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Nuevo NOLA: Latino Immigrants Remake the Crescent City

By Peter Holderness | July 3rd, 2009



nuevo-new-orleans

[to the photo essay, "Portraits of Atletico, Louisiana"]

This story was originally published on Immigration Here & There

Fernando Saucedo crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on July 4, 2005, headed for Houston. The farmer from Zacatecas joined a constant stream of Mexicans, Central and South Americans who look north for work and wages.

Two months later, Hurricane Katrina crossed the Caribbean into New Orleans, bursting precarious levees to flood large swaths of the historic city and changing the fate of tens of thousands of long-rooted residents and new immigrants like Saucedo.

The suffering, heroism, and unfathomable delay in the city’s immediate rescue have been documented, but immigrants like Saucedo represent the longer-term recovery and promise of the city. Before Katrina, New Orleans had a stagnant construction industry and a small 3.1 percent Latino population. Within a few months Latino laborers were gutting water-damaged homes and re-roofing business across the crescent city. Recent census reports suggest the reconstituted city is 9.6 percent Latino.

Latino history in New Orleans

Spaniards were the first Europeans to explore New Orleans but its growth as a French colony and then as the center of the American slave trade have made French and African influences central to the city’s culture and character. In the late 19th century, however, New Orleans was a key port for the United Fruit Company, which grew and harvested crops in Central America, particularly in Honduras. A mixed-class immigrant flow from Honduras worked as dock workers and managers in New Orleans, establishing the city’s earliest Latino community.

Kelvin, Joel and Arnold smile
as they wait for work in Center City,
New Orleans. The three cousins
immigrated from Honduras after Katrina,
joining a historic flow to the city.

More than one hundred years later, this Honduran population formed the core of the city’s pre-Katrina Latino population, with some New Orleanian Hondurans tracing as far back as five generations in the city. New Orleans hosted the nation’s largest Honduran communities, and between 9 percent and 12 percent of the city’s foreign-born residents were Honduran in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, according to the Migration Policy Institute and Rice University Professors Katherine Donato and Shirin Hakimzadeh.

In the 1990s Mexican immigrants like Saucedo began to arrive to work in shipyards and the casino building boom, diversifying the gulf coast’s Latino population. Nicaraguans arrived after Hurricane Mitch destroyed livelihoods in Central America in 1998, but the overall percentage of Latinos in New Orleans remained low – just 3.1 percent of the city’s 485,000 residents in 2000.

Nuevo Orleans by the numbers

Nearly one-in-four construction workers in the United States is a Latino immigrant, and from the massive destruction in New Orleans emerged the need for construction workers and particularly for immigrant labor.

Latino workers paint one of the
mansions on St. Charles Avenue in
New Orleans.

“The newcomer Latino migrants were clearly the rapid response labor force that New Orleans reconstruction demanded,” according to Beth Fussell, a Washington State University sociologist whose work focuses on Latino immigrants in the United States. “The Hispanic labor force has fulfilled this demand without expectation of housing assistance, functioning schools, or any other support from the city,” she writes in a forthcoming article in the Journal of American History.

An extensive population-based study conducted by Tulane University and the University of California, Berkeley in 2006 found that nearly half the reconstruction workforce in New Orleans was Latino, and that 54 percent of that population was undocumented, working illegally in the United States. The vast majority (77 percent) of Latino workers did not live in the New Orleans area before the storm, but neither did they cross into the U.S. for the work.

Like Saucedo, almost 90 percent of the undocumented workers in New Orleans lived in the United States prior to the storm, and many came from Texas (41 percent) and Florida (11 percent) to work in the reconstruction of the city, according to the Tulane/Berkeley report. More established construction workers – those with their own trucks and equipment – were in high demand, and teams of Latino workers arrived from across the American South and Southwest.

Fernando Saucedo stands with
Elly Kulger, coordinator of the Latino
Health Outreach Project, near the
New Orleans Superdome.

