credit card already poised between his index and middle fingers. I would go up with him, standing demurely just behind him, making conversation while tall, broad bros in baseball caps pressed in front of him, or girls with long hair extensions and expensive bohemian dresses skipped ahead, sure no one would call them out. We tried it where Benny would give me the card at the table and he’d follow my lead as we approached the register. Whatever our plan of attack, the bartenders would ignore us until several other patrons had tabbed out.
This happened at the hip craft brewery where you could play darts and Bermuda ring toss amidst the beer tanks and pallets of shrink wrapped cans. This happened at the bougie downtown beer garden where giant fans would blow cooling mist over you and Hispanic waiters would bring the white patrons margaritas with tiny bottles of Corona upended into them, drinks that look for all the world like a schoolboy dunked into a trashcan by bigger, stronger boys, feet kicking as they walk away laughing. At an old haunt of Benny’s, an eclectically decorated shotgun dive, we had trouble getting our drinks thanks to an old nemesis who now tended bar, causing us to shrink to the back wall by the bathrooms. Everywhere we went that day, we were practically invisible.
“Money talks in this town,” Benny said. “I look Mexican, so they assume I don’t have any.” I could see his point. He’s obviously not white— he’s short with deep brown eyes and a broad nose and high, flat cheekbones. He was wearing what he almost always wears, a t-shirt, shorts, and worn ball cap that made him look more ready for a day building a deck than barhopping with his new girlfriend. I’m used to this. He works in restaurants, the kind we could only afford for an anniversary or a birthday. He goes to work each day in a pressed black button-down and good black slacks, his Italian leather shoes shiny and sharp. On his days off, he likes to be comfortable, doing something with his hands, whether it’s splitting wood or playing the piano. There’s no sartorial middle ground between work and play, especially on a Dallas summer day when the temperatures are going to hit triple digits. I’m wearing a sundress and I’ve actually put on makeup and jewelry. I haven’t seen Benny in a couple of weeks, because I’m not from Texas. I’m living in Western New York for the summer, and we’ve only been dating a few months. We’re still getting to know one another and I still want to impress him.
He wants to impress me too. He wants to show me his city, make sure I have a good time, pay for everything so I can see he’s not like the other guys I’ve dated, the ones who didn’t have jobs, who didn’t want to give me the time of day, the ones who wouldn’t grow up. That’s why we’re spending the day checking out different places he likes, different neighborhoods that remind him to tell me stories from the past fifteen years he’s been running around Dallas with his brother and his band, playing shows and getting into a little trouble, dating around, getting his wiggles out, living life. It’s making him angry that we can’t get service. He’s embarrassed that these bartenders are making it difficult to show me a good time. He’s frustrated they’re making him feel small just because he doesn’t care about his looks, just because he looks brown, just because he looks broke. It doesn’t matter when I walk up with the credit card. They’ve seen me with him.
I’ve warned Benny how it will be when he moves to Tennessee. That we don’t have a context for Hispanic people there, because they aren’t seen. They work janitor jobs or are tucked into kitchens bussing tables. They’re in the service industry, but the part where you never see them serving you. In Dallas, Benny was invisible to bartenders until more affluent people were taken care of. In Chattanooga, people who look like him are just plain invisible, period. By and large they stick to their own churches, restaurants, and shops. Some are illegal, or worried they’ll be treated as such, and they keep their heads down. White people don’t go into their places. They don’t even know where most of them are.
There’s only a couple carnicerias that have white customers. They’re on the border between streets that have been gentrified and those that are still hood. It’s safe and exotic to purchase avocados there, or plátano flavor popsicles. The burritos they have in the back cafeteria are cheap and tasty. In high school my tutor took me to La Altena to test out my Spanish conversation skills. Could I shop without speaking in English? Order a meal en español? Sure. But my vocabulary didn’t include shooting the shit, ribbing a little, fast gossip, or making friends.
