December 1, 2013
By Chad Calder
Jose de la Cruz arrived in New Orleans five years ago, drawn from North Carolina by the promise of steady work in the city’s post-Katrina reconstruction.
The 25-year-old native of Veracruz, Mexico, joined a friend already here who was doing construction work in Lakeview, then buzzing with rebuilding activity.
He lived with a half-dozen other Hispanic men, fellow storm-chasers, packed into a house near the job site. As the crew’s newest member, de la Cruz slept in the living room.
The weeks became months, and de la Cruz moved to Metairie because he felt safer there, outside of the city and among more Hispanics. The months became years, and de la Cruz met a woman born here of Nicaraguan immigrants.
Today, at 30, he works mostly for himself, getting steady referrals for masonry and carpentry jobs. Though there have been plenty of other storms to chase since 2008, he’s not planning to go anywhere.
“I’ve had offers already to go other places, but I’m not interested because I’ve got enough work in New Orleans,” de la Cruz said.
It’s not just the work, he said. He likes the weather. It reminds him of the port city he left at 19, drawn by the idea that hard work gets you further in America. But most of all, de la Cruz said, he is “just happy.”
“I didn’t know I would stay this long,” he said, “but I’m still here.”
New Orleans — which sometimes bills itself as the Gateway to the Americas — has deep ties to Latin America, particularly Honduras, that stretch back to the turn of the 20th century through United Fruit Co., whose headquarters were here, in a building that still stands on St. Charles Avenue.
Going further back, the city was under the Spanish flag for nearly four decades in the late 1700s, shaping its distinctive architecture and culture, and perhaps still giving New Orleans a more familiar feel to those arriving from points south.
However, New Orleans never became a teeming hub of Hispanic immigration like its fellow port cities of Houston, Miami and Los Angeles. And for most of the 20th century, the metropolitan region’s Hispanic population grew slowly, getting a boost as people fled the Cuban revolution starting in 1959 and then again as people sought to escape political unrest in various Central and South American countries. A small but diverse population of Cubans, Salvadorans, Hondurans and Brazilians eventually took root, with roughly 60,000 area residents identifying themselves as Hispanic in the 2000 census.
Martin Gutierrez, director of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Hispanic Apostolate, which provides pastoral and social services to the Hispanic community, estimates the actual number of Hispanics at that point was 80,000, with some not bothering to check the “Hispanic” box and many undocumented immigrants seeking to avoid detection — and census takers — altogether.
Like other immigrant groups, Hispanics tended to start out in the city, many settling in Mid-City or along Magazine Street, but they began moving out to the suburbs in the second half of the century.
“That was when a lot of middle-class people were leaving the city, and it included everybody who was middle-class,” said Elizabeth Fussell, a professor at Washington State University who spent six years at Tulane University and has done extensive research on the city’s post-Katrina influx of Hispanics.
The Hispanic exodus wasn’t limited to the middle class. For poor and working-class Hispanics, the suburbs offered cheaper housing, service-industry jobs and, perhaps most important, less crime. Pockets of Hispanic neighborhoods developed, notably around the now-demolished 400-unit Redwood Apartment complex in Kenner, and Fat City in Metairie, which was the most ethnically diverse census tract in the metro area by 2000, according to an analysis by Tulane geographer Richard Campanella.
While Hispanic settlement patterns in the region changed a fair bit over the decades, the overall number of Latinos stayed relatively flat. Immigrants tend to go where the jobs are, Gutierrez noted, and Louisiana’s tepid economy wasn’t exactly a magnet.
“All of that changed, literally overnight, after Katrina,” he said.
The vast amount of reconstruction that followed the 2005 storm was a beacon to the so-called storm-chasers: young, single Hispanic men migrating from one hurricane-ravaged area to the next, said Allison Plyer, director of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
The federal government suspended regulations on labor and contracting, and new arrivals — particularly Mexicans — got to work gutting thousands of wet, moldy houses, patching roofs and clearing debris. That work gave way to the more skilled work of rebuilding houses, and with no end to the work in sight, new arrivals began to put down roots. Gutierrez estimates the region’s Hispanic population reached as high as 150,000.
In the Village de l’Est neighborhood in New Orleans East, the local Catholic parish, named Mary Queen of Vietnam, added a Spanish-language Mass and saw attendance swell as high as 300, according to parish coordinator Anthony Tran, who added that the Hispanic and Vietnamese communities have coexisted amicably.
Closer to the heart of town, Hispanic businesses sprang up throughout Mid-City, fueled by the availability of affordable commercial real estate and a ready market of Latino workers.
Jose Castillo, operator of the Bienville Street location of Norma’s Sweets Bakery, said he and his mother knew in 2011 right where to put a second location of Norma’s, a mainstay of Kenner’s Hispanic community since 2003.
