Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off in Memphis

Memphis, Tenn. — Today marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, a time to celebrate one of the fastest-growing ethnicities in the United States. Now through October 15th is dedicated to honoring the cultures and recognizing the contributions of people from Spain, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In the Mid-South one group does this all year long, Cazateatro Bilingual Theatre Group.

“Right now we produce four plays for the season, five festivals, preview for Dia de Los Muertos, the Dia de Los Muertos parade... Afro-Latino week, really anything to celebrate the Latinx community, Cazateatro will be there,” said executive director, Dorimar Ferrer. “I want Latinos to know we need to be proud of our heritage, and we want to share, we want to celebrate. We are here and we want to be part of the community, that’s why it’s important that people know us.”

After organizing nearly two decades ago, and practicing wherever they could, the non-profit just moved into an office space in Raleigh in April. This is now where the members host workshops and practice for plays and performances, such as a showcase they take to kids at Memphis-Shelby County Schools and other area districts.

“They love it and they ask questions,” said Ferrer. “That is the beauty of working with kids, they say ‘Oh, do you speak Spanish?’ or ‘You are from Puerto Rico?’ It’s new, it’s different, and they start to practice their Spanish. Cazateatro is for everyone, Latinos, non-Latinos, Spanish or no Spanish,” said Ferrer. “Memphis is diverse. We believe arts need to be for everyone. Everyone is welcome.”

Cazatreatro has grown from just five women to more than 50 volunteers. It’s a reflection of the growth the Hispanic community has seen in Shelby County. According to the U.S. Census, from 2010 to 2020 while the White population fell by 13.3% and the Black population stayed relatively steady falling by 1.3%, the Hispanic population in Shelby County grew by 49%, now making up nearly 9% of the county.

“We’re not saying that we’re a majority or close to being that, but the trend is there,” said Mauricio Calvo, CEO of Latino Memphis. “The data shows that by the year 2050 we will represent 29% of the United States.”

Calvo credits Memphis’ relatively low cost of living compared to other similar-size cities, along with its general acceptance and welcoming of immigrants as some reasons for this trend. he says his organization has had to adapt to growth by offering more and more services for such a diverse group.

“We provide legal services, social services, family reunification, representation in court,” said Calvo. “We serve over 7,000 people who just call every year asking for referrals, asking how to enroll their kids in school, asking how to get a vaccine, sign up for a program. And we partner and collaborate with other non-profits so they can do what they do really well, reaching out to the Latinx community. We also recognize there are some systemic issues that we have to address so we advocate on behalf of the Latinx community as well.”

Because the Latinx community is so diverse with varying needs, Calvo says it’s hard to nail down the biggest need for the community in Shelby County. But, he has two top priorities that come to mind when he thinks of immediate needs: more resources for mental health, and better education opportunities for immigrant teenagers who recently arrived in Memphis. He adds language barriers are still a problem with many services, though he says they have improved.

“You go to Jackson Elementary for example and over 60% of those students are Latino/Latina, and the majority of them were born in Memphis,” said Calvo. “So, that’s another element of the diversity, we’re growing more by birth then migration. I don’t think the infrastructure and the services have been able to keep up with the growth of the community. As of today we still don’t have a single elected official that identifies themselves as Hispanic. There’s a gap of representation there. But, I’m hopeful about the next generation... these students that we’re referring to start to grow, and they will be the workforce. And they will be the police and they will be lawyers and doctors and reporters and people will look and sound like them or their parents.”

As more Latinx families call Memphis home, Cazateatro says it’s seen an increase in interest in the culture.

“This year we received more than 50 calls from people who want to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month,” said Ferrer. “So I think people want to know, they want to open the doors for the Latinx community. Everywhere in Memphis, there are Latinos working hard every day and that’s why it’s important for us to celebrate Hispanic heritage all year. We love Memphis, that’s why we’re here.”

There are several events here in the Mid-South you can enjoy to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Cazateatro will host Latin Fest next Saturday, September 24th and a Dia de Los Muertos community workshop the following Saturday, October first. You can find these and other celebrations at Cazateatro’s website.