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Hermenegildo Sánchez, an undocumented immigrant, at work rebuilding New Orleans in the spring of 2006.

The Hispanic workforce that helped to rebuild New Orleans

The Hispanic workforce that helped to rebuild New Orleans

Between destruction and depopulation, increased the need for workers to rebuild.

Hermenegildo Sánchez, an undocumented immigrant, at work rebuilding New...
Hermenegildo Sánchez, an undocumented immigrant, at work rebuilding New Orleans in the spring of 2006.


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By Damià S. Bonmatí  @damiabonmati

When Belinda Ávila returned to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina went through, her city seemed to her like a place that belonged in “a movie about zombies." She no longer had a house, but she still had something resembling a city.

At that moment she still did not know that the culture she had acquired at home since she was a child would become the pillar she would use to help rebuild the city. She was 24 and had lived her entire life in the United States. She had also lived her entire life in a house where they danced to the rhythms of folk music from Honduras and spoke Spanish.

New Hispanics arrived in New Orleans. Amidst the destruction and the departure of much of the population there arose the need for workers to do the rebuilding.

“Especially those who were willing to accept dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs that involving removing debris left by the storm and the putrid contents of buildings that had been flooded,” explains a recent report from The Data Center, an independent group.

In the year 2000 there were some 60,000 Hispanics in New Orleans, according to the Census. In 2013, it was around 103,000. Researchers believe that a large part of the increase is due to the arrival of post-Katrina immigrants.

Belinda Ávila remembers those who had recently arrived. They came from Mexico, Central America and other parts of the United States. “Upon their arrival they worked hard and there was no recreation for them. Our way to connect with them was through the churches,” she recalls.

Especially at a church in Kenner, a nearby town that attracted a good part of this inflow of manual laborers. “Stemming from that, I began to meet many people after Katrina and we all danced to our music a little bit,” she explains by telephone from New Orleans. “We not only learn from dance, but we learn from our cultures.”

Little by little, the folk dances from Honduras that she had learned from the time she was a child ceased to be something that belonged just in the family and these dances became a part of the New Orleans Hispano America Dance Group, which sought to become a link among  Hispanics by way of Mexican, Honduran and Nicaraguan dances.

The Hispanic community is the only one that grew following Katrina’s devastating sweep through New Orleans. This community did not stop growing between 2007 and 2013, the last year for which statistics are available.

And people whose roots are in Honduras, much like Belinda, have much to contribute to this trend: in 2013 Hondurans represented 25% of the Hispanic population in New Orleans, even more than Mexicans (23%). 

The Honduran community in New Orleans was already well-known, but the need for manual labor turned it into the most numerous Hispanic group.

“Migrant populations take on the dynamics of a social network and friendships grow as they discover opportunities to emigrate and work through people they known,” is an analysis offered by sociologist Elizabeth Fussell of Brown University, author of a study that addresses the progress made and the problems faced by Hispanics in New Orleans.

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“Most of those who went to New Orleans after Katrina were already in the United States at the time, and they went there seeking jobs that paid relatively high wages,” adds the researcher.

10 imágenes de Katrina que nunca olvidaremos

In 2006, months after Katrina passed through, a study revealed that half of the Hispanics working in the reconstruction were in the country under an irregular situation.

The exceptional case of Katrina – according to various reports – encouraged the authorities to temporarily suspend the regulations that compelled employers to verify whether the immigrants had work permits. This resulted in situations presenting exploitation of workers and non-payment of wages.

After so many years, the Hispanic community – and Belinda Ávila’s dance group – have had to witness the deportation orders issued against some of those who had worked precisely on the reconstruction. “We have experienced raids in the flesh,” she says. According to Ávila, the interaction among the White, Afro-American and Hispanic populations is a pending issue in New Orleans. “That’s why it’s so important to offer the best of our culture to the city, and that Hispanics take English classes,” explains the founder of the group that dances to the rhythm of marimba music.

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The sociologist adds something positive: “New Orleans has a long history within the context of the Spanish colonial empire.” And she adds: “Now, in some neighborhoods, Hispanics have expanded their businesses and services in order serve other Hispanics.”

This is as if the rebuilding of New Orleans has reconciled the South’s city of jazz and Cajun cooking with its Hispanic past.

With information from Luis Melgar of Univision Noticias. For questions, ideas and critiques, dbon mati@univision.net 

Lea aquí en español: La fuerza latina que ayudó a reconstruir Nueva Orleans.

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