“We looked at a lot of vacant buildings, abandoned buildings. ... Prices were really low, so the easiest thing was to purchase property in Mid-City, and it didn’t fail us,” he said, noting he’s watched many other Latino entrepreneurs do the same thing.
“You got buildings that you can put an office in that are still abandoned on Canal Street,” Castillo said, with a touch of amazement.
But it was Jefferson Parish — particularly Metairie and Kenner — that absorbed the most newcomers.
“Latinos settled where other Latinos settled, and a large (population) was already in the suburbs,” Plyer said.
Jefferson a magnet
In addition to established Hispanic communities, a largely unflooded Jefferson Parish had other advantages.
“Jefferson Parish recovered quicker than other areas in New Orleans, and there were landlords willing to rent to them,” Gutierrez said. “The availability of housing drew them to that area.”
Kenner and Metairie today share the highest concentration of Hispanics in the region, at 21 percent. Several other Jefferson Parish communities — Terrytown, Harvey and Gretna — aren’t far behind, and all three saw faster growth in their Hispanic population after Katrina than Kenner or Metairie.
Still, Kenner, with its wealth of Latino restaurants and other small businesses, feels like the hub of New Orleans’ Hispanic community.
“There’s parts of Metairie where there’s no Hispanics anywhere,” observed Nasty Martinez, owner of Sabor Latino, a clothing store on Williams Boulevard. “In Kenner, we’re pretty much everywhere.”
Early last decade, real estate agent Conchita Sulli — a Nicaraguan who has lived here since she was 3 — was asked by a friend what Kenner could do for its Hispanic population. That friend happened to be Mayor Louis Congemi, and Sulli’s answer was swift: Hispanics needed help with financial and language skills.
“I looked around and I saw that there was nobody servicing the Hispanic community,” said Sulli, a past president of the parish’s Board of Realtors. “I looked for a Hispanic loan originator, and there wasn’t one in the whole city.”
She went to the banks. First NBC hired a Spanish speaker, and others soon followed suit.
Sulli and the Congemi administration used federal grants to put two trailers together, and in 2003 the Hispanic Resource Center was born. Today, it offers adult education, English classes, tutoring and after-school programs, a pro bono law clinic, first-time homebuyer classes and free medical service for children by appointment.
“It’s amazing what they do in that one little building,” Sulli said. “It’s a fabulous thing that the city of Kenner has done.”
The Hispanic Apostolate has also based its operations in Kenner for decades, providing tax-filing assistance and other services to local Hispanics from an office there. In early 2006, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce established its Hispanic Business Resources and Technology Center nearby in Metairie.
Fussell said these resources have played a key role in attracting Hispanics.
“Those things existed before the storm, and they existed there and not in New Orleans,” Fussell said.
The sudden immigration of so many Hispanics has led to moments of friction. In a controversial 2005 speech, then-Mayor Ray Nagin fretted publicly that locals were being left out of the rebuilding boom and asked rhetorically: “How do I make sure New Orleans is not overrun with Mexican workers?”
In 2007, Jefferson Parish, led by Congemi, who was on the Parish Council, passed an ordinance requiring all mobile food trucks to provide washing stations and restrooms — a law many saw as thinly veiled discrimination against the Hispanic community.
But Sulli doesn’t see it that way, and said even that chapter ultimately worked out for the better: “They all opened restaurants,” she said of the food truck operators. “Go down Williams Boulevard. Every block has a Hispanic restaurant. They took lemons and they made lemonade. They made businesses and they’re all thriving.”
The diversity of Jefferson Parish is evident in its public schools: Today, 9,100 Jefferson public students are Hispanic, about 20 percent of the total. That’s twice the pre-Katrina number, according to Jacob Landry, the school system’s chief strategy officer.
“I’d say we probably have a third of the Hispanic kids in the state,” he said.
The influx has created some challenges. Landry said the system is always trying to recruit more bilingual teachers, and it tries to make sure notes sent home to Hispanic parents are translated.
“Most of our schools are incredibly diverse,” he said. “It’s definitely given us a renewed focus on whether we’ve got a diverse staff.”
Crime a ‘push’ factor
While affordable housing and an existing Hispanic community attracted Hispanics to the suburbs, many were pushed there by concern about crime in the city. Hispanic workers’ tendency to carry cash, and their resistance to reporting crimes for fear of being deported, made them targets for robbers, to the point that some nicknamed them “walking ATMs.”
“If you were a member of the Latino community, you knew that you were being targeted for crime,” Fussell said.
De la Cruz said that while he still spends time in the city, a fear of getting robbed was the main reason he decided to move to Metairie.