New immigrants, new challenges

The sudden influx of Spanish speaking workers in New Orleans not only alarmed local politicians. Within a week of his well-publicized call for New Orleans to remain a “chocolate city,” Mayor Ray Nagin asked the city’s business community, “How do I keep the city from being overrun by Mexican workers?”

It also caught the city’s decimated health care system off-guard.

David, 19, looks away as Carrie, an
LHOP volunteer from Florida, gives him
an injection for tetanus in 2006.
David immigrated from Mexico in search of work,
and faced the dangers of demolition in New Orleans.

The Tulane/Berkeley study confirmed what many saw in the city: immigrant workers were performing dangerous demolition and reconstruction work. “Undocumented workers perform work with higher associated risk such as roofing and debris removal.” Legal immigrants are exposed to more dangerous working conditions than native-born workers, the study found, but undocumented immigrants are more vulnerable in the labor market and face the gravest threats at work.

After months of working in moldy and waterlogged homes, one-third of undocumented workers reported a serious cough, 42 percent recurring headaches, 25 percent eye infections, and 49 percent chronic cold or flu symptoms. “So far, local and national authorities have failed to comprehend the human costs that are being borne by Latino workers,” the report’s authors wrote.

One organization did recognize symptoms of this dangerous work, and stepped into the service void to address the growing health crisis.

Gina Lutz, a founder of the Latino Health
Outreach Project, sits outside the Common
Ground Health Clinic in Algiers.

Just ten days after Katrina hit New Orleans, residents and volunteers organized Common Ground, a sprawling grassroots advocacy and social service organization. Working from space donated by the imam at Masjid Bilal, a local mosque, Common Ground opened a health clinic in Algiers Point, just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. Clinic Executive Director Antor Ola said her staff recognized that “the new Latino workers required special care, and right away.”

Common Ground volunteers Jennifer Whitney and Gina Lutz launched the Latino Health Outreach Project in late September, establishing mobile clinics and reaching out to thousands of workers at the day labor hiring corners that emerged across the city. Lutz said the project has grown and moved with the city’s new Latino workers, seeing approximately 30 workers per week and referring dozens for follow-up treatment at the Common Ground Health Clinic in Algiers.

“There is almost no capacity to serve Spanish speakers in New Orleans,” Lutz explained, “so we try to provide as many services as we can, and then assign interpreters to help people navigate the hospitals that do exist.” When immigration agents raided a popular hiring site at Lee Circle, day laborers moved to a corner near the Superdome, and the health project moved with them.

Antor Ola directs the Common Ground
Health Clinic in Algiers. The Latino Health
Outreach Project is an outgrowth of
Common Ground and the two share volunteers.

Now two years old and operating from a converted store across the street from the mosque, Common Ground Health Clinic is raising funds to buy its building and convert the temporary clinic into a permanent community resource that can provide free primary care and more serious treatment. Ola says that a permanent and professional clinic is important not only to the mission of Common Ground, but to show respect and earn the trust of patients. “Just because the care is free, that doesn’t mean patients deserve any less respect or privacy,” she said.

The Latino Health Outreach Project not only tends to workplace injuries of the city’s new workers, it provides an avenue for them to organize and share information. Fernando Saucedo, the Mexican immigrant who came via Houston, can be found most clinic days talking to patients about their treatment at work. Saucedo’s easy laugh and well-creased baseball cap are regular features of the still-developing day laborers organizations that workers form to try to protect themselves. Sharing information about health risks and treatment is just the start of connecting new immigrants with information about working conditions, housing, schools and more, Saucedo explained.

Latino New Orleans in transition

Although solid demographic numbers are still hard to verify after the storm, anecdotal evidence confirms that Katrina’s legacy will be reflected not only in a smaller city and a few bright spots like the Common Ground Health Clinic, but in an emerging Latino population still laying down roots on the Gulf Coast.

