Where is Latino Delmarva? A Brief History and Tour of a Semi-Clandestine Culture

by | Sep 11, 2023 | COMMUNITY, LETTER TO THE EDITOR, RICHMOND NEWS, VIRGINIA NEWS

The Greater Richmond Region received an unexpected economic shock this past spring when Tyson Foods decided to close its poultry processing plant in nearby Glen Allen. Chicken suppliers around the surrounding areas suddenly found themselves searching for new buyers, while legal experts contemplated whether the closure constituted a violation of antitrust laws.

While Henrico County becomes increasingly developed, increasingly urban, and increasingly gentrified, the fact that Tyson decided to move plant operations to Pittsylvania in far southern Virginia may be indicative of long-term trends, whereby processing plants are consolidated in rural areas—a fact that maps of Virginia’s poultry processing plants make manifestly clear.

Latino Delmarva story 2023 by Kevin M. Anzzolin
Hauling chicken crates on US-13. Photo courtesy of author.

The chafing effects of uneven economic development and cultural consolidation—when geographies are transformed by monies being simultaneously invested and withdrawn—continue to change Virginia, both here in Richmond and beyond, refashioning where we work, where we live, and what we eat. And we eat a lot of fowl.

This year marks the centennial of the Delmarva Chicken Association, a massive non-profit organization that advocates for the poultry industry in our surrounding region: Delaware, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Those in the industry point to 1923 as its founding moment. It was then that Cecile and Wilmer Steele developed the first broiler chicken farm in Delaware’s Sussex County—the state’s southernmost of its three counties. Since then, Delmarva’s economy has been dominated by this single comestible. However, those that work in the daily operations of chicken meat production have changed notably

The 1960s and 1970s marked a time of increasing industrialization for the region’s poultry trade, with the rise of such companies as Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, and Mountaire Farms. By the 1990s and early 2000s, the general consolidation of the industry, paired with a newly globalized labor force—and catalyzed by the 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—had transformed how Delmarva did business.

Latino Delmarva story 2023 by Kevin M. Anzzolin
Backroom restaurant at El Diez de Mayo in Salisbury, MD. Photo courtesy of author.

Characteristic of our particular moment is the fact that an enormous number of those working in Delmarva’s poultry industry identify as Latinos. Latino Delmarva remains a somewhat hidden community, but constitutes an undeniably rich one.

Thus, although scholars and journalist have rightfully focused on the often unjust and harmful labor conditions that workers in chicken plants face on a daily basis, the commercial and cultural vibrancy of today’s Delmarva region—especially in relation to the Mexicans, Central Americans, and Brazilians living and working there—should not be ignored. A trip north on US-13—highway that passes through Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore, and the whole of Delaware—provides a tour of what can most appropriately be called Latino Delmarva

Latino Delmarva is not immediately apparent after crossing the 17-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Heading north from the southernmost point of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Route 13 takes drivers through the rural towns of Kiptopeke, Cheriton, Machipongo, Nassawadok, and Exmore. The cultural landscape changes slowly and subtly. It is in those transitory moments and spaces—when sounds, cuisines, and traditions mix—when the deep plurality of these United States is most appreciated. 

Inquisitive travelers only need to tune their car radio to FM 95.3 to experience Latino Delmarva’s rich cultural fusion: while the twangs of country music are heard upon arrival to the southern tip of the peninsula, somewhere around Wachapreague, K95 crackles and fades, eventually replaced by stutter step rhythms of La Máxima, a radio station broadcast from  Georgetown, Delaware specializing in salsa, bachata, banda, and urbano. By the time Onley, Virginia is reached—appropriately referred to as the “Crossroads of the Eastern Shore”—La Máxima’s staccato beats come thumping through the car speakers loud and clear.