While Benny is in town for a job interview, he walks into a nice downtown bar that serves seafood and something called a Geisha martini, made with lychee liqueur, and he is wearing his best suit for a job interview at an even fancier bistro across the street. No one says anything overt, but he can tell they’re staring. He tells me about it on the phone. I tell him no one is going to know what to make of us. I have my own reputation in town, I tell him. People think I hate men, because I wrote about feminism for years in the local paper. “This is the South,” I say. “I know how it is to stand out.” I’m not sure what else to say.
The truth is that the ways in which I stand out are largely a choice. In high school I dyed my hair blue and wore punk jewelry, because standing out was the point. I wanted to reject the South far more than it ever wanted to reject me. In college I got tattoos, carefully placed so they wouldn’t be revealed by my professional wardrobe, but could be shown off in shorts and a swimsuit top diving off rocks at one of Tennessee’s many blue holes tucked in the mountains. In my twenties, I chose to write publicly, unapologetically about controversial topics. I let myself be angry. I put myself out there. I drew a circle around myself like a spell, a protective barrier, a demarcation of my territory of belief and that which was outside my beliefs. It was a sacred ring, but it was a line in the sand all the same.
Later, once Benny has moved to Chattanooga, we will go to see Straight Outta Compton and he will tell me about his childhood visits to the Oak Cliff part of Dallas, which in the 1990s was not all that dissimilar from Compton. He will admit that if anything in our relationship is a hurdle to overcome, it is that I can’t understand his experiences, the way he’s treated. The gulf of privilege between us. We sleep skin to skin at night, stubbornly embracing even when it means cutting off circulation to arms and legs, or cricks in our necks that we massage out in the morning. Yet sometimes there is a chain link fence between us. When people look at us together, they see the barb wire of Tijuana, the natural expanse of a brutal desert, the red line of the mortgage lender, the bus line presumed to stretch between our neighborhoods, our countries, our commonalities.
When we look at one another we see wide open space, the farm we want to buy one day where we can grow food, play loud piano music, build a home, put our hands in the dirt. I see the choice Benny made to move here, out of Oak Cliff, out of Dallas, to a place where so few people look like him. When we stand together, it pulls Benny sharply into view. He cannot be ignored. This is a choice I make, that calls attention to us both.
In 2014, the Times Free Press announced that “Chattanooga’s Hispanic population more than tripled between 2000 and 2010.” Of major U.S. cities who have seen a rise in their Hispanic demographics, Chattanooga ranks number three, but big growth doesn’t add up to big numbers. “Of about 168,000 residents, 9,891 are Hispanic” writes reporter Kevin Hardy. That’s about 6% of the population. Compare that to a population of 34.9% African American and 58% white as of 2010. There’s history here of racism against blacks. Our beautiful, famous Walnut Street bridge was the site of a lynching in 1906. People may very well feel racist towards Hispanics. But there’s less precedent for how that might play out. People here are still making up their minds.
A couple months after he gets the job at the fancy bistro, Benny’s customers are sometimes visibly baffled when he comes to take their wine order. They aren’t used to seeing people who look him at the beginning of the meal, only later when there are half-full plates to be cleared away with dirty napkins perched on top.
One evening, a middle aged woman asks him where he’s from. He tells her that he’s from Texas, but she keeps pressing him until he explains that his hometown is a little country town called Cash that few people have heard of.
“You’re from another country?” she asked, misunderstanding.
“No m’am. Just the country.”
“Oh. So you’re parents must be farmers, then.” Her husband is growing visibly uncomfortable with her insistence on interrogating their waiter about his personal history.
“Actually they live in Chicago. They’re urban planners. They run the public transit system up there. They just wanted a simpler life for us kids when we were little.” She lets it go after that. The rest of the evening, her husband speaks for both of them when Benny comes to check on how they are enjoying their meal.
