by José Torres Tama
Chocolate City is melting in the summer heat, and its poorest black residents have been kept from returning to their homes in undamaged housing projects that remain fenced off, awaiting the bulldozer’s wrath. Rising in the shadow of broken promises by a re-elected mayor to bring all people back is a brown labor force of mostly Mexican workers. They have migrated to New Orleans since the storm and are changing the demographic color scheme of a city where enchiladas are becoming as common as jambalaya.
At the corner of Spain and Chartres streets, I recently saw a group of four cowboy-hat wearing workers of “Mestizo” Mexican descent in blue Levis and snakeskin boot awaiting instructions for a repair job on a nearby house. In their classic white-straw “vaquero” hats, they resembled extras out of a Spaghetti Western movie, and their presence evoked a square in San Antonio, not the Faubourg Marigny. A few blocks away on St. Claude Avenue, entire immigrant families are resettling the Bywater, once predominantly African-American.
So the “hood” is transforming into the “barrio,” and on numerous occasions, I have been referred to as “amigo” by gringos, black and white, who at least know this one word of Spanish. I do look stereotypically Latino with my caramel complexion, and I don’t mind having become the ubiquitous “amigo” man. In 1984, when I first arrived in the Crescent City, I was actually called a “Yankee,” as my New York accent gave me away immediately. Raised in the industrial Northeast, I had been called many things before, but never a “Yankee.” I realized that the South has a lasting memory, however I took delight in my novel hybrid identity as a “Latino Yankee” in the “Big Easy.”
Slowly I began to discover the extensive Latin roots of Nueva Orleans, which included the staple of red beans and rice in the local cuisine. I had finally found the perfect refuge in a city within the borders of the U.S., but outside of its Puritanical tentacles. Here, in a Catholic metropolis, rituals oscillated between piety and desire. Such dichotomies were also familiar to my South American culture.
To this day, New Orleans’ Iberian heritage is proudly proclaimed at French Quarter intersections with historical mosaic placards that read: “When New Orleans was the capital of the Spanish Provinces from 1762 to 1803, this street bore the name of Calle Real,” for Royal Street. Vestiges of thoroughfares with Spanish names still abound, and City Hall is actually located on Perdido Street. “Perdido” in Spanish means lost. Twenty-two years ago, I found that amusing, but today, it’s not a good sign. In fact, the mayor’s office is at 1300 Perdido. That may not be the most reassuring street name and number combination, but perhaps it provides mythic reason for the post-Katrina absence of a clear plan from officials at this address.
Like Latin cities, our modus operandi embraces a “mañana” schedule where things are put off to the following day or the day after that — yet this accepted social norm has been detrimental to our recovery. Where I live, the neighborhood supermarket has not reopened, and I have to shop in the French Quarter at small, pricier food stores. Whenever it rains, the electricity goes out, and on several occasions, our water has been cut off for hours.
I imagine that our immigrant “compadres” feel at home in the Third World “pueblo” we have become, but I am concerned for the rampant exploitation of their labor and the serious violations of their human rights. I have spoken to a few of them, and quite often, they are engaged in arduous and toxic work and are not paid the American dollars they were promised. Without any English language skills to demand their just wages — and with a national demonization campaign against them, and the constant fear of deportation — they are the most vulnerable to abject abuse by pirate construction companies, the local police, and immigration agents.
Not surprisingly, the construction industry of New Orleans in the 21st century has replaced the cotton industry of 18th and 19th centuries in terms of servitude, but instead of black abuse by white slave masters, we have brown exploitation by construction companies with the same disregard for humanity. It is even more ironic that the primary location to engage this labor force is under the controversial statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which stands with his folded arms at the Uptown circle bearing his name. On any given morning, you can find hundreds of individuals waiting to be picked for jobs.
In the evening and into the night, just as many can be found living on the streets in the surrounding area, or sleeping under the concrete phallus of this iconic good ‘ole boy. Unpaid for their labor, many of them are left to homelessness and tragic despair, totally abandoned and without a dime to attempt to return to their domiciles south of the border. These are hard-working human beings, and just like the entire city of New Orleans was welcoming to the thousands of librarians who held their convention here this summer, I urge all of us to express thanks — “gracias”— to these men for the honorable work they have done in the past year.
We need to look them in their eyes and acknowledge their presence because they are the most isolated people in our current environment. They have toiled at jobs no one else will, such as cleaning the human refuse of the Superdome and Convention Center after the storm. Like the stoic Chinese who were imported to work the railroads in the 19th century, the legacy of these immigrant Mexican workers will be the rebuilding of New Orleans in the 21st century.
At one time, New Orleans had a progressive moniker as the “Gateway to the Americas.” Even the renowned Gabriel
Garcia-Marquez, father of magical realist fiction, proclaimed our city “ as the Northern-most point of the Caribbean.” If we can point to one positive that Katrina has washed ashore, it is the return of a greater Latin presence that has always been intrinsic to this bayou village, but perhaps forgotten. It is time to remember, and we must cultivate our resurrection “mano a mano,” hand in hand, as a multiracial port city of the new millennium.
Since 1995, José Torres Tama has been touring across the country with solo shows that thrive on a fusion of spoken-word prose and bilingual poetry that are politically charged. The recipient of a Louisiana Theater Fellowship, he has also received a Regional Artist Project grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. This essay is excerpted from the collection Hard Living in the Big Easy: New Orleans in Exile after Katrina.