The problems led the New Orleans Police Department in 2009 to name its first liaison to the Hispanic community. Officer Janssen Valencia teaches other officers, cadets and dispatchers basic Spanish, trains officers on cultural awareness and does outreach with Hispanic groups to get the word out that crime victims can come forward without fear of being investigated or deported.
Valencia works both sides of the cultural divide, teaching recent immigrants that they can’t offer bribes to get out of traffic tickets, as is often the custom at home, and explaining to officers that Hispanics often hand over bogus driver’s licenses and insurance documents thinking they are legitimate.
Valencia said the department needs more bilingual recruits, and he could accomplish far more with a Spanish-speaking officer in every district.
“It’s a major, major change for the department,” he said of 911 dispatchers’ increasingly common requests for Spanish-speaking officers. “It’s every day now.”
Indeed, the Justice Department investigation that resulted in the consent decree signed last year found the NOPD had “virtually no capacity to provide meaningful access to police services” to Hispanic and Vietnamese residents who don’t speak English, since it had only one officer fluent in each language.
The investigation found foreign-language 911 calls were sometimes ignored by officers, victims were sometimes mistaken for suspects, and interactions with suspects often escalated unnecessarily.
The department, it said, “has significant work ahead to ensure it can effectively serve the entire New Orleans community.”
It’s not only thugs on the street who have victimized Hispanic workers.
Loyola law professor Luz Molina set up the Workplace Justice Project soon after Katrina to help Hispanic workers recover wages stolen by employers. It was envisioned as a short-term project, but the four-hour public clinics continue today.
“I was hoping to get off on Thursdays and it hasn’t happened,” Molina said with a rueful laugh.
Last year the clinic went after $253,000 in wages allegedly stolen by employers, collecting $53,000, or the equivalent of 32 workers’ wages for a month.
“That’s a significant number,” Molina said. “And that’s just the ones who find us.”
While De la Cruz said he has never had a problem getting paid for his work, he said the language barrier can make life difficult. He essentially had a crash course in English, learning on the job in North Carolina. It wasn’t easy, but it was far better than the alternative.
“It was terrible without it,” he said of the early years. “It was hard for me. My pay was low ... but now I can do things different.”
He said that while life in the United States hasn’t turned out to be as easy as he often heard it would be, he’s undeniably better off. “I was just a poor person,” he said. “I was working and I was a hard worker, but basically the money in that country was not enough to have the things you have here.”
“I didn’t think I had a future in my country,” he added, “not like the one I have here.”
Part of the tapestry
As the city’s reconstruction slowed, some of the storm-chasers moved on, but many stayed. Louis Anaya, deputy consul of Mexico in New Orleans, said recent crackdowns on Hispanic immigrants in states like Arizona and Georgia have made New Orleans a more desirable place to live and work for Hispanics. Fussell said many who stayed did so by transitioning out of the construction work that brought them here and into something else.
Brazilian-born Edelson Martins came to New Orleans in 2007 to work for a friend’s construction company after nine years in California. Since then, he’s grown fond of Louisiana, the people and the weather. Two years ago, he left the construction business and took over Churra’s Brazilian Grill on Williams Boulevard.
Martins said the restaurant is supported by Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike during the week, while Saturdays and Sundays see customers from many Latin American nations.
Martinez, the owner of nearby Sabor Latino, said it has been interesting to watch the increasing interaction among the various nationalities. In cities with larger Hispanic populations, the communities don’t intermingle as much, he said. Here, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Cubans, Dominicans, Brazilians and Mexicans are more likely to patronize each other’s restaurants and markets, though he noted with a laugh that national identity is alive and well in the spirited amateur and semipro soccer leagues.
But Martinez, who moved here from El Salvador in 1982 and considers himself a New Orleanian, notes that time is ultimately the most powerful force when it comes to assimilation. For a glimpse of the future, he simply looks at his 18-year-old son, who likes American sports, food and music.
“The new generation of kids that are coming up in middle school and high school, they’ve learned to adapt,” he said. “We have a whole new generation of Hispanic people who were born here and are a whole different Hispanic culture than we brought from our country.”
Martins has seen it, too. When he moved to California, he went out of his way to speak English and immerse himself in American news and culture. It was only after starting the restaurant that he began once again to embrace his Brazilian heritage, with his native country’s movies, music and sports playing regularly at Churra’s.
But on a recent trip to Brazil, his son, Raphael, was ready to go back to the Martins’ north shore home after only a week, finding the country and culture he barely remembers a pale substitute for the country that is now his home.
“He is 100 percent American. He just was born in Brazil,” Martins said. “He thinks American, he talks American, he looks like an American kid.
“This is happening in many families.”
Source: The Advocate