Chronicles from the Nuevo South
I met Renata Soto in 2011 at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee, during my first cookbook tour. That fall morning, as we bonded over pancakes, eggs, and grits at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant on Church Street, we forged a deep connection as we reminisced about growing up surrounded by floundering democracies in political turmoil and childhoods cut short by violence and economic chaos. Our shared experiences as Latina women in the South and all that this entailed—our search for belonging in a society that was weary of new immigrants, the desire for sustainable change that would further the understanding between Latinos and Southerners, and the discovery that we were in fact able to catapult such change—sealed our kinship and guided our conversation. Like in many such interactions where both ideals and frustrations are shared, we ended up talking about our plans for the future. We both yearned to bridge the divide between people of different cultures. I was doing it through food writing, while Renata was doing it through her involvement with non-profit organizations focused on social justice.
As a founding member on the board of directors of a non-profit called Conexión Américas (already in its ninth year of operation by the time we met), Soto and her team were working to help the immigrant community in Nashville. “Our organization’s name underlines our vision for connecting Latino families with resources and opportunities for advancement, while connecting and building bridges between the Latino and the native-born communities,” she explained that day.
Their vision was to build a one-stop center that would serve Nashville’s immigrant and refugee community: a place where they could offer health services, business development assistance, counseling, adult education, legal advice, financial services, and after-school programming for immigrant children; a place where individuals would succeed in launching businesses and would find a sense of belonging by contributing to society. If that were not enough of a challenge, she set a timeline to make the center a reality within one year.
“The building project would become an opportunity to physically and symbolically recognize and celebrate the presence and contributions of newcomers from around the globe, while sharing a space, ideas, challenges, and opportunities under one roof,” Soto told me a few weeks ago, when I approached her about writing this story. She knew it could be done. She had seen similar projects for community building while serving on the board for The Housing Fund, a Nashville-based nonprofit that supports affordable housing options, and while working for United Way of Metropolitan Nashville. The needs of the Latino immigrant community were only becoming more urgent. According to the national census, the Latino population in Nashville grew by 446% in the first decade of this century.
“No group had the cultural competence to effectively work with their newest neighbors coming from Latin America,” said Soto. Traditional social service organizations did not grasp the complex social, cultural, political, and legal dimensions that defined the Latino immigrant experience in Nashville. The founders of Conexión Américas understood that void.
They knew that in order for Latinos in Nashville to thrive, the organization needed to set forth a “multi-dimensional” process that included social, economic, and civic integration. What’s more, they needed to forge a two-way learning experience that would result in a reciprocal understanding between newcomers and their host community. Only then could true integration of immigrants succeed in Nashville. Nothing less would work. The goal was to create a “unique place that would foster community building and increase the social capital of Nashville's immigrant and refugee communities by having them work together,” she told me. “The benefits were obvious: increased collaboration and coordination of services, greater opportunities for capacity building as a result of cross-pollination among co-locating partners, and greater convenience and accessibility for immigrants and refugees served by the various groups.”
Soto found a building in Nashville's southern quadrant—right in the heart of the city’s international corridor—where this center could be housed. She asked for input from across the community. “We recognized that one organization alone cannot produce transformative social change in the face of so many fundamental needs of the immigrant families we want to serve,” she said. “[We] understood that a collaborative effort had greater chances of harvesting the most promising results.”
For Soto, that meant reaching out to the second-largest immigrant community in Nashville: Muslims. Few people realize that many words in the Spanish language derive from Arabic, a result of the languages merging when Spain was under the rule of the Moors. Soto’s name for the new center served as both a tribute to this history and a tool. She named it: Casa Azafrán, or Saffron’s House.
The Spanish word azafrán is derived from Arabic. Soto said that the name “Casa Azafrán” signals Conexión Américas’ “desire to build an inclusive, welcoming place for all immigrants in Nashville, many of whom speak Spanish or Arabic.” But Soto had another reason for selecting this name: saffron (crocus sativus) is a member of the same family as the iris, the state flower of Tennessee.
In order to make Casa Azafrán a reality, Soto and her team launched a capital fund that raised six million dollars through private and public donations. The space opened its doors in December 2012, and by now, it has become an incubator for two local Muslim organizations, The American Center for Outreach and The American Muslim Advisory Council. More than eight thousand people per year turn to the organization to receive help to start a business and send their kids to college, purchase a home, improve their fluency in English, and, as Soto puts it, “become an integral part of Nashville's social, cultural, and economic vitality.”
