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Appalachia has a booming Hispanic population — and its growing food scene is making an impact
A mural outside Tres Hermanos Nuñez in Cannonsburg, Kentucky. Tres Hermanos Nuñez/Instagram
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From strip malls to historic downtown landmarks, buildings across Appalachia today are telling stories of a changing region. Former nail salons, once-stately banks and empty storefronts are beginning fresh chapters in their lifecycle as Hispanic groceries, Mexican restaurants and Latinx-operated small businesses.

“I never really thought I would be doing this — that I would be able to build my own business in America — but here I am, you know?” said Misael Nuñez, co-owner of Tres Hermanos Nuñez, a small chain of Mexican-Appalachian restaurants.

Misael Nuñez and his family
Misael Nuñez and his family Sarah Baird/Mic

I spoke to Nuñez in Grayson, Kentucky, as he watched his daughter gallop around his restaurant, dressed to impress in a Cinderella costume. His restaurants are located in a tight corridor of the region where southeast Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky meet, and Nuñez is a prime example of the rise in Latinx entrepreneurship in the region. But he’s not only a businessman: Nuñez is among the leaders helping to construct a new narrative of Hispanic-Appalachian culture in places that are often portrayed by national media outlets as sweepingly white and homogenous.

The Hispanic population boom began in the 1980s, when the percentage of immigrants who moved into Appalachia between 1985-1990 made up a whopping 34% of the region’s total Hispanic population in the 1990 census. Between 2000 and 2010, the numbers continued to soar, with a 121% overall increase in the Hispanic population region-wide. And in some states like Tennessee, the numbers have been even more staggering: The number of Latinx-Appalachian residents there increased nearly 145% in the same time frame, compared to states like Ohio and New York, which showed roughly 52% and 53% increases, respectively.

“Appalachian stories are a lot about migration and looking for a better life for your kids, like when [coal] mine mechanization happened in the 1950s and people were losing their jobs,” said Shaunna Scott, director of the Appalachian Studies Center at the University of Kentucky. “A lot of those people left Appalachia to go look for work in auto-manufacturing cities like Cincinnati and Detroit. These stories really resonate with [Hispanic] immigrants who are doing the same thing. We’re trying to show how these stories are connected and build bridges.”

And while stereotypes still tend to relentlessly portray Appalachian communities as places of whitewashed, Donald-Trump-loving sameness, Nuñez and his family are part of the real Appalachia: one that’s ever-increasing in its diversity.

“Appalachia is a much more multicultural and diverse region — and always has been — than it’s portrayed in the media,” Ann Kingsolver, an anthropology professor at the University of Kentucky, told NPR in 2014. This oversight led Kingsolver to assist in the creation the Las Voces De Los Apalaches project, which told the stories of Latinx-Appalachians, in their own words, through a theater performance and concert.

As immigrant populations swell, and rural grocery stores begin to stock shelves with everything from queso fresco to bilingual lard containers, Las Voces De Los Apalaches is one of several initiatives that’s working to give Latinx-Appalachians the strong voice they deserve. Annual celebrations of Hispanic culture can now be found in towns across the region — particularly when it comes to food — with east Tennessee standing out as a major hub. In Cumberland Gap, the Mountain Fiesta features Cuban, Bolivian, Puerto Rican and Mexican cuisines alongside salsa dance lessons and live music. Now going on its fourth year, the H.O.L.A. Lakeway Food Festival in Morristown, Tennessee, uses food as a gateway to larger conversations about issues facing the town’s Hispanic community. And in Johnson City, Tennessee, East Tennessee State University hosts the city’s annual Corazon Latino Festival, with art competitions and plenty of local Hispanic food vendors.

East Tennessee State University has also produced bilingual newspaper El Nuevo Tennessean for almost two decades, reporting on everything from the latest in medical assistance for rural agriculture workers, to a Latinx family who operates a wildly successful snow-cone truck.

“When [the paper] started in 2000, some people in the community wouldn’t take it seriously,” said Felipe Fiuza, the director of Language and Culture Resource Center at East Tennessee State University, noting that El Nuevo is now inked with stories reflecting a community that’s not only rich in Hispanic culture, but a burgeoning immigrant population from across the globe. “They’d say, ‘Oh, the Hispanic community here isn’t that big. It doesn’t justify what you do. We’re not in Mexico. You’re putting in a lot of work and it’s not paying off.’”

Oh, how wrong they were.

Community has also been at the heart of Nuñez’s work as well since Tres Hermanos officially opened its doors in 2008, and has resulted in a regional mini-empire with seven restaurants and legions of loyal local fans. The first Tres Hermanos I visited — located inside what once was a Taco Bell in Paintsville, Kentucky — was a site to behold: decorated with graffiti-murals of apron-clad cows cooking meat on a flat top grill; painted-on brick facades around booths; and a wide-grinning, sombrero-wearing frog pointing the way to the bathroom.

And at most Mexican restaurants in the region, you’ll find menus featuring dishes that speak to the fusion of more familiar local tastes with a Tex-Mex flair, creating a type of dining experience that’s unique to the area: Mexilachian cuisine, if you will.

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For a hulking, meat-centric entreé, Tres Hermanos offers the “special Brandon”: a 10-ounce T-bone steak, grilled shrimp, crabmeat, mushrooms, onions and tomato, served on a bed of linguini. For those who want a touch of traditional country cooking with their meal, there’s the “chicken and potatoes”: a dish combining grilled chicken strips, potatoes and mushrooms under a smother of cheese sauce, rounded out with a side of green beans. And at La Finca in Spencer, West Virginia, the “moonshine” margarita has become a local happy hour favorite.

Mexican spaghetti, a popular dish at Tres Hermanos Nuñez
Mexican spaghetti, a popular dish at Tres Hermanos Nuñez Sarah Baird/Mic

Since 2017, the link between Appalachian and Hispanic cuisine has been explored in-depth by seasoned musicians Carla Gover and Yani Vozos through their project Cornbread and Tortillas, drawing on the bedrock role of corn as a foundational ingredient in both cultures. At events across the region, the duo uses singalongs, storytelling workshops and cornbread and tortilla-making lessons as a means of not only further engaging the intersection of Hispanic and Appalachian identities, but to fight back against racism and discrimination using performance and art.

As for Nuñez? The small business magnate is now angling to start a new Appalachian chain of accessible, good-for-you fast casual restaurants: something sorely needed in a region of food deserts. “We’re going to start a burrito chain that serves healthy food,” he laughs, noting that ever since he started hitting the gym, everything in his life has revolved around well-being.

If armchair historians of yesteryear tended to overlook Appalachia’s diversity, their glaring oversights now simply look like willful obliviousness. The strength of the mountains has always been its people, and the glorious diversity of Appalachians — today and tomorrow — refuses to be ignored any longer.

Sarah Baird
Freelance writer, Out of Office