An Economist Visits New Orleans

Bienvenido, Nuevo Orleans
Notes from different corners of the world.
April 19 2006 1:52 PM

An Economist Visits New Orleans

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They are more likely to be impressed by the city's towering bridges than its jazz. They enjoy the warm weather and find most of the citizenry to be welcoming. They wait mornings at gas stations to be picked up for clean-up and repair work around the city. These are the migrant workers—usually Latino—who have come to rebuild New Orleans.

The motive for coming is simple: money. A laborer might earn as much as $150—untaxed—for an eight-hour work day. Workers typically arrive from nearby states. If you patronize local Mexican restaurants, expect to see Texas license plates.

While Mexicans are the largest group, Central Americans—and particularly Hondurans—are disproportionately represented, relative to other Latino enclaves in the United States. Throughout the country, Central Americans tend to be recent immigrants. This means they are less likely to be settled in other American cities with homes and families and jobs, and more likely to uproot in search of a better deal, which in this case means moving to New Orleans. Since most do not have families with them in the States, they are not scared off by bad schools, questionable infrastructure, or potential crime—all features of the current New Orleans. And of course the Hondurans are used to worse storms back home.

Latino migration follows an economic logic. Immigrants are prominent in the construction sector; 40 percent of the workers who rebuilt the Pentagon after Sept. 11 were Latino. So, if you are looking to rebuild, you will hire Latinos, many of them illegal. New Orleans is a low-services, low-infrastructure, clean-up and construction-intensive city and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Most of the low-wage (often African-American) labor that served the city before Katrina struck left New Orleans afterward and did not return. Just as Chinese immigrants worked on the railroads out West, Irish immigrant laborers built much of the Erie Canal, and Italian immigrants put together much of the New York subway system, so will Latinos rebuild New Orleans.

The city has so far been ambivalent about the influx of new workers. But New Orleans should embrace its new residents, since Latinos will drive the city's structural and cultural renewal and help New Orleans claim a future for itself.

At the moment, Latino workers say, New Orleans police track them with a vigilance and sometimes a roughness not found in other U.S. communities. Furthermore, immigration authorities conduct more sweeps than the workers are used to. The city has yet to decide whether it wishes to regularize or outlaw daily pick-up spots for workers, even though such locales are essential for construction and have become an important way to distribute medical information. Volunteers congregate at gas stations and other pick-up spots to help immigrants who are sick, offering informal diagnoses, leaflets on treatment centers, and general encouragement to seek care.

Construction companies take advantage of the workers' illegal status. Workers say it is common for "pick-up" employers to refuse to pay them after a job is done. If a worker complains, the employer can threaten to call the immigration authorities. Other companies change the terms of the deal in the middle of the day. The workers are now trading stories about how to spot dishonest employers. The newness of the market means that people are still learning; most workers at the pick-up sites have been in town for less than six months. The workers speak of these experiences philosophically, rather than with extreme bitterness. For most of them this kind of problem is nothing new and often predates their time in the United States.

The Gulf Coast Latin American Association estimated in November that about 30,000 Latinos were drawn to the coastal region—not just New Orleans—in the aftermath of the storm. No one knows the real numbers, which are changing rapidly. In any case the influx is noticeable; post-storm New Orleans now has a little more than 200,000 residents, which is very small for an American city of its repute. But the demographic changes are simply bringing New Orleans closer to the national average. According to the 2000 Census, New Orleans was only 3.1 percent Hispanic, and Louisiana was only 2.4 percent Hispanic at that time. The U.S. national average was 12.5 percent Latino and the urban average higher yet.

That said, signs of Latin cultural dominance are hard to encounter outside of construction sites. Salvadoran pupusas (the national dish) can be found only on the outskirts of town and with difficulty. Honduran restaurants do not exist, and tacquerias—the perennial favorite of Mexican migrants—are few in number. The Jambalaya News: El Períódico de la Comunidad, the local Latino paper, is only in its second year of publication.

Still, as Latinos put down roots, these cultural outposts will continue to pop up. As they do, Latinos will be restoring a time-honored Hispanic influence to New Orleans. The Spanish ruled the city from 1762 to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. During this time, Louisiana grew from fewer than 7,500 people to about 50,000. The so-called "French Quarter" of New Orleans draws more on Spanish than French architecture. Creole cuisine derived jambalaya from African sources but also from paella. The use of paprika, meat pies, and red beans—all local staples—comes from Spanish sources as well, often through the mediation of the colonial New World. The early 20th-century New Orleans port made much of its money dealing in Central American coffee and bananas. Might a new influx of Hispanic influence bring comparable benefits in the future?

In October, Mayor Ray Nagin asked, "How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?" The answer: Do not rebuild.

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