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Five years after Katrina, New Orleans sees higher percentage of Hispanics

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010; A01

NEW ORLEANS -- Five years after Hurricane Katrina, the rebuilding of the Big Easy has created a new community of Latino immigrants in this famously insular city, redrawing racial lines in a town long defined by black and white.

The change began just weeks after one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, which decimated homes, upended lives and drove a chunk of New Orleans's black population to Baton Rouge, Houston and other places.

Although the overall number of Latinos isn't huge, the population continues to grow and has had an outsize impact on the culture of this proudly eccentric city and on how people here view their home town. More than three-quarters of the 1.1 million residents in the New Orleans area were born in the state, compared with just 30 percent of residents in the Washington region. Many locals still point to long-defunct businesses as landmarks. Recipes at some beloved restaurants haven't changed in 40 years.

The emergence of Latinos in the emotionally and politically charged aftermath of the storm sparked outcries from displaced residents who felt their jobs and their status in the city were being challenged. In one infamous news conference, Mayor C. Ray Nagin pledged to return New Orleans to a "chocolate city" after previously asking what he could do to keep the city from being "overrun by Mexican workers." A documentary released last week by Latino performance artist Jose Torres-Tama titled "From Chocolate City to Enchilada Village" is reigniting the controversy on local talk radio.

Political and physical confrontations in the past couple of years have added to the distrust. One parish attempted to limit multi-family homes, a move that critics said targeted the Latino community. Another banned roving taco trucks, and state legislators considered requiring police to check immigration status after arrests. New Orleans police have reported repeated assaults on Latino workers, often targeted because they tend to carry cash, and have appointed one bilingual outreach officer to help combat the crimes.

"When I arrived to this city, the city was destroyed. We rebuilt it," said Dennis Soriano, a construction worker and organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers, a local advocacy group founded after Katrina. "Do you want us to go back?"

In the Lower Ninth

Nowhere is the shift more apparent than in the Lower Ninth Ward, a low-income neighborhood that suffered some of the worst flooding in the city. Of the roughly 5,000 residents who used to live here -- almost all of whom were black -- only a quarter have returned, according to an analysis by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

On a recent afternoon, John Williams, 50, sat on an upside-down bucket inside the garage of the neighborhood auto repair shop where he has worked for more than two decades. Business has been so slow after the storm that it scaled back to just fixing tires. Fifteen dollars for a patch, $10 for a plug, and a dollar for air. Some days he can count the number of customers on one hand.

From his makeshift seat, Williams surveyed the remains of the Lower Ninth. The once bustling convenience store across the street that became famous for its cheeky slogan -- "You Can't Beat Wagner's Meat!" -- is abandoned and dark. The house next door has been torn down, an empty lot of overgrown weeds in its place. The public bus doesn't stop here anymore.

One of the few signs of life is a taco truck in his parking lot. Latino workers in paint-spattered jeans and work boots line up at the tiny window every day for fresh gorditas, tacos and burritos.

In what has become a near-daily ritual, Marco Topete, 28, pulled up to the taco truck in his black sport-utility vehicle. Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, he drove from Houston to New Orleans with about 30 other construction workers. There were no houses or hotels to stay in, so he slept under an interstate overpass with other Latino workers in what became known as Bridge City. Now he is laying concrete for the avant garde homes being built in the Lower Ninth by a nonprofit funded by Brad Pitt. So far, 50 of the planned 150 have been completed, and a spokeswoman said another 25 are expected before the end of the year. Meanwhile, Topete has settled in the more affluent neighborhood of Lakeview and three months ago brought his 18-year-old brother, Rogelio, to the city to work and go to school.

"Even to this day, a lot of people do not understand the idea of Hispanics," Topete said. "They have to get used to the idea that we are here to stay."

According to census data analyzed by the New Orleans data center, the percentage of Hispanics in the New Orleans area jumped from 4.4 percent in 2000 to 6.6 percent last year. Advocacy groups put the figure at closer to 10 percent or more as many workers, fearful of interacting with the government, avoid being counted. The percentage of blacks fell from 37.1 percent to 34.5 percent, with the decline more pronounced in the city, where African Americans have long been the majority.

Before Katrina, the growth of Hispanics in the nation's major cities had largely bypassed New Orleans. The area never saw the dramatic housing and construction bubble that attracted immigrants to other cities, said Steve Striffler, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of New Orleans.

Anecdotally, some are now leaving as reconstruction of the city has slowed and the economic downturn has taken its toll. But other immigrants say they have put down roots and discovered the delights of overstuffed po' boys, Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street.

On radio station WBOK, program director Gerod Stevens fields calls daily from black listeners angry because they feel Latinos have depressed their wages and snatched up their jobs. They are frustrated that the Lower Ninth Ward has yet to be rebuilt like neighborhoods populated by wealthier white residents.

The racial divide

There have been some attempts to bridge the divide. Latino advocacy groups have been guests on Stevens's show. Soriano said blacks and Latinos share many of the same concerns post-Katrina, including employers who refuse to pay them after the work has been done.

"Here in the South, no matter if you are Latino or African American. You are a person of color," he said. "There are a lot of people who don't think you have rights."

But Stevens said many blacks have rejected the idea, feeling that Latinos want to piggyback on the gains blacks have made after hundreds of years of discrimination.

"Who has fought all of the civil rights, human rights battles since Day One? It's been us," said one angry caller, Edward Parker, 66.

At the tire repair shop, Williams said he understands the animosity. But he doesn't blame Latinos for going after jobs when others sat back and waited to see what would happen, he said.

"They even work holidays. When you know an American wanna work on Christmas?" Williams said. "I ain't gonna work on Christmas."

Williams doesn't talk much to the two Honduran women who work the taco truck. They don't speak much English, and he speaks zero Spanish. He doesn't know that Gloria Suazo, 47, arrived in New Orleans about a year before Katrina. Or that Pati Flores, 22, spent a month walking and a riding a bus to get from Honduras to New Orleans two years ago. Flores met her husband working at the taco truck and now is three months pregnant.

They don't know that Williams is still trying to get back on his feet after the storm, recently moving with his wife into an apartment nearly an hour away by bus. He doesn't have a car. His work boots are full of holes.

"I've tightened my belt so much it's falling apart," Williams is fond of saying.

Yet there is symbiosis. The taco truck pays Williams's business $130 per week for the covered space, electricity, water and use of his bathroom. When he orders a quesadilla for lunch, they give it to him for free.

And when a car pulls into the parking lot, all three look to see whose customer it might be.

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