NEW ORLEANS — As the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina receded in September, roads filled with residents leaving the city, their cars, SUVs and moving vans jammed with what they had salvaged of their lives.
But another mass movement was taking place on the other sides of the highways.
Thousands of men from Mexico and Central America were driving into the city. Word had spread throughout the Latino immigrant diaspora in America that the city had plenty of work, construction wages had doubled to $16 an hour and no one was asking for papers.
“It was like a Gold Rush,” said Oscar Calanche, a Guatemalan immigrant who lived in New Orleans before the storm and returned as soon as the waters receded. “In one car there’d be three up front and three or four in the back, with suitcases and tools on top. It looked like a river of people from our countries.”
Latino workers have gutted, roofed and painted houses and hauled away garbage, debris and downed trees. Undocumented workers have installed trailers to house returning evacuees at New Orleans City Park, their pay coming from FEMA subcontractors.
“It’s all illegals doing this work,” said Rey Mendez, a FEMA trailer subcontractor from Honduras.
No one knows how many Latino immigrants are here, but John Logan, a Brown University demographer who has studied the city since Katrina, says “there must be 10,000 to 20,000 immigrant workers in the region by now, and the number is going to grow.”
As the Senate debates new immigration laws and marchers demonstrate across the country, these immigrants offer another reminder of the country’s reliance on undocumented labor from Latin America.
As New Orleans redefines itself after Katrina, the influx of large numbers of Latino immigrants is another jolt for a city that has historically thought of itself as black and white.
A port town owned at times by three different countries, New Orleans once absorbed immigrants.
While the South’s feeble economy, racism and xenophobia kept out new people and influences, New Orleans took in waves of newcomers — Italians, Greeks, Germans and Irish — in the decades before World War I. Later arrivals came from Honduras, Cuba and Vietnam.
But beginning in the 1970s, the port downsized, businesses left town, wages fell, welfare rolls and crime rose as the public education system collapsed. A black underclass took low-skilled, low-wage jobs. Fewer immigrants moved to town.
The rest of the South, meanwhile, became what New Orleans had been: Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville and Charlotte saw tens of thousands of Mexicans arrive, taking jobs in hotels, restaurants, construction and landscaping. Mexicans slaughtered pigs in Guymon, Okla., and made carpeting in Dalton, Ga. Historians call their arrival the largest influx of foreign workers to the South since the days of slavery.
But New Orleans’ listless economy was hardly a magnet for such workers.
According to the 2004 U.S. Census, New Orleans had 1,900 Mexicans. Nashville had 80,000 Mexican immigrants by 2000, city officials there estimated.
Before Katrina, the Latinos in New Orleans, mostly middle class, made up about 3% of the population.
“We were the first melting pot city in America,” said Lawrence Powell, a Tulane University historian. “It’s striking that those great waves of immigration from Mexico passed us by.”
But that changed in September.
Leonel Santos was working in Virginia when a New Orleans roofing contractor he knew from his hometown of San Francisco del Mezquital, in Mexico’s Durango state, called. The contractor sent a car that picked up Santos and seven other workers in Virginia and North Carolina and brought them to New Orleans.
“We were packed like matchsticks,” Santos said.
The group slept in a park for a month, showered with hoses and used bushes as toilets. By day they put blue tarps on roofs for a FEMA subcontractor.
“We ate once a day,” Santos said. “We’d buy canned food from a store that had a few things for sale.”
Among the new arrivals were four men from the town of Pasoamapa, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. More followed; there are now 25 Pasoamapa men in New Orleans and more on the way.
Brothers Juan, Amadeo and Hermenegildo Sanchez and their cousin Eloy Bendito were on their way to the United States when Katrina hit, and they headed for New Orleans.
“We really didn’t know where it was,” said Bendito, 29, who left his wife and two children in Pasoamapa. “We knew it had some kind of history, but we didn’t know what it was. Whether it has history didn’t interest me. What interested me was the money.”
After the storm, hotels were the first to hire, preparing for the rush of aid workers coming in. The Sanchez brothers and Bendito found work gutting rooms at the Marriott Hotel and Holiday Inn. “We pulled everything out of there — rugs, curtains, televisions,” Bendito said.
Next they found work “house leveling,” lifting houses sunk in the marshy post-Katrina soil using hydraulic jacks and propping them on stilts, bricks or concrete supports.
At first they slept in a friend’s apartment, but when it burned down, they moved to the Monte de los Olivos Lutheran Church in the suburb of Metairie, run by Jesus Gonzales, a Texas oil foreman turned pastor.
Few churches have opened their doors to the new immigrants, but Gonzales sees in them a chance for church growth. Monte de los Olivos has signs in Spanish welcoming Latino workers, Mexican film nights on Friday, a medical clinic on Saturday and soccer nets set up near the church.
Workers cook their dinners in large pots on the church’s stove and sleep in curtained-off alcoves.
“Our focus is on the newcomer,” Gonzales said. “We’re focusing on the illegal Mexican who is coming to town, any Latino who’s a laborer.”
New Orleans was unprepared for the large numbers of Latinos moving in. Few New Orleans residents speak Spanish. Money-wiring businesses are scarce.
But during this year’s Mardi Gras, Spanish could be heard throughout the French Quarter as immigrant workers wandered amid the throngs on Bourbon Street and gawked.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mario Moreno, a 4-foot-10 construction worker from the Mexican state of Guerrero, as he stood outside a nearby market.
He found a job holding a sign advertising “ice cold beer” — $100 for 10 hours a night during the five days of Mardi Gras.
But the laborers have brought a single-minded focus on work that many residents say is foreign to the Big Easy. “We’re here to work,” said Juan Sanchez. “We’re doing this to build our own houses in Mexico.”
The new workers “don’t care about traditions. They’re not going to eat crawfish,” said Azucena Diaz, a disc jockey for Radio Tropical Caliente, one of the area’s two Spanish-language stations. “They don’t care about anything else, just work, getting money and sending it to their families.”
The Latino workers haven’t always been welcomed.
Diaz, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who moved here from Pomona five years ago, says she’s seen Latinos, including her husband, insulted on the street.
“People are so angry with Hispanics coming,” Diaz said. “They don’t want any outsiders.”
Police in Metairie have run off immigrants looking for day labor. The city balked at Jesus Gonzales’ request to install showers for the men staying at his church. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 40 men at a popular gathering spot for day laborers. And workers report being stiffed by employers.
Some blacks see the thousands of Latino immigrants as usurpers who’ve come for jobs they once had, now that wages have risen and black workers are displaced.
“There are thousands of blacks that are still out of town who can’t get back to town because there’s no housing,” said Elaine Smiley, an African American, as she oversaw the renovation of her home in the Gentilly neighborhood. “If we had enough of those blacks back here, they could do the work.”
Smiley recently returned from Atlanta and hired a roofing contractor, whose workers turned out to be Mexican immigrants.
“I don’t have anything against [Mexicans] being here,” she said as five workers pounded shingles on her roof. “But I don’t think they should be getting as much work as they’re getting.”
It’s not clear how long the workers will stay in New Orleans.
Most left families behind. Rents are rising. Motels are packed with Latino workers sleeping six and eight to a room, and others have had to find shelter in warehouse offices.
The men from Pasoamapa say they will stay until there’s no more work. Another 20 men from their town are on their way, they say.
“There’s work for them as soon as they arrive,” says Hermenegildo Sanchez. “We’re not thinking of leaving.”