We’re at a downtown pool hall frequented by college students. It’s almost midnight, and he’s in his all black suit, fresh from serving, and I’m in my best dress. We’re too fancy for this place but I’ve just gotten done at a college alumni fundraising gala, and we are meeting a close friend here for her goodbye party. We walk up to the bar to order, and I start. The bartender looks at us strangely and seems to think I’ve taken pity on a bus boy who doesn’t speak much English. He doesn’t see we’re a couple. We’ve broken too many rules. I ordered my own drinks instead of being a lady and letting him do it for me. We’re dressed too well. I’m white and he’s not. The bartender is confused, and it plays out in the service. It takes forever to make a couple well drinks, even though this is the secondary bar and he doesn’t have many customers. A well-meaning friend loans Benny a zip up jacket to sling over his suit, but it swallows him whole. He’s gone from looking like the help to looking like he doesn’t have a home. There’s an expression on his face I haven’t seen before, and Benny quietly turns and heads out the door, keys jangling in his pocket. An hour later, he reappears in a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and his favorite ball cap, thoroughly himself once again.
This isn’t Dallas, where there’s a major Hispanic population and enough border towns that the fearful get xenophobic. As of 2010, census workers had marked down 2,368,139 Dallasites who identified as Hispanic. The numbers aren’t vast in comparison to other parts of the southern United States, but they are significant. The same year North Carolina was home to 828,210 Hispanic residents, Georgia to 879,858. These are the migrant farm workers, the factory workers packaging pickles, the construction workers and kitchen staff building the large, gleaming office parks that house Durham and Raleigh and Atlanta’s financial and tech sectors, who put in shifts at the hospitals and universities that are otherwise off limits. Forty-three percent of North Carolina’s Hispanic population is uninsured, forty-five percent in Georgia, according to Pew Research.
Tennessee is slim by comparison, with 296,000 Latinos, 27th in the nation. Here, too, they stick to the rural areas, to agriculture and the small towns where low-skill jobs are available on a right to work basis. Forty percent of Tennessee’s Hispanic population lives in poverty. Forty minutes away in Dalton, Georgia, is the highest concentration of Latinos in the area. Dalton has two primary demographics: the people of color who make the carpets, and the white people who own the carpet mills. As you drive down I-75, you will see these factories on the side of the road. One of the largest, Mowhawk Industries, is named for an Indian tribe indigenous to what is now upstate New York, part of the Iroquois nation. Since the 1950s the company has slowly moved its operations into Georgia, where labor is cheap and unions aren’t strong, and slowly the Latino workers have come here to make berber and laminate and frieze. The factories sit on land that was once home to the Creek Nation, and later the Cherokee. This is a land of migration, crisscrossed with trails to and from.
At the private elementary school I attended, most of the other children were white. There were a few Asian Indians, a couple black kids, and one Hispanic boy. He was my best friend up until senior year of high school, at which point we’d grown up and grown apart. But throughout middle school I was invited to his house for family dinners and holidays, and once to his grandmother’s house where I learned how to fry tortillas. That was about as stereotypically Hispanic as it got—for the most part they were a quirkily Christian family who prayed a Shabbat prayer over their bread on Saturdays because Jesus was Jewish.
His mother read mostly as white, especially given her plain, Anglo-sounding name, and her white, lawyer husband. My friend described himself as looking “ambiguously ethnic.” He delighted when his high, flat cheekbones and the epicanthic folds around his eyes were read as Asian. He enjoyed being an enigma, he loved even a tenuous link to a culture that fascinated him long before he backpacked through Southeast Asia and studied in Japan. And so, although we once made tortillas with his grandmother, Latino was just one of the many things that some of their family was, and they all fit in just fine with the white, well-to-do families on Signal Mountain. My friend, his mother, and his youngest sister looked most obviously related, with a permanent tan and brown eyes so concentrated they were almost black, but class and geography and education and self-identification made Hispanic heritage something they could pick up or put down. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Benny reads as other in Tennessee in a way that even other people of color do not. He comes across as foreign. He breaks all the rules we have fixed in our minds. He is not poor. He speaks perfect English. He is over six generations American. His last name comes from Etxebarri, a Basque village in the region of Biscay, Spain. He has a college education in writing symphonies. And these things together makes him seem out of place here. He does not fit into Chattanooga’s economic and racial landscape. The city is changing, slowly, over time. But not yet to the point that he doesn’t turn heads. Not yet to the point that he is part of the scenery. In Chattanooga, where many of the state and region’s Latinos are not, simply seeing Benny around town is like a magic trick. Some unseen hand is making the invisible suddenly appear.