Soto describes her own story as “a quest for roots after one has been uprooted.” She was born in Costa Rica, and in 1993 she moved to the United States after winning a full scholarship to attend Kenyon College in Ohio. She wanted to become a journalist and illuminate the political issues of her beloved country. Instead, she married Pete Wooten, “a green-eyed and tall American surfer.” What Soto thought would be just a year abroad in the United States became in her words, “a new life in gringolandia.” For the longest time, the nagging questions within her were ones new immigrants often ask: What does it mean to belong to your community? What does it mean to be an American? She felt that she lived in Nashville but she belonged in Costa Rica. That was—until her husband's job moved them to Knoxville and she realized that she was deeply nostalgic for Music City. Her pursuit of a sense of place led her family to move back to Nashville. She directed her energy into making an indelible mark in its social order by volunteering her time and efforts to helping others, who like her, were also looking for that sense of place in a new home: immigrants and refugees. The more she became a catalyst for positive change within both the cultures she loved, the more she felt she belonged.
Part of her contribution included leading her organization to recognize the importance of entrepreneurship in the lives of immigrants, many of whom have to reinvent their careers and learn new skills in the United States. Many new immigrants perceive food businesses as pathways to building wealth. However, Soto explained, immigrants face barriers such as a high cost of entry, inability to get special permits and licenses, and a lack of knowledge on regulations and basic food safety.
Along with José Gonzales, co-founder of Conexión Americas, Soto set up a program that enabled immigrants to launch food businesses from a licensed facility that met all codes. These food entrepreneurs pay a fee that grants them twenty-four-hour access to the kitchen, training for food safety and sanitation, product development, and instruction on marketing, finance, and operations.
When it came to naming the space, Soto wanted to choose something that would showcase the inclusive spirit of her organization. She had half: the word mesa (Spanish for table), which symbolized a space where Nashvillians of diverse origins could come together over a shared meal.
“I thought it would be great to pay homage to the Kurdish community in Nashville (the second largest in the country),” Soto said. “I reached out to one of our partners, Kurdish leader Remzya Suleyman, and after a lot of word-playing, I zoomed in on komal, which means ‘community’ in Kurdish, but which coincidentally sounds and has almost the same spelling as the Spanish word for griddle, comal.” Mesa Komal opened in April 2013.
Today, Mesa Komal has the capacity to operate fifty businesses such as food trucks and catering businesses, and to date the kitchen has launched thirty-four food businesses (four of these, brick and mortar).
Javaneh Hemmat, owner of Hummus Chick, first started selling the product she developed in Mesa Komal in local markets. Her award-winning hummus and her line of spices can now be found on the shelves of Whole Foods and Kroger stores. Hemmat calls Soto “a visionary, an influencer, a mentor.”
“Java started her business at Mesa Komal purely on the side, while working another full-time job,” Soto said. “A few months later, she left everything else to dedicate herself to making the most delicious hummus—building upon her Middle Eastern heritage. I am addicted to her Marrakesh mix.”
“Renata is our warrior,” said Karla Ruiz, who launched Karla’s Catering and Prepared Foods from the Mesa Komal kitchen. “She is always fighting for the equal rights of our community.” Ruiz's business will move into its own space this month.
Every morning, when Renata Soto arrives to work, she enters the building through the kitchen. Every evening, she exits the same way. “I love the communal vibe—and who doesn't love the spontaneous tasting of an empanada here and a patacón there? But it's more than great food and culinary entrepreneurship that makes this place special. The child of one of our business owners, Maria Elba, attends our Pre-K center here at Casa Azafrán. We see her working in the kitchen but also at the school's drop-off and pick-up line. We see her kids in the hallways. She is growing much more than her lonchera truck business—which started with one, and has grown to four. Her family is flourishing, too.”
In 2014, President Obama delivered a speech on immigration at Casa Azafrán. Soto believes that he chose the venue so that he could hold up Nashville as an example of a Southern city working hard to welcome new immigrants. “When people in the U.S. think about immigrant communities, they think of New York, Miami, or Los Angeles—not of Nashville,” Soto said. “I want to believe that the president brought attention to a bright spot, a model of what’s possible when people come together for a common vision.”