There was destruction as far as the eye could see. Eighty percent of the city under water. Some 1,400 dead. More than 200,000 people evacuated. Some 353,000 homes destroyed and abandoned. That picture, straight out of a disaster movie, was what thousands of immigrants from Latin America saw when they arrived in New Orleans in August of 2005 to work in the rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina. Two years later, more than 100,000 immigrants from Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, among other Latin American countries, have transformed the city’s physical and cultural landscape by spawning a baby boom totaling in the hundreds with many more on the way. In the following pages, you’ll experience the stories of five families who have made a new home for themselves in the cradle of Jazz.
OPPORTUNITY AMIDST THE DESTRUCTION
When Jerryn Savillón and María Cristina Madrid arrived in New Orleans after Katrina, the couple found opportunity amidst the destruction. Every damaged roof, every building with three feet of stagnant, fetid water, each mound of rubble and every street littered with fallen trees needed their hands, their labor. “We came to try our luck, we didn’t even have a place to stay,” says Savillón, a 38-year-old Honduran who used to live in Dallas, Texas. During his first few months in New Orleans, Savillón slept in his car with Madrid and later on the floor of an apartment without electricity that the couple shared with 15 other men who were also working in the reconstruction efforts. “We stayed because there’s work here.”
It’s no wonder community leaders estimate that anywhere from 120,000 to 150,000 Hispanics like Savillón and Madrid are now living and working in the New Orleans metropolitan area, compared to some 60