He is at the neighborhood gas station, Kanku’s to buy a six-pack for us to enjoy with dinner. It’s part of a chain run by an Asian Indian family in town, and since it’s right by the university the manager always makes sure to stock a selection of craft beers along with the corporate lagers, the malt liquor, the forties of Colt 45 and Olde English 800, King Cobra, and Jeremiah Weed. This particular Kanku’s franchise sits not only next to the university dorms, but also in between Main Street, which is heavily gentrified and expensive, and East Chattanooga, which is still mostly low-income and dominated by Section 8 housing. Look at a current real estate map while scouting out local home prices and you’ll still see the borders that were drawn in the redlining days. Only some things have changed.
One of the most significant differences, however, is that Main Street used to be like East Chattanooga, with a lot of cheap housing, abandoned industrial properties, derelict railroad facilities and warehouses, and few businesses besides package stores, a gay bar, the carnicerias. Even though the rents have gone up and expensive condos have gone in, the affluent new residents haven’t been able to oust the old chicken processing plant on the edge of the neighborhood. It smells bad most of the time, despite expensive measures the managers have taken to mask the smell. White feathers blow down Main Street and into the queso appetizers of diners who make the mistake of sitting outside at the Mexican restaurant across the street from the plant. It’s bad for Main Street’s new reputation as a trendy destination, but it’s good for the many workers the plant employs. They aren’t paid well, and the work is grueling, disgusting, and dangerous, but it’s work in a town where manufacturing jobs have been dwindling since the 1980s. It’s work where the newly subsidized job creators insist on four year degrees for entry level positions.
Because of Kanku’s geographic position, it’s a rare point of intersection for Chattanooga’s somewhat segregated populations. It not only has a beer cave full of newly distributed IPAs and seasonals and porters, it has a hot bar with fresh fried chicken, potato wedges, and large pickle spears. You can buy cat food, a marijuana bowl “for tobacco use only,” a pack of cloves, orange juice, or some basic groceries. Everyone stops here for gas—the owner chose the location well. The workers from the chicken plant, so often made invisible by odd hours, are hard to miss here. They come in still wearing sterile blue booties made of disposable polypropylene, the face masks, the hair nets, the thick coats and gloves. The construction workers, too, are brightly visible, rolling up in reflective orange vests and thick, tan canvas pants, their brown boots heavy and dragging their feet down to the sidewalk.
“Do you speak English?” Benny is walking in when a Hispanic man stops him to ask this question. Benny nods. “Ok. So do you know where the nearest liquor store is?” Benny gives him directions, though there’s nothing nearby, nothing you could reach quickly on foot. He tells me about this later. It could be an innocent question, but Benny is struck by the fact that the man singled him out to ask the question, that he sought out the most familiar face. He wonders about the assumption that he might not speak English, that he would know the liquor stores, that he is familiar with the routes of blue collar Chattanoogans who live in food deserts more plush with package stores and sidewalk barbecue than anything with a produce section. No matter who is looking, he sticks out.
In Dallas, Benny is one of many—one of many people who don’t dress to impress, one of many people who have a T-shirt shaped tan because they’ve spent time in the unflinching sun, one of many people who drive dented second hand cars, one of many people who live in blue-collar neighborhoods like Oak Cliff where tejanos songs pour out of car radios and the storefronts are full of quinceañera dresses and piñatas. He’s one of many people who, as he puts it, look Mexican. The bartender doesn’t see him, because he’s just one more. He is a tree in a forest. He is another Mexican man in a good suit taking his girlfriend out for a steak. He is what his mother calls him: another American mutt. It’s a different kind of invisibility that defined his life in Texas. The degree to which he sticks out depends on the neighborhood he, that we, are in.
