By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005
NEW ORLEANS -- The come-on was irresistible: Hop in the truck. Go to New Orleans. Make a pile of cash.
Arturo jumped at it. Since that day when he left Houston, more than two months ago, he has slept on the floors of moldy houses, idled endlessly at day-laborer pickup stops and second-guessed himself nearly every minute.
For Arturo and countless Latinos, many of them also in the country illegally, flooded-out New Orleans has not turned out to be a modern-day El Dorado, where the streets are paved with gold. Instead, they have often been abandoned without transportation or shelter by the contractors who brought them to the city. They have struggled to find employment and been paid less than they were promised -- or not at all -- when they can find work.
"This is no way to live," Arturo said wearily in Spanish. "I don't know how much longer I can take it."
Arturo, a dour Mexican from Michoacan who did not want to disclose his last name for fear of deportation, stands at the nexus of the post-Hurricane Katrina labor crisis in New Orleans. A city desperate for workers is filling with desperate workers who either cannot find jobs or whose conditions are so miserable, and whose salaries are so low, that they become discouraged and leave.
President Bush has been promoting a guest-worker program that would give foreign workers temporary legal status for jobs that citizens leave unfilled. Latino activists here say workers such as Arturo demonstrate the need for changes in the law, particularly in disaster zones hungry for laborers.
"You have a labor force willing to come in and live and work in conditions others are not willing to," said Martin Gutierrez, director of the Hispanic Apostolate of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. "If you had a system by which these workers could become legal workers in the U.S., then the wages would increase."
Gutierrez has seen a huge spike in complaints about mistreatment of Latino workers, about such things as employers refusing to pay them and a lack of access to medical care for injuries. KGLA, a Spanish-language radio station in suburban New Orleans, logs several hundred complaint calls a day. "They come with great illusions, and they find injustice," said disc jockey Azucena Diaz, whose show "Chile, Tomate y Cebolla" -- chili, tomato and onion -- was named to mimic the green, red and white colors of the Mexican flag.
The city's reaction to the influx of Latinos has been frosty, even as demographers predict that the Hispanic population will soar from its current levels of 3 percent in New Orleans and 7 percent in suburban Jefferson Parish.
In a speech to a business group, Mayor C. Ray Nagin asked how he could "stop New Orleans from being overrun by Mexican workers." At a New Orleans town hall meeting in Atlanta, displaced black civil rights activist Carl Galmon complained: "They're bringing in foreign workers from South America, Central America and Mexico, paying them $5 an hour sometimes for 80 hours a week. They are undercutting the American labor force in New Orleans."
But, judging from the miles and miles of houses waiting to be gutted or repaired, there has been no great rush to snap up the work that Galmon fears losing to undocumented laborers. The city is awash in "Now Hiring" signs, and complaints about labor shortages are endemic. For those who find work, conditions can be abominable, with laborers such as Rico Barrios and his wife, Guadalupe Garcia, slashing through the cough-inducing mold on walls in flooded Lakeview with only thin masks to shield their lungs, even though she is pregnant. "It's hard," said Barrios, who is from Mexico City, his face glistening with sweat.
Before light one recent morning, Arturo, a stocky 38-year-old with droopy eyelids, leaned against a fence behind a Shell station in Metairie, the largest New Orleans suburb. The contractor who brought Arturo to New Orleans vanished after eight days. The $150-a-day salary -- cut to $100 without explanation -- vanished with him.
The men around Arturo -- dozens of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Ecuadorans and Salvadorans -- swarmed when a red truck pulled up.
"You need work?" they said in broken English, bumping against one another to get to the head of the line.
"I work cheap. I work hard."
Two young men piled into the pickup, with a heavyset man behind the wheel. Arturo was left behind.
Arturo said he slipped into the United States about 10 months ago, guided through the Mexican desert into Texas by a smuggler, known as a coyote, whom he paid $1,800. Arturo has made about $3,000, he said, barely covering expenses and leaving just a few hundred dollars to send back to his three children and wife in Michoacan.
By midmorning, the station owner had complained and the men were run off by a sheriff's deputy.
"I don't know why they want to harass us. All we want is to work," Arturo said. "We came to lift the city up."
Arturo drifted over to the only man he knows who has transportation: a tall, genial Honduran named Victor Manuel Gonzalez. Arturo needed to offer something to get a ride. And on this morning, he had something. A hot tip.
There was work, Arturo said he had heard, in a town that started with an S. Struggling with the pronunciation, he took out a sheet of paper and scribbled the letters S-L-I-D-E-L-I, coming close to the spelling of the far-flung New Orleans suburb, Slidell.
An impromptu crew formed, Arturo and three Hondurans, all undocumented, all out of work for days, all living in a gutted house -- Gonzalez, 36; Carlos Medina, 40; and a wisecracking 18-year-old named Marcos, who would not reveal his last name but who tells everyone they should call him Marc Antony.
Slidell looked promising as they crossed a bridge at the narrow eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain. The houses were big, and broken. Blue tarps were everywhere. Arturo thought they were on to something: "Let's see if we're lucky. By the grace of God, we will be."
The pickup eased into a subdivision, and Gonzalez leapt out. Before he could cross the lawn, a man in a baseball hat was already shaking his head and gruffly saying, "I ain't got no work for you."
The process repeated itself over and over. After an hour and a dozen rejections, Marcos was restless. Medina was angry. The conversation turned to a small recent roundup of undocumented workers in New Orleans.
"If they catch me, it would be all the same to me," Medina said. "I'm not making anything here."
Another half-hour oozed by. Nothing.
The men drove by dozens of signs advertising jobs, all unattainable because the workers are in this country illegally. Discouraged, they gave up, and Gonzalez pointed his pickup southwest.
Back in New Orleans, they encountered empty streets and more shaking heads. Sometimes, a head poked out of a broken window, another Latino face, someone who had beaten them to the job, someone they might see at the gas station the next morning.
"Let's get out of here," Medina implored.
Gonzalez was frustrated but willing to keep going. "Just a few more streets."
Around midday, across from a church in eastern New Orleans, they spotted a woman in a garage, struggling with an armful of splintered wood. "I make you good price," Medina told her.
"How good?" Marie Croson responded.
Their first bite. Medina whispered something to Gonzalez and then blurted out, "Eight hundred dollars."
Then Croson was interested. She has been trying for weeks to get her house gutted. A church group from out of state had offered to do the work at no charge, but it backed off upon learning she had insurance, even though she has yet to receive a penny from her policy. A neighbor was demanding $4,000 to do the job, way more than she could afford.
"Bleach, too?" she said.
"One thousand dollars, and we finish at 5, 6 o'clock," Medina said.
She nodded her head and Arturo raced into the house, punching his bare fist through rotting drywall before the word "deal" had slipped out of Croson's mouth.
Two other friends, trailing in a separate car, joined them. After paying for gas, they'll each make about $150 -- their biggest payday in weeks.
"That was god-sent ," Croson told her friend Joyce Bennett.
Behind her, Arturo was emerging with an armload of mold-spotted muck that used to be Croson's living-room wall. A smile spread across his face. It was his first of the day.
Staff writer Ceci Connolly in Atlanta and research editor Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.