Small Town Navigates Demographic Shift

"Welcome to Shelbyville" premieres tonight on PBS' series "Independent Lens." The documentary shows how Shelbyville, Tenn. residents adjust to a growing Latino population and the integration of Muslim Somali refugees. Host Michel Martin speaks with "Welcome to Shelbyville" director Kim Snyder and Miguel Gonzalez, one of the people profiled in the film.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later, we continue our celebration of all things Oprah with another visit with one of Oprah's favorite people, personal finance guru Suze Orman.

But first, we're going to have another conversation about the struggle to live together in harmony. We're heading to a small town in Tennessee that offers a window into how increasingly diverse communities are redefining many parts of America beyond the coasts. Shelbyville, Tennessee is about an hour south of Nashville, but it's still a rural hamlet not unlike Andy Griffith's fictional Mayberry.

But the complexion of Mayberry is changing as first immigrants from Mexico and more recently Somalia have begun to settle there, which is not always been easy for some of Shelbyville's long-time residents, both white and African-American.

Some of those growing pains were documented in a new film that airs tonight on the PBS series "Independent Lens." The film is "Welcome to Shelbyville." And I'm joined now by director Kim Snyder. She's here with us from our New York bureau. Also with us on the line is one of the people profiled in the film, Miguel Gonzalez. And he's with us on the line from his home in Unionville, Tennessee. I welcome you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

KIM SNYDER: Thank you so much for having us.

MIGUEL GONZALEZ: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So, Kim Snyder, I'd like to start with you. Demographic changes are happening, you know, all over the country. What made you turn your lens on Shelbyville?

SNYDER: Well, my partners and I knew we wanted to take on something about immigration. And we started to talk to a lot of folks in the policy world. And they told us, you know, there's a lot about hate crimes, but there's really not a lot about ordinary citizens in small-town places across the country documenting how they're navigating these waters.

MARTIN: Mr. Gonzalez, you've been in this country for quite some time. One of the points that you make in the film is that at the point at which you came here, you know, it was easy to get a driver's license, it was easy to get a job, but that atmosphere kind of changed a bit. Do I have that right?

GONZALEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: Let me just play a short clip from the film, where you make that point about how things feel different. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "WELCOME TO SHELBYVILLE")

GONZALEZ: Well, right now I know there is a lot of resentment in the last couple years, probably because of the amount of people who have been really immigrating to this area. They feel like they're not welcome. But I'm a leader in my church and I tell the people, it's just a matter of time.

MARTIN: So you're saying, in part, that you feel that perhaps your welcome was easier because you weren't seen as part of a movement. You were seen more as individuals.

GONZALEZ: From my experience in 1972, it wasn't that difficult because I feel like I was welcome. You know, people offered me English classes, help to do this, to do that. So that's why I mention, I say, just a matter of time when more people get involved and offer these people the basic help to adapt to a new place.

MARTIN: Kim Snyder, what about you? What's your analysis - what was the source of some of the strains that you started to document at Shelbyville?

SNYDER: Well, I think that Miguel had it right in the film. In the beginning when there's a few people, it becomes more of a curiosity. And I think people become threatened by, you know, this idea of becoming minority or losing power. And so, I think that's a place that we're at where there's just so much fear.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with filmmaker Kim Snyder about her new documentary, "Welcome to Shelbyville." It premieres tonight on the PBS series "Independent Lens." The documentary explores how a small southern town, Shelbyville, Tennessee, is coping with some dramatic demographic changes. Also with me is one of the people profiled in the film, Miguel Gonzalez.

And, Kim Snyder, one of the great characters in the film and it's filled with great characters, Mr. Gonzalez being one, is the civics teacher Ms. Lucy, who teaches English as a second language and a civics class for new immigrants. And there's a point in the film where she's giving her Somali students a lesson on a very important American tradition - complaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Especially when it comes to the media. And I'll just play a short clip here. Let's listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "WELCOME TO SHELBYVILLE")

LUCY: You need to talk to Brian Mosley, who's the reporter and you tell him, we don't like the articles. We think they are done in bad taste. You are causing people to be mean to us and we would like you to stop the articles.

MARTIN: Tell us, if you would, about what it is that she was telling them to complain about. What led up to this moment?

