The Southern Foodways Alliance will pay tribute to “El Sur Latino” at its annual fall symposium this weekend.
Journalist, author and symposium presenter Gustavo Arellano said that having the entire SFA conference centered around Latinos in the South is “the culmination of a fever dream.”
“Twenty-five years ago, there were next to no Latinos in the South. It was a very small community — now, it’s increased,” Arellano said. “Even in Mississippi, beyond the restaurants, you have communities now of immigrants that are raising their families and Mexican-Americans moving to the South for better opportunities, and they are changing the dynamic in the South.”
Arellano was first invited to speak about Latino migration at the SFA Symposium in 2013 and again in 2015, and he eventually was given a column in the SFA’s journal, “Gravy,” in which he tackles subjects such as “Taco Literacy,” which was written in conjunction with fellow presenter Steven Alvarez.
Alvarez, who is a Smith Symposium Fellow, has been invited to the symposium for the past two years and will present a paper this year about a place called Plaza Fiesta off of the Buford Highway in Atlanta.
“It’s just been a really dynamic group of folks that get together and really find new ways to think about food and the people behind it,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez’s scholarly background is rooted in language and literacy but has shifted more toward food after he visited the symposium for the first time.
Arellano’s work for “Gravy” also inspired the Saturday night closing performance of the conference, which will feature California-based group La Victoria, who will play traditional Mexican ballads called corridos as well as its own original compositions.
“That came about from the column that I did. We found the oldest known corrido about the South called ‘Enganche de Mississippi,’ which roughly translates to ‘The Mississippi Job,'” Arellano said.
This song, recorded in the 1930s, is the oldest known corrido about work in the South.
Mary Beth Lasseter, SFA associate director, said the singers will present in conjunction with Agustin Gurza.
“The musical group is going to meet with some of the attendees of the event, and they are going to write some original corridos and workshop them during the symposium,” she said.
According to Lasseter, the SFA usually welcomes around 350-400 people to the events. Lasseter said that of that number, 40-50 are locals, and 350 or so are out-of-town visitors. The 20th anniversary of the symposium will be marked with a screening of a film looking back at the conference’s last two decades. The SFA itself, which evolved out of the symposium, will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year.
This year’s menu features dishes from Tex-Mex brisket tacos to Venezuelan delicacies, spanning the diaspora of the Latino palate.
“A lot of ‘Latinos’ aren’t considered Latinos until they come to the United States,” Lasseter said. “They aren’t Latinos, and they aren’t Hispanics — they are Cubans or Venezuelans, or they are Mexicans, and then they come to the southern United States and they get relabeled.”
She hopes the symposium will help highlight the diverse culinary traditions of several different heritages in the South. Presenting chefs include Houstonian James Beard Foundation Award-winner Hugo Ortega and Eddy Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol with locations in Atlanta and Nashville. There will even be a Friday night trip out to Taylor for catfish, which has become a staple part of the symposium.
The event will be extended with a corresponding mixed-media exhibit at the Powerhouse that will be on display until the end of the month.
For the first time this year, the SFA is making provisions to share the conference with those who can’t make it there through its website.
“We can’t make the meals a virtual experience,” Lasseter said. “But after the event, if there are any discussions that have interested people, we will be posting the videos from those talks online throughout the week.”