A Cinco de Mayo NOLA Appreciation

Ideas and Issues Immigration Reform

New Orleans A surprisingly, frank and spot-on piece ran on the op-ed page of the Times-Picayune by Coleman Warner, speaking “truth to power” about the value of immigrants, especially mexicanos, in the recovery of New Orleans. I wanted to share it with all of you:

The Times-Picayune May 05, 2009
Newcomers deserve day to celebrate
Posted by Coleman Warner, assistant city editor,
It was sometime in 2006, one of the countless Katrina rebuilding days, and around noon I stopped by my gutted house in Lakeview. En route to the FEMA trailer in the back yard, I stepped into what was left of my old living room — wood studs and rusted nails, mostly — and found the air thick with smells of a freshly cooked meal.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim space, I noticed several men, sprawled about the floor, asleep. One of them opened an eye, nodded and resumed his doze. A battered radio blared Latin music, loud enough for all the neighbors to hear.

It was as if I had stepped into a rustic Baja cantina.

The Mexican workmen were deep into their siesta, not to be disturbed. I had hired the contractor who hired them, but wasn’t annoyed at their extended break.

Why? They arrived early in the morning and stayed late, performing all sorts of hauling and tearing and hammering tasks. These men, most of whom spoke little English, did the hard, early work on our wounded place.

It is to them, and to many other Latino workers in New Orleans, that I’ll raise a toast today, Cinco de Mayo.
The “Fifth of May” holiday recalls an unlikely Mexican military victory over the French in 1862 — and, north of the border, serves as a day for celebrating Mexican culture.

Not enough of that these days, especially here.

Hispanic workers have come to the New Orleans area in large numbers since Katrina, providing a critical labor pool for all the roofing, gutting, pipe-laying and wall-hanging. From what I’ve seen, they’ve tackled the sweat jobs with good cheer, no doubt because they are able to send needed cash back to relatives in Texas or Mexico or Central America.

What they’ve gotten in return is fairly shabby treatment.
If you believe a survey of Hispanic immigrant workers by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., eight of 10 of the workers in New Orleans have been ripped off by employers while engaged in rebuilding projects. And there have been threats of violence against workers by employers, the survey concluded.
On the more brazenly criminal side of civic life, Hispanic workers are dubbed “walking ATMs” because they tend to carry cash — and are prime targets for holdups.
In one incident reported by this newspaper in December, Porfirio Martinez, 35, a laborer who sends money to his wife and children in Nicaragua, lost $87 to a robber carrying a .38-caliber pistol. Martinez later regretted the arrest of a suspect because police said the 19-year-old could land in prison for many years.

“I believe in second chances, ” he said.

There is hard feeling among some New Orleanians toward migrant workers who can’t speak our language, who require medical services and, especially, lack legal status. These same issues give me pause. We can’t toss aside immigration rules (even if we have immigrant family histories of our own) without inviting chaos.

But any debate on these questions should be couched in the realization that these laborers were among the shock troops of our recovery. Many of them remain, giving new seasoning to the cultural mix.

I’ll admit to not probing the legal status of the Hispanic men who descended on my home. There was Martin, the lanky, soft-spoken carpenter of Mexican ancestry who had a gift for intricate woodworking, and George, a gregarious painter who did meticulous work before returning home to Guatemala to run a cattle ranch.
And there was the Latin American crew — its background unclear — that saved me from building paralysis. I could not, for many weeks, find a local brick mason to assemble porch entries unless I was willing to pay twice the pre-Katrina rate. A contractor friend tipped me off to Hispanic brick masons who, in a furious few days of toil, got the job done, and at a reasonable charge.

That now seems like a long time ago. But just last week, yet another Spanish-speaking crew was on my block, pushing wheelbarrows and digging trenches. Their labors will ultimately remedy one sad gap in the city’s residential fabric.
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Coleman Warner is an assistant city desk editor. He can be reached at 504.826.3311 or cwarner@timespicayune.com.