Latino Role In Post-Katrina New Orleans Examined At Symposium

Latino role in post-Katrina New Orleans examined at symposium

By Lolis E Elie
The Times Picayune (New Orleans), October 16, 2009

'I stumbled upon myself in New Orleans,' deadpanned Oscar Garza, a Los Angeles journalist.

There is a tremendous backlash against immigration and immigrants,' said Paula McClain, a Duke University political science professor.

His stumble was not the result of any Bourbon Street stupor. Rather, he stumbled upon a picture of a New Orleans man who shared his name and ethnicity.

That other Oscar Garza was a Latino construction worker whose picture appeared in the July 2006 issue of 'Salud: A Health and Safety Quarterly for Farm Workers and the People who Serve Them.'

The construction worker Oscar Garza is one of the many immigrants who are changing the face of New Orleans. In the picture, he stands below a sign that says 'N'awlins style poboys sold here.'

The journalist Garza explained the influx of Latin workers by quoting the comedian George Lopez. 'FEMA stands for 'Find Every Mexican Available,' ' he said.

Garza was one of the speakers at a symposium titled 'La Nueva Orleans? Race and Immigration in Post-Katrina America.'

'It's totally predictable'

Organized by Zocalo Public Square, a Los Angeles not-for-profit, Friday's gathering examined the impact of immigrants as experienced in the United States in general and New Orleans in particular.

Much of what has happened and will happen in New Orleans as result of the Latino influx is not surprising. In fact, it has already happened in other parts of the country.

'If you are seeing a substantial influx in young Latino males coming here, you know to start planning to expand your kindergarten classes and to hire (English as a Second Language) teachers in five to seven years, ' said Roberto Sura, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenburg School of Journalism.

'It's totally predictable, ' he said.

Zocalo, which was founded in 2003, seeks to 'build community by broadening access to civic discourse,' according to its Web site. To that end, it presents lectures and conferences, and publishes original materials on line.

'We cover anything from religion and race to foreign policy,' said Laura Villalpando, the organization's field producer.

'As long as it's interesting and controversial, and it will bring people in, we will present it,' she said.

Zocalo means 'public square,' in Spanish. This is the organization's first time presenting a program in New Orleans.

Tensions not new

The tension between Latin immigrants and native born Americans can be predicted, Suro said. In places like New York and Los Angeles, where there have traditionally been high numbers of immigrants, new arrivals tend to blend in with relatively little friction.

But in a place like New Orleans, where the number of Latin immigrants is unprecedented in recent history, tension can be expected to grow. 'It tends to be quite high in places where the Latin population is quite small and has grown rapidly,' Suro said.

In a city like New Orleans, where the population is predominantly black, tensions between African- and Latino-Americans often flare.

'There is a tremendous backlash against immigration and immigrants,' said Paula McClain, a Duke University political science professor. 'Not just among white Southerners but among black Southerners as well.'

Often the tensions result from the perception that Latino immigrants are getting special privileges at the expense of black residents.

McClain pointed to the example of North Carolina where, despite an influx of Latino workers, the Legislature refused to allocate additional resources for the education of children whose first language was Spanish.

To pay for the needs of these Spanish-speaking children, local school districts sometimes cut out other programs.

From the perspective of African-American parents, the obvious conclusion is that the influx of Latino immigrants is harmful to black interests, McClain said.

'The perception is 'I had stuff, you came; I don't have it anymore. Therefore you are bad for me,' ' McClain said.

This newly tense environment is not without its ironies. In post-Katrina New Orleans, there were outcries against 'loud Mexican music' and taco trucks.

'Imagine that,' Garza said, 'Complaints in New Orleans about music and food.'

But, while all agreed that New Orleans is undergoing something of a transformation, not all the speakers forecast a total makeover.

Ned Sublette, the gathering's keynote speaker, is a musicologist whose most recent book, 'The Year Before the Storm,' is about pre-Katrina New Orleans. His previous book, 'The Worlds that Made New Orleans,' was about the international influences that shaped New Orleans music through the centuries.

'The thing that inspires me is New Orleans culture continues,' he said. 'It is so strong.'