Rebuilding the Big Easy

Latinos confront strained resources and tense race relations as they help clean up New Orleans and other hurricane-ravaged cities.

Published October 19, 2005 10:30PM (EDT)

While Mayor Ray Nagin trumpets the return of lights, power and tourists to the French Quarter, Ruben Lopez of Fresno, Calif., and his roommate Myron Moran, a Guatemalan immigrant, rest in the pitch-black room of an abandoned hotel on Canal Street. They've just finished another sultry 14-hour day rebuilding the Big Easy.

"The rats here are the size of rabbits," says Moran, whose teeth glow white in the dark as he describes his temporary home. "We're paying $60 a night to this guy Eddie for a room with no AC, no lights, no electricity, no water and a bed that stinks," says Lopez, a California native who drove with his father to New Orleans after hearing about construction and cleanup work at a job fair in Fresno.

Lopez and Moran are part of a little-understood army of "aliens" (or, among the more politically correct, "out-of-state workers") drawn to the new New Orleans, a city on the verge of a radical Latinization that is also transforming other urban landscapes in the country.

"How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?" Mayor Nagin asked at a meeting with local business leaders last week. The fact that Moran, an almond-eyed, Maya-faced, 4-foot-2-inch undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, and Lopez, a shaven-headed, tattooed, 6-foot-3-inch U.S. citizen and former Chicano gang member are described as "Mexicans" reflects a profound lack of understanding in this city about its new population. U.S.-born and foreign-born workers are coming to the Gulf Coast from the Southwest, Florida, the Carolinas, Mexico and Latin America, swelling the numbers of Hispanics in Louisiana beyond the mere 3 percent recorded in the 2001 U.S. Census.

Malik Rahim, a former City Council candidate and head of Common Ground, a multiethnic advocacy group in the Algiers neighborhood, calls the mayor's remarks "the kind of scapegoating that only worsens an already difficult situation." Rahim, a former Black Panther, says he and other community activists are challenged enough by police brutality, Louisiana's historic racism and natural disasters. City leaders and the news media lack the resources and cultural knowledge to deal with the latest influx of workers to New Orleans, which historically has seen several waves of migrant workers, brought in by the French, Spanish and British empires.

Lopez, Moran and thousands of other immigrant and U.S.-born Latinos are cleaning debris, putting up drywall and restoring the ornate iron balconies of historic buildings on Canal Street and other streets in the French Quarter. Local Hondurans, who comprise the city's largest Latino population, report being the object of anger from blacks and whites who fear losing their livelihoods to low-wage Latino workers. Zapotec-speaking Oaxacan Indians walk the streets of New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana and in Mississippi after being threatened with deportation and kicked off local military bases, where they worked for local contractors without getting paid.

Latinos in the Gulf region are being racially profiled by local and federal authorities, says Victoria Cintra of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, one of the only organizations addressing Latino immigrant concerns in the region. Cintra believes the Bush administration's suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires payment of prevailing wages, along with its temporary removal of documentation requirements on I-9 forms, has strained race relations by lowering wages and fostering competition between groups.

"The Bush administration is inviting Latino workers to New Orleans and the South without creating conditions to protect them," says Cintra, who recently provided a tent to more than a dozen unpaid Oaxacan worker in New Orleans. "These workers are extremely vulnerable."

Walking down Bourbon Street in search of cheap eats, Lopez and Moran feel the effects of their vulnerable position in the heart of the Big Easy's tourist economy. "I walked up and asked this white guy if he knew where we could get some food," Lopez says, "and he said, 'I don't know a place where you can eat, wetback.' I almost hit him. But I held back because it isn't going to do anything. There's lots of racism here: white people, black people, even some Latinos."

Lopez says his current boss, who is black, "treats me really good, adding that a previous local contractor still owes him $1,200 for house-gutting and debris-cleanup work.

Having survived wars, hurricanes, earthquakes and poverty in Guatemala, Moran keeps his smile and sense of mission. In indigenous-inflected Guatemalan Spanish, Moran, who works long hours despite a leg injury from a previous job, has a message for his new neighbors: "I came to work. I came to make money so I can feed my children," he says. "These people don't know what I'm made of -- but they will."

By Roberto Lovato

Pacific News Service contributor Roberto Lovato ( is a New York-based writer.

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