Whether our presence is read as a positive or a negative depends on the place. In Oak Cliff I am the unfamiliar face, along with my blond, leggy future sister-in-law. In Bishop Arts, we’re just like everyone else, unnoticed, unspecial. In Uptown, at the bougie beer garden, Benny asks me if I notice anything. I reply that the only other Hispanic people I see are staff—none are there as customers. A few minutes later, a beautiful black woman walks by, dressed in skinny jeans and a plaid button-down I remember seeing on the J-Crew website. She is casual, chic, effortless, expensive. He hair is natural, but coiffed. She’s with her handsome, fashionable boyfriend, possibly of Middle Eastern descent, who is very proud of her. You can tell by the way he drapes his arm around her, the way he is looking out at the other customers, grinning from ear to ear. His body language is open, his chest broad and forward, there’s a little swagger to his hips. Benny comments to me that the way this man is walking with his girl is the way he feels when he walks down the street with me.
The girl’s body language is different. She draws a little inward. She looks nervous, like she’s afraid someone else will think she’s doing something wrong. It’s a learned caution. Her eyes glance around nervously on their way out, though she tries to play it down, and she seems to want to leave the bar quickly. Benny notices too, and speculates that she’s the one from Dallas, the one who knows this bar and its clientele. That her boyfriend is the one who doesn’t. That she’s worried they’ll catch flack, that they’ll be treated as bad or worse than we will be later when we go to the bar to close our tab.
In the Chicago suburbs at Christmastime, we go to the grocery store to buy jar after jar of hot Italian giardiniera to take home with us to Tennessee. I marvel at the aisle dedicated just to Polish, Bulgarian, and Hungarian foods, their labels spangled with cyrillic letters and strings of consonants, the recipes and ingredients unfamiliar. I tell Benny on the drive home that as exciting as these dips and soups packets and condiments are to me, they are someone else’s everyday, something quotidian. I tell Benny about the Senegalese and Scottish origins of fried chicken and biscuits that met in antebellum kitchens, the way that Southern food is in so many ways an unlikely story— collision as comfort food, a simple mess of vittles born out of violence.
When we return to the house, Benny’s mother is making tamales, a Christmas tradition. She learned from her grandmother, who learned from her mother, and so on. It has been fifteen years since Benny helped to make the tamales, but he is quick to remember how to fold the corn husks at the bottom to keep the dough together and the filling from falling out. We work together around the kitchen table, smoothing masa on pale corn husks with the back of weighty spoons, Benny scooping small portions of beef and cumino and slow-cooked soft chiles into the center of each corn husk fan as we pass them to him. We make a whole pot full, and will bring dozens home with us, frozen in Tupperware, tucked into the center of our suitcase.
I get to know his mother in the kitchen, talking as I help her chop vegetables and thaw meat for our actual Christmas dinner of ham and sweet potatoes, Parker rolls and pie. She laughs with her husband, who is not Benny’s father, about when she first taught him to spread the masa on the husk for the tamales. In another marriage, when she shared Benny’s Spanish last name, when she lived in Texas, she lived another life. Here in Chicago, where winter has lightened her skin and she shares an Anglo last name with her husband, and she lives in a suburb filled with every face, she is what she has always wanted to be, for her children to be—just another American. We pass the butter and the salt. Tonight we do not have to wait for a long time at the register. We open another bottle of wine, and pour generously into one another’s glasses. Tonight we are family. Tonight we do not have to pay for anyone’s curiosity.
Meghan O‘Dea is a writer, editor, and lifelong Southerner crafting a life in the foothills of Appalachia. She graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a Masters in creative nonfiction. When she isn’t writing or traveling, she is wrangling cats and renovating a century old bungalow.