SNYDER: Well, it started sometime before I made the film that there were a number of incidents. Some of them revolved around some controversy at Tyson Foods, where a lot of the Somalis are coming to be employed. And it was suggested that this local reporter do a series of articles. And some people in some of the Somali community found the articles not to be so favorable.

So, Lucy, who would never describe herself as an activist, you know, it was such a wonderful moment and completely unpredicted that she in her class would tell these people this is sort of a tradition. And this is what it is to live in this country and be involved in the democratic process.

MARTIN: But it is a fact that sometimes people bring different worldviews, different attitudes about how, for example, what role women should play in a society. I mean, is it your view that anybody who's worried about issues like that is a jerk or is being a bigot?

SNYDER: No. And I really hope that the film doesn't come across that way because it was my genuine feeling and remains my feeling that this is not easy for anybody.

MARTIN: Mr. Gonzalez, what do you think about that? As somebody who's actually been in that community for a while.

GONZALEZ: Well, you know, I just - I want to use two examples. You know, like, when you invite somebody to your house, you kind of explain that this is the kitchen, this is the living room. And, also, when you get a job in a factory, they also train you, you know, how to do your job, where is the restroom, where is the emergency shelters or things like that.

But most of the immigrants come to a community where nobody really tells them, you know, the basic stuff until they find out sometimes the hard way.

MARTIN: Sure. Ms. Snyder, I wanted to ask you about another very real issue that your film does touch upon, which is that whole question of economic competition. You know, some of that dynamic is playing out in Shelbyville in that some of the Somali immigrants work at a Tyson's chicken processing plant. And while that might not be at the top of, you know, everybody's career list, in this economy, that is still a valuable position for some people. And there are feelings about that. So, again, I have to ask, is that not a real concern?

GONZALEZ: Well, you know, the way I see - that was for me or Ms. Kim?

MARTIN: Go ahead, Mr. Gonzalez, you can take that. And then Ms. Snyder can take that next.

GONZALEZ: I was just want to add more because I feel like most of the jobs the Hispanics take over in these states are not really the ones that some of the locals want to do. You know, like, work in the horse industry, cleaning the stables and feeding the horses and things like that, nobody else wants to do it. And I feel like we don't really take anybody's jobs.

MARTIN: Do people still say that to you, Mr. Gonzalez? Do people still raise that question with you?

GONZALEZ: Yes, they still, unfortunately, you know, I still hear it. And sometimes I don't reply because I don't want to get into an argument. But I just - I don't feel like we are taking jobs away from people who live here for a long time.

MARTIN: Ms. Snyder, what about you?

SNYDER: I think that, anecdotally, certainly in Shelbyville, I heard a lot of different views about that. I think empirically, from what I've been told by experts, if there is an impact in places like that Tyson Foods plant, it's very negligible. And I just also want to add that I think the focus goes somewhat away from the other side of it, which is the contribution that a lot of immigrants make contributing to the economy.

MARTIN: Kim Snyder, where do you think things are now?

SNYDER: In Shelbyville?

MARTIN: Yeah, in Shelbyville.

SNYDER: I think that Shelbyville remains a true microcosm of so many towns across the country. And like many towns, I feel like there are people like Miguel and Lucy who are really making concerted efforts to bridge communities and I think that the majority of people have conflicted feelings about this, and there just needs to be more dialogue. And I think the more it happens in small towns that are being really affected like this, the better it will be.

MARTIN: Mr. Gonzalez, what about you? I'll give you the final word here. What do you hope people draw from the film?

GONZALEZ: Well, what I think is going to happen is I hope we get more understanding and more, you know, why we are here, why are the Hispanics coming, you know, to this society. And I'm very positive that I think that things are going to get better. And I hope this year and next year the economy is going to get - turn around and then everybody will be back to work. So things, you know, get better for everybody.

MARTIN: Miguel Gonzalez is one of the people profiled in the film, "Welcome to Shelbyville." It premieres tonight on PBS. It's part of the series "Independent Lens." You'll want to check your local listings for exact times. He joined us on the phone from his home in Unionville, Tennessee. Also with us was the director of the film "Welcome to Shelbyville," Kim Snyder. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

SNYDER: Thank you so much for having us.

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