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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A new sound in Nashville

Music City has more immigrants, and that means more languages. Residents who don't like what they hear say there oughta be a law.

April 04, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Nashville — MAKE no mistake: This is still Guitar Town, and the cavernous Nashville Used Music store is proof. Here, amid rows of new and used six-strings, one finds country music veterans, hirsute rock dudes and honky-tonk strivers picking away most hours of the day in a gloriously dissonant jumble of twang.

But in a back corner, co-owner Charlie Shrader has been stocking, in ever-growing numbers, the gaudy symbols of the new Nashville: the Gabbanellis.

That is, Gabbanelli brand push-button accordions -- bright, spangled things, some tricked out in the red, white and green stripes of the Mexican flag, and all marketed to the norteno and cumbia musicians who play an altogether different kind of country music.

It is a businessman's response to a changing clientele: The percentage of foreign-born residents in Nashville and the surrounding county has quadrupled since 1990. Today, the Census Bureau estimates as many as 1 in 10 of Nashville's 549,850 household residents are foreign-born, lending a cosmopolitan flair to an area that, like many in the South, was long defined in the old racial binary of black and white.

The newcomers to what was once billed as Music City USA are Ethiopians, Somalis, Bosnians and Iraqis -- including what is believed to be the largest Kurdish population in the United States. Most, however, are Latino. Shrader's store is on Nolensville Road, a long commercial strip on Nashville's south side that locals now call Little Mexico. In the last six months, he has hired two Spanish-speaking workers to deal with his new customers.

"That's the way it is," Shrader said. "You either go with the flow, or you don't go at all."

The influx of foreign-born residents has been "rapid and dramatic," said Vanderbilt University sociologist Daniel B. Cornfield. However, he noted, it has only brought Nashville in line with the national average.

Still, immigration tensions didn't command center stage until recently, with a proposal for an "English first" law, which would restrict local government to communicating in the native tongue of Milton and Mel Tillis.

A version of the law -- which allowed use of other languages in a few limited situations -- was approved this year by the Nashville-Davidson County Metropolitan Council. But it was vetoed by Mayor Bill Purcell, who said it would make the city "less safe, less friendly and less successful."

Supporters have since vowed to launch a signature drive for a 2008 ballot referendum.

Tennessee's capital is not the first American city to pass such a law, but it is the largest. The measure's sponsor, Councilman Eric Crafton, said he introduced it in response to "pent-up frustrations" over the federal government's failure to curb illegal immigration. He also said it would spur immigrants to learn English faster.

But the debate has widened to encompass questions about the kind of city Nashville hopes to become. In the last few years, a different kind of international flavor -- that of foreign business and investment -- has become a key part of Nashville's thriving economy. Many civic leaders do not want to spoil a good thing with a law that might seem unwelcoming.

Others -- perhaps unsurprisingly in this foundry of heartland song and symbol -- are worried about the fate of the culture that was here before.

Councilman Jim Gotto, who supports the proposal, sees some "disturbing parallels" between today's immigration trends -- particularly illegal immigration -- and those that preceded the decline of the Roman Empire.

"I welcome the people who come here legally, and it's kind of fun having the different flavors," he said. "At the same time, we don't have to lie down and give up our culture and heritage."

NASHVILLE was a frontier settlement, founded in 1779 on the banks of the Cumberland River by white pioneers who traveled west from North Carolina. It thrived as a port city and railroad hub, and, later, an insurance and healthcare center. The music industry flourished with the nationwide broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry radio show in 1932, and the rise of a number of recording studios and publishing houses.

Nashville's close ties to country music make for a unique calling card, but one that offers a somewhat distorted image. The great populist troubadours of Music Row have long shared the city with the scholars of Vanderbilt University and an influential moneyed class that earned its wealth in more traditional industries.

Nashville had pockets of sophistication, but not diversity. With the exception of a wave of German immigrants who settled in the 1800s, foreign-born residents were a rarity for years here, the result of the city's distance from the two coasts, as well as strict immigration policies imposed by the federal government for much of the 20th century.

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