This edited Google Map illustrates the remarkable number of businesses dedicated to selling products and offering services crucial to the Latino community. Roughly ten minutes after passing the Mountaire Farms grain elevator in Eastville, Virginia, the first sign of Latino Delmarva is spotted: Nassawodox’s Casa Hispana (main image), a small store specializing primarily in foodstuffs common to the Latino cuisine, but also boots and hats. On warm summer days, the owners display odds and ends for passerby in the style of an impromptu yard sale.

Latino Delmarva story 2023 by Kevin M. Anzzolin
Grocery shopping at El Diez de Mayo in Salisbury, MD. Photo courtesy of author.

One finds small Latino-themed grocery stores every 10 or 15 minutes while heading north on US-13. Along the way, numerous churches of different denominations advertise services in Spanish. Various poultry processing plants have been passed when one reaches Maryland’s Pocomoke City. Just north of Pocomoke’s historic downtown, a strip mall houses the restaurant Pollo Asado — or simply, “roasted chicken”—although its name belies the locale’s profoundly multicultural offerings. Pollo Asado’s moist, tasty chicken comes paired with a small container of hot sauce that appears to be Peruvian ají amarillo. The restaurant also promises its chicken to be “100% halal.” Deliciously incongruous is the fact that boba teas are also served. Next door, a small grocery simply called Mercado Latino has standards for the Latino palate—among these, incredibly, packages of Argentinian mate.

Latino Delmarva story 2023 by Kevin M. Anzzolin
Sending wire transfers at El Remolino in Onley, VA. Photo courtesy of author.

By the time the Walmart in Fruitland, Maryland is reached, Latino Delmarva ceases being merely bilingual: snippets of Brazilian Portuguese are heard while strolling the aisles, as is Haitian Creole. Latino Delmarva is, at heart, Panhispanic, if not pancultural.

Latino Delmarva story 2023 by Kevin M. Anzzolin
St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Onley, Va. Photo courtesy of the author.

Just three miles north of Fruitland is the county seat of Wicomico County—Salisbury, Maryland, a town with a population of roughly 33,000. This could best be described as Latino Delmarva’s capital city, where even the minor league baseball stadium’s name references the region’s poultry industry. Perhaps tellingly, like NAFTA itself, Perdue Stadium also dates to the mid-1990s. In the capital city, a strip mall just five minutes from the historic downtown is home to a veritable cornucopia of flavors and experiences. Brazilian Taste includes not just American staples like pizza and French fries, but also pão de queijo—a Brazilian cheesy roll eaten primarily as a breakfast item, but also as a snack. A few steps away is an ice cream shop that sells Mexican-style popsicles or paletas. Amazingly, in the same strip mall, one finds Rositas, a delightfully grungy restaurant-bar that could best be described as a Latino honky-tonk, where the beer is cheap and the dancefloor in the back is awash with colored lights.   

In recent years, gentrification has ravaged those neighborhoods in U.S. urban areas that have been longtime and storied centers for Latino communities. San Francisco’s Mission District, Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, and New York’s Loisaida are in danger of losing their unique cultural heritage. Alternatively, Latinos continue to enliven rural towns throughout the United States—adding to the commercial development, civic life, and cultural richness of many communities. 

During the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, social justice activists revived the idea of Aztlán, a mythical promised land in Central Mexico where Nahuatl-speaking peoples—while migrating sometime around the 11th century—had believed that they could finally find solace. Until this new, fantastical homeland is found, Latino Delmarva—with its unique blend of peoples and heritages—may serve many as an adequate, out of the way destination.

Reporting by
Kevin M. Anzzolin
Ph.D. Lecturer of Spanish
Department of Modern & Classical Languages & Literatures
McMurran Hall 131
Christopher Newport University

Dr. Kevin M. Anzzolin

Dr. Kevin M. Anzzolin

Dr. Kevin M. Anzzolin, Lecturer of Spanish, arrived at Christopher Newport University in 2021, where he teaches a wide range of classes. His scholarship mostly focuses on Mexican cultural studies, and his monograph on Mexican journalism will be published in 2024. In his free time, he loves exploring Richmond and beyond.




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