Siler City, North Carolina, used to be a typical small southern town: lots of families had roots going back a century or two and its citizens were proud of the town’s close-knit culture and neighborly feel.
But in the 1990s the culture began to change, as Latino immigrants started moving to Siler City. They've come to find work, and are bringing their own traditions and customs along with them. "Nuevo South" tells the complicated story of a town in transition.
John Biewen is audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where he teaches and produces work for national and international audiences. He reported for Minnesota Public Radio, covered the Rocky Mountain West for NPR News, and spent eight years as a correspondent/producer with American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media. Biewen’s work has won many honors, including two Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Awards, the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award, and Third Coast’s Radio Impact Award.
Tennessee Jane Watson lives in New York City and likes to make stuff out sounds, images and using her body. She's terrible at sitting still but loves listening to stories; a dynamic that makes life as an audio producer always interesting.
Learn more about other audio projects at Duke University's Center for Documetary Studies.
BEHIND THE SCENES with John Biewen and Tennessee Watson
What’s the story behind this story? What inspired you two to work on "Nuevo South" and how did you decide to focus on Siler City?
John Biewen: I've lived in North Carolina since 2001. Latino immigration is the most interesting and important change taking place in this part of the country. And it's the south. So you take a fraught, centuries-old relationship between southern whites and blacks and now, in a remarkably short time, you add a large number of brown folk. As one of the first North Carolina towns to attract a big Latino population (imagine a half-Latino Mayberry), Siler City makes a fascinating microcosm for that wider story. David Duke's rally in Siler City (in 2000) carried a lot of symbolic power, and that tape was chilling. Finally, Siler City was handy -- a one-hour drive from Durham. Together and separately, Tennessee and I went there at least 20 times over the course of a year.
Tennessee Watson: I moved to North Carolina in 2005 in large part because I was interested in Latino immigration. There are folks in North Carolina working with immigrants and on issues related to immigration who are national leaders in their field. I would compare living in North Carolina right now to living in California in the time of Cesar Chavez and the birth of the United Farm Workers. But a lot of that activism and advocacy is based out of urban areas. I was drawn to Siler City because it is a small southern town. But I was also drawn to it because of feisty activists like Ilana Dubester and outspoken journalists like Paul Cuadros.
One of the amazing things about "Nuevo South" is how candidly and openly people talk about the cultural changes/conflicts happening in Siler City. Did that surprise you? Did you expect more reticence, given the touchy nature of some of the issues you were exploring?
JB: It startles you when someone you're interviewing says something uncomfortable, or even bluntly bigoted, about people of a different race or ethnicity. But these feelings are out there, and we were asking direct questions about race and culture while trying to present ourselves, and the documentary we intended to make, as open and non-judgmental. A number of people seemed pleased that someone wanted to know their thoughts and feelings about these changes. Maybe one of the striking things about "Nuevo South" is that you hear blunt anti-immigrant language (along with sympathetic language) from African Americans. We media types are often interested in African-Americans as victims of intolerance but rarely as potentially xenophobic themselves.
Clearly, the story of race relations in Siler City is really complicated. The recent influx of Latino immigrants comes on top of a long and tense history of white-black conflict. How did you go about peeling back the layers and breaking it all down?
JB: From the start we decided that our story would be about cultural change in a small southern town, exploring the historical complexities you're asking about. Of course there are more layers than you can do justice to in a 30-minute documentary. But we spent a lot of time finding and cultivating our "characters" -- Latino, African-American, and white -- and asking them to talk about these racial, cultural, and economic relationships, past and present. Those reflections and feelings are tied to concrete experiences that make up the life of a small town: church, work, food, lawn care, high school sports. So we followed our characters into those settings and got them talking along the way. One thing I love about the story is that it doesn't really come out the way one might expect. This is not a simple story of immigrants landing in a small southern town and meeting with hostility and racism.
TW: I think we successfully peeled back the layers we could, but there were also some layers we left alone. Going into the project I had the ambition to understand more about labor issues and the treatment of workers, both African-American and Latino, in the town's chicken plants. I'd heard rumors about degrading and exploitative working conditions. But it wasn't as easy to peel back the layers on that aspect of the story. Latino immigrants I spoke with were willing to talk about the racial and cultural dynamics of their town, but it was harder for me to dig into the politics of their workplaces.
It's amazing that this documentary is narrator-less, given its complexity. Wouldn't it have been way, way easier to have John or Tennessee (or someone) guiding the listener from place to place and character to character? Could you talk about the decision to go without a narrator?
JB: Yes, it would have been far easier to use a narrator! We wanted this to be an intimate portrait of a community, and, to the degree possible, to push it in the direction of being a self-portrait. It's also a piece in which accents and cadences are freighted with meaning. So we wanted to do the piece without the intrusion of an outsider's voice, especially since Tennessee and I (don't let her name fool you) are both northerners. It meant that we needed constantly to ask our interviewees to do the work of the narrator, introducing themselves and setting scenes. We were helped by the fact that Paul Cuadros was both an important character in the story (the town's high school soccer coach) and a journalist and author who could provide some big-picture perspective. He serves as the narrator in important ways.
While I've heard lots of stories about how immigration is changing (and has changed) big urban centers like Chicago and New York, I hear less about how it's changing small towns and rural parts of America. Do you think that particular story is under-reported? And if so, why?
JB: Sure, most reporters are in big cities so rural America is under-reported, period. The other imbalance we saw was that most of the immigration reporting over the last few years has focused on the policy debate surrounding "illegal" immigration. We went to Siler City with the intention of looking at deeper cultural questions and found people pleased to have that conversation. Most people in the town don't seem all that concerned about anybody's immigration status. They're far more interested in the simple fact of demographic and cultural change that, like it or not, is transforming the flavor of their town forever.
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