On Friday nights, day laborers form two lines at a bustling liquor store in the French Quarter: one is to dutifully wire money to their homelands, the other is to buy $2.17 beers that medicate their lives in New Orleans.
“Life is hard here, harder than any place I’ve been in the U.S.,” said Jose Campos, 37, who came here from El Salvador, by way of Florida. He pedaled his bicycle to Unique Grocery, a cavernous establishment off Bourbon Street that offers the wire service through bulletproof glass and tall-boy beers from icy bins.
“It’s a dangerous place, a bad place,” he said. “But when you can find work, it’s all worth it.”
In the three years since Hurricane Katrina, immigrant laborers drawn to the construction and service industry jobs created by the storm have transformed this rebuilding city. In an accelerated version of the already rapid Latino migration to the South, they are forging their own support networks, establishing businesses, packing churches and starting families—a process that usually takes a decade or more.
“There’s no place in the world like New Orleans in terms of how rapid the population change has been,” said Margie McHugh, co-director of immigration integration policy at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington D.C.
But in a city whose infrastructure already lacked public services to support its pre-Katrina population, let alone a Spanish-speaking pilgrimage, they have also become preferred victims of the city’s infamous crime rate. And, far from wives and children, many have wrestled with the Big Easy temptations of alcohol and drugs.
“It’s always difficult to be a trailblazer, particularly at a time when New Orleans is still struggling to rebuild from an awful blow,” said McHugh.
Since Katrina, the Hispanic population of New Orleans has risen from 15,000, or 3.3 percent of the pre-storm population, to 50,000, 15.2 percent of the current population, according to the New Orleans Economic Development office.
A 2006 study by Tulane University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that nearly half the rebuilding work force was Latino. Fifty-four percent were working illegally in the United States, and nearly 90 percent of illegal workers lived in the U.S. before coming to town.
But for every hopeful family, there are others who feel imprisoned by the city.
One is a gaunt, 32-year-old man from Oaxaca, Mexico who spends his days on a dingy mattress, recovering from a bullet wound.
The man, who asked that his name be withheld because he is in the country illegally, was walking from a nearby discount store at the end of a work week. It was an opening for armed robbers who target immigrants because they are known to be paid in cash and are reluctant to report crimes.
After the man fled with his pay, the robbers chased him down his block, into his apartment, and fired three rounds. Two found the living room wall, one, a narrow torso now covered by bandages and scars.
A November study found New Orleans to be the most violent city in America, and the department will be adding a need for more Spanish-speaking officers to a list of needs.
One answer to the language barrier has been an investment in a school that immerses immigrant children in English instruction.
At Esperanza Charter School, no questions are asked about the immigration status of families. The school teaches from kindergarten to 8th grade. The director is lobbying for the district to start a high school and extend the specialized academic path all the way to college.
“This school would not have even been possible before Katrina,” Director Melinda Martinez said.
With 60 percent of its students Latino, 30 percent African American and 10 percent white, the school has a waiting list about 15-students deep in each grade. Some never enroll because of the transient lives of their parents.
“Sometimes, a child is never seen or heard from again,” said Martinez, who believes the parents were either deported, or packed up for a less-difficult places.
For those who remain in New Orleans, straddling a troubled city and a troubled homeland has led to disillusionment, sometimes dependency.
The director of the Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse for greater New Orleans said the nonprofit had about a half dozen Spanish-speaking clients before Katrina. In the last year, the number increased to 50.