Tortilleria Familiar El Arriero

At the Tortilleria Familiar
The tortilladora makes mechanical music
Like a Chandler & Price letterpress
Spinning tortilla 45’s

An electric motor hums in harmony
Casting Mexican cornbread
Off a chain-linked conveyor belt
Over pressured flames of natural gas

Like the rhythmic click of a school projector
The call and response of metal on metal,
A symphony of sparrows and squawking fiddles
Over and over again

Transcript / Recording Information

The Nueva Frontera

307 South Belmont is in a shopping plaza on the outskirts of a mid-sized Appalachian City.  But when you cross the threshold to enter  Tortillaria Familiar Al Arriero, you could very well be crossing a border into Mexico.  This Nueva Frontera isn’t a border wall running through a desert ecosystem, but it is in many ways just as real.  Most borders, those without walls, are simpley understood agreements, an element of the discourse super-imposed on a geography.  The trade agreements created by Chicago-school inspired economists, in particular NAFTA, made traditional elements of the US-Mexican border permeable, and since at least the 1980’s little pockets of Mexico have popped up across the Appalachian mountains.

In 2017, there are some very large, multi-generational populations of Hispanics in Appalachia.  Dalton, Gainesville, and  Morristown are examples of Appalachian cities with large concentrations of immigrants due to labor-intensive factories that produce for the global market.  It’s not just the large factory jobs, though: immigrants from our southern border have carved out niches in the service industry, landscaping, and construction in almost every town of any size in Appalachia.  Johnson City, TN has a large enough population of Hispanics to have several tiendas, a tortilleria, and an annual festival in the heart of downtown.

When Mexicans from Johnson City and the surrounding area go to 307 S. Belmont they are enveloped in surroundings that create the place of home.  The sense of home is invoked by the sounds and smells of Mexico.  The soundscape of 307 S. Belmont is filled with sounds that place it in Mexico: the television plays a channel broadcast out of Mexico, usually either a popular telenovela or a daily news and variety talk show, and a Mexican flavored dialect of Spanish is spoken.  The smells are of delicious Mexican food, and since tortillas are a Mexican food staple, another major factor of the soundscape is the running of the tortilladora- a sound rarely heard outside of Mexico.  Yi-Fu Tuan, in his book “Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience”, states that “spaces are marked off and defended against intruders” while “places are centers of felt value where biological needs, such as those for food, water, rest, and procreation are satisfied”.  So instead of Mexico being defined by the permeable rhetorical construction arbitrarily crossing North America from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, could we just as well define the place of Mexico as being anywhere a tortilladora is heard?


The concept of Appalachia as a distinct homogenous culture, according to the scholar Shapiro in his book “Appalachia On Our Mind”, has been floating around at least since the civil war.  Yet this concept of a homogenous Appalachia has been debunked time and time again, and I tend to agree with Reichert-Powell’s notion in “Critical Regionalism” that region can be seen as a rhetorical discourse.   This project explores the changes in the regional discourse that are a result of the demographic changes to the denizenship of Appalachia.

Our view of denizenship is shaped by the writings of Hannah Arrendt, who makes the argument for a universal human rights.  Now that corporations have been given rights of citizens, we can see that the rights afforded to us by citizenship are just a subset of the rights given to us by  denizenship- denizenship being something received not by the place one was born, but by occupying a place in the intersection of space and time (by the fact that one was born).  Corporations have the rights of a citizen.  By being born, by having a soul, by being alive,  life grants it’s possessor  more rights than those of a corporation, by the right of their denizenship.


I arrived at the tortillaria early on a Friday morning, before the lunch crowd rolled in,  to get a focused recording of the soundscape produced by the tortilladora.  The television hadn’t been turned on yet.  The women who worked there let me take photos of this marvel of Mexican engineering and to record it with my phone as they got a head start on what was going to be another day of a just-in-time tortilla making.   The recordings that I made were with knowledge and explicit consent of all people occupying the space.  My hope in making an ethnographic recording like this is that no one was objectified in the gathering of this data.


This work records an aspect of the soundscape in Appalachia that represent the wave of immigration that happened in the area due to NAFTA.  It describes sounds that are distinct in the region.  The soundscapes in this project represent the soundscapes of Mexico, the intersection of Mexico and Appalachia, and more specifically the place of Mexico in the space of Appalachia.  The tortilleria represents a country inside a country, and much more theoretical work needs to be done to create a framework for the transnationalization and intersectionality of Mexican immigrants in Appalachia.

The label Mexican is often defined as a person who was born in Mexico, but we can just as well define the term as a person who visits a tortilleria.  Or a person who watches telenovelas.  Or a person who sends remittance via “Rapido”.  We make the argument that Tortilleria Familiar is an extension of Mexico.  There are many places in Mexico where the hum of a tortilladora is not a part of the soundscape, but we argue that a soundscape that features the sound of a tortilladora is Mexican.  It is thus in Mexico, but not the sort of Mexico that has anything to do with passports, visas, border walls, or location of natality- it has to do with the sense of place that gets created and re-created over and over again whenever there is a critical number of families with similar shared life experiences.

Video 1

Video 2

Literature Review

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