When José arrived in New Orleans, the city was still a bombed-out shell struggling to rebuild. It was mid-2006, less than a year after Hurricane Katrina had brought the city to its knees, and entire neighborhoods still lay abandoned, their darkened houses filled with mold and debris. José, who asked that his last name not be used, moved to New Orleans from Nashville in search of construction work. Finding jobs was easy; finding a habitable place to live was not. José spent three months sleeping in his truck and showering behind a shuttered gas station. He had come from Nashville with four other guys, but they couldn’t handle the conditions and soon returned to Tennessee. “I saw the potential,” José says. “I had to stay.”
Now, nearly six years later, José has put down roots. He is the proud owner of a Mexican bar and grill in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood. He and his longtime girlfriend have a 3-year-old and another child on the way. They’re in the process of buying a house. New Orleans, José says, is home.
In fact, New Orleans is now home to tens of thousands of Latinos like José. Historically, New Orleans has always been racially diverse, but it’s never had a sizable Hispanic community—the city was largely bypassed by the national influx of Mexican immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s. Katrina changed all that. After the storm emptied the city out, Latinos moved in to rebuild it. They came from all over: from Nashville, Houston, Atlanta, South Florida; from Puerto Rico, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil. Today, the overall population of New Orleans is still about 20 percent down from what it was before the hurricane. But the Latino population has skyrocketed. Census figures show that 33,000 Hispanics have moved in since the storm, a 57 percent increase in the last decade. That’s much higher than the national average, and that’s almost certainly a significant undercount, thanks to undocumented immigrants who may fail to be captured by Census data.
Since Katrina, whole neighborhoods have been transformed by new Latino residents and businesses. In Kenner, near the city’s airport, Hispanics now make up 22 percent of the population, up from 14 percent a decade ago. Village de L’Est, east of the city, has been primarily a Vietnamese neighborhood since the 1970s, but it too has become a major center for Latinos. In one Census tract there, the Latino population doubled in the past decade, according to analysis from Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane University. On the whole, Campanella found that 12 of the city’s 20 Census tracts now show a Hispanic population greater than 15 percent, up from five tracts in 2000. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, which tracks and analyzes demographic data, says New Orleans “may be emerging as an important gateway for Latino immigrants.”
But with such drastic population shifts inevitably comes friction. Wage theft from employers has been a major issue. And since many of the Hispanic workers are paid in cash, they’ve become targets for assault and theft—“walking ATMs,” as one community organizer puts it. There have been sporadic clashes with other minority groups, and with local governments, too. In 2007, Jefferson Parish, which is adjacent to the city, outlawed taco trucks to discourage Hispanic residents and day laborers from congregating.
Of course, Spanish-speaking people have lived in New Orleans for nearly as long as it’s been a city. Founded by the French in 1718, it was ceded to Spanish control in 1763, in whose hands it remained almost up until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In fact, New Orleans was home to the nation’s first Spanish-language newspaper: El Misisipi began publishing in 1808, mostly for the Spanish colonials who had stayed on after the Purchase. There’s been a Spanish-language paper in the city every decade since then. And thanks to the banana trade, New Orleans has always been oriented to Central and South America.
But for the most part, the city’s Hispanic population has remained hidden from view, says Salvador Longoria, a longtime New Orleanian who emigrated from Cuba as a child. “There was always a Hispanic presence here, but it was always like a secret, you know? We didn’t have the political power; we didn’t have the organization.”
That’s rapidly changing. Community groups have mobilized to accommodate the new residents, and new outreach groups, such as Puentes, an organization co-founded by Longoria in 2007, have been formed. The Catholic Charities’ Hispanic Apostolate, which has been around since 1972, has more than doubled the number of services it offers. That agency went from five staffers working out of an 1,100-square-foot house before Katrina to a staff of 30 headquartered in a converted school today. It now provides tax preparation and workers’ rights seminars, among other services.
The city police have responded, too. Under the department’s El Protector program, instituted in 2010, Officer Janssen Valencia works as a liaison with the Latino community, attempting to build trust with the residents and to empower them to report crimes. Valencia says his role is part law enforcement, part everything else. “It’s counseling, it’s domestic affairs, it’s business, it’s personal relationships. I know everybody’s business. I’m like a priest at confession.”
Whether New Orleans’ Hispanic boom will last, however, is an open question. Certainly some of the post-Katrina construction workers have moved on: The city’s continued rebound means those jobs are harder to come by. But many of those new residents have decided to stay, starting families and sending their kids to school. “The people who were going to leave have left,” says Longoria. “The people who will stay have stayed. Now we have a stable population that has essentially doubled in size. Now comes the challenging time.”