From Workers to Owners: Latino Entrepreneurs in Harrisonburg, Virginia

By Zarrugh, Laura H. | Human Organization, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

From Workers to Owners: Latino Entrepreneurs in Harrisonburg, Virginia


Zarrugh, Laura H., Human Organization


In the vast literature on immigrant and ethnic entrepreneurship in the United States, relatively little attention has been paid to Latino entrepreneurship, perhaps because Latinos (except Cubans) tend to be perceived as labor migrants. For the same reason, even less attention has been given to the Latino small businesses that have quickly become a ubiquitous part of new Latino settlements in the rural South over the past two decades. Based on structured interviews with over 30 Latino business owners, this paper describes the growth of Latino-owned businesses in Harrisonburg, Virginia (population 40,468 in 2000) that has occurred since 1990 in tandem with the ever-increasing size and complexity of the local Latino community. In particular, the paper examines both the "structure of opportunity" for Latino entrepreneurship outside traditional gateway cities and the social and cultural characteristics of the entrepreneurs and their businesses. The paper highlights the role of local poultry processing plants in the settlement process and entrepreneurs' work histories.

Key words: Latinos, immigrants, entrepreneurs, rural, Southeast

Introduction

During the 1990s the rural South became a new destination for Latino immigrants drawn primarily by jobs in agroindustries. Although Virginia has not witnessed as large or as rapid a growth as states farther south, such as Georgia and North Carolina, it hosts the sixteenth largest Latino population in the country. Within Virginia, one of the areas that has experienced the greatest growth in Latinos within the last decade is the Central Shenandoah Valley and particularly the city of Harrisonburg (population 40,468 in 2000). Harrisonburg's Latino population grew from representing about two percent of the total population in 1990 to almost nine percent in 2000 (U.S. Census).

The influx of Latino immigrants has been accompanied by a rapid rise in Latino-owned businesses, which have increased from one to almost 50 since 1989. As new businesses continue to open on an almost monthly basis, even the most casual observer cannot fail to observe the ubiquity of Latino-owned businesses in the local area. The presence of these businesses in the rural Shenandoah Valley seems to fly in the face of national statistics that suggest low rates of entrepreneurship among most Latino groups (except Cubans). Given the perception that Latinos migrating to the rural South are primarily labor migrants, it is not surprising that little attention has been given to their entrepreneurship. This paper addresses the issue of Latino entrepreneurship (i.e., small business ownership) in the rural South as an integral part of the new migration to nontraditional destinations. It examines both the "structure of opportunity" provided by local conditions in Harrisonburg as well as the social and cultural resources and motivations Latinos draw upon when they engage in entrepreneurship.

Theoretical Background

Researchers are just beginning to record and analyze the implications of the massive influx of Latinos (i.e., individuals of Latin American origin) to nontraditional destinations in the South (e.g., Atiles and Bohon 2002; Fink and Dunn 2003; Gozdziak and Bump 2004; Griffith 2006; Hernandez-Leon and Zuñiga 2000 and 2002; Kandel and Cromartie 2004; Kandel and Parrado 2004; Mohl 2002; Murphy, Blanchard, and Hill 2001; Torres, 2000; Zuñiga and Hernandez-Leon 2005). As in the rural Midwest, another area that has seen a significant increase in Latino population in the last decade (e.g., Millard and Chapa 2004), Latino immigrants have been drawn to the rural South primarily by the availability of farm work or jobs in agriculturally-related industries (e.g., food processing) that require few specialized skills and little knowledge of English. In the Midwest the major source of agroindustrial jobs is meatpacking; in the South, it is poultry processing. Whatever their destination, immigrants' concentration in economic niches consisting of low-paying, low-skill jobs has been well documented and has led researchers to regard Latino and particularly Mexican immigrants as labor migrants who, by implication, have little propensity for entrepreneurship. …

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