James Deshotels runs a health
clinic for Daughters of Charity, a
Catholic charity that has innovated
the “Baby Van” to help pregant Latina
women in New Orleans.

“We saw a huge increase in the number of Hispanic maternity patients,” said Dr. Kevin Work, an obstetrician with the Jefferson Parish Health Unit in New Orleans. After the storm, Work started advertising his private practice in Spanish to reach out to the new residents. “I expected to be busy, but I’m delivering at least 50 babies each month right now, and 85 to 90 percent of them are Hispanic,” he said. “The demand for this service is unbelievable.”

Some parish health units report seeing three times as many Latina maternity patients as before the storm, according to the Louisiana Department of Public Health, but since patients have shifted from closed clinics and the overall number of patients seen is still lower than before the storm, it is difficult to know what the increases actually mean.

Daughters of Charity, an early partner in Latino health outreach, operates a March of Dimes “Mom & Baby Mobile Health Center” known as the Baby Van (“more of a baby bus these days!” joked one health worker), and reports that its Spanish-speaking staff is busy at each of three sites in the city. “We have more than 120 women enrolled,” said Program Director Rosa Bustamante. “Even as more services become available, options for Spanish speakers are still too few.”

For 8 months after Katrina swept
through New Orleans, the city rented
campsites on the muddy soccer fields
of City Park to workers toiling in
demolition and reconstruction.

Marisa Rodriguez, founder and host of “Tomate, Chile y Cebolla,” a call-in radio show broadcast on New Orleans’s Spanish-language AM station, KTLA Radio Tropical, says the growing Latino population is evident on the airwaves and on the streets of greater New Orleans. “Before Katrina, we calculated about 11,000 listeners,” she said during a break from the show on a recent afternoon. “Now we estimate at least 16 thousand or 18 thousand listeners.”

Rodriguez says most of the show’s audience calls are from men, a fact that might be related to the show’s tagline: “Tomato Chile and Onion, with the hot chicks Marisa and Elena.” But their questions indicate the population is settling into New Orleans. “We still talk about labor abuses and the troubles migrant workers face,” she said, “but we now hear more questions about enrolling kids in schools and how to buy houses.

“The community we had before the storm has grown,” Rodriguez said. “In the stores now you see more people shopping for school clothes for their children, more (Latina) women in the groceries, and more families in the parks.”

Indeed, one of the most potent symbols of recovery and transformation in New Orleans is City Park, a vast stretch of green that runs to Lake Ponchartrain on the north side of the city. When migrant workers began arriving in New Orleans to gut houses and re-roof businesses, the city rented campsites on dark, muddy, destroyed soccer fields, charging five dollars more for use of a communal shower.

The grass has returned to City Park,
and on weekends the park fills with fans and
Latino soccer leagues.

Workers from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and beyond lived in the park for a year, camping beneath stretched tarps and sharing fire pits to cook meals after long days of demolition and reconstruction. The scant public services and lack of electricity underscored the vulnerable and transient lives of the workers, even if wages were good.

Latino New Orleans to stay

Two years later, the grass has returned to City Park, and the soccer fields are hives of activity for the thriving Latino community. Every Saturday and Sunday, teams called Atletico Louisiana, Boca Juniors, River Plate or Campo America square off in league games, packing the sidelines with families, friends and food in colorful and noisy celebration.

[To meet the workers,strikers and fullbacks of one of the teams, the Atletico Louisiana, click on this link.]

New Latino soccer leagues are just one sign of the future for New Orleans.

Mayasin Aguilar left Veracruz, Mexico, to join her husband, a construction worker, in New Orleans. Her kitchen acumen has been in high demand, and Aguilar sold food from the back of a pickup truck before moving to a semi-permanent taqueria converted from a cashier’s booth at a gas station in the Center City neighborhood.

Osbili Gomez and his son Yoni are two of
the New New Orlenians who come to City Park
to cheer for friends on soccer leagues.

Hundreds of workers stop before and after work for tacos and other tastes of home, Aguilar said, and she and her husband earn good money working six days per week. “I like New Orleans,” she said. “After work sometimes we go fishing, just like in Veracruz. And music here is almost as good as back home too.”

As taquerias and soccer league flourish, many of New Orleans’ churches are reaching out to their new Spanish-speaking congregants as well.

“We’ve been working for the past year now to find Spanish language priests for our church,” said Father Vien, the pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam, a Catholic parish comprised of Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in New Orleans East beginning in 1975. Father Vien said he plans to change one of the three Sunday Masses from Vietnamese to Spanish.

“When my people came here,” he says, “the priest learned to speak some Vietnamese. If he could do that 30 years ago, then maybe I should learn Spanish now,” he concluded with a smile.

The St. Vincent de Paul church in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans has reflected the immigration trends of this port city since its construction in 1838.

Mayasin Aguilar works at a taqueria converted
in a New Orleans Gas Station. Her husband started
work in construction after the couple
immigrated from Veracruz, Mexico.

Originally built as a Creole church – and intended exclusively for an upper class of French Creole parishioners – St. Vincent switched to English-language services in the 1870s to accommodate Irish immigrants, setting off a firestorm of protest from French and German speakers. In the 1980s the church started Spanish-language Mass, according to its pastor, Father Benson.

“After the storm, the first people back cleaning out the church were our Hispanic parishioners,” he recalled. “We saw the new faces in the city and realized we were no longer alone,” Father Benson said, noting that the church’s Spanish-speakers have doubled in number and transformed the church both physically and spiritually.

“Some of these new immigrants are very gifted workers,” Benson explained, pointing to plaster, drywall, and painting that has remade the church, “and they bring different traditions of worship to our community here.” Benson said that his church has integrated the feast days and holy celebrations of Catholic calendars in Mexico, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and that the Spanish-language masses have taken a new musical direction as Catholic immigrants recreate songs and rituals from their home churches thousands of miles away. “And this is our greatest blessing,” Benson said, “the dedication and faith of our new members.”

Still, if today’s Latino immigrants follow a long tradition of immigrants mixing in New Orleans, they also face unique challenges.

Marisa Rodriguez, host of KTLA’s
“Tomate, Chile y Cebolla.”

Sociologist Beth Fussell found that nearly half the city’s population was foreign-born in 1850, with mostly Irish and Italian immigrants building canals and infrastructure, just as Latino immigrants today build houses and casinos. “In stark contrast to their 19th century counterparts,” Fussell writes, today’s Latino immigrants “often face insurmountable legal obstacles to incorporation.”

Radio Tropical’s airwaves are full of dubious advertisements for legal services, but for most undocumented immigrants in New Orleans and the rest of the United States, there are few options but to hope for immigration reform that will allow them to leverage their contributions to the United States and regularize their status as immigrants or permanent residents here.

Fernando Saucedo, the Mexican immigrant who crossed into the United States on Independence Day, said he earns more money in a week in the United States than he could in a month in Mexico, and that he can’t afford to return. “We need immigration reform to recognize all the work we do for this country,” he said one morning in the shade of a live oak near a hiring site. “I went to Washington D.C. to represent day laborers,” he continued, “but so many of the politicians seem to care more about their nice suits than the people working to rebuild this city.”

Despite the legal obstacles, Latino immigrants are still arriving in New Orleans to look for work in its reconstruction industry. At least some will settle and participate in the city’s long-term resurrection.

“More people are deciding to stay and start their families here,” Rodriguez, the radio host, said, “and we will contribute to the New Orleans culture.” Rodriguez, a born-and-raised New Orleanian, said that “Latino culture has been a part of New Orleans for hundreds of years. It’s going to be very interesting,” she added, “because we’re now seeing the beginning of the contributions new Latinos will make to the city and the mix of culture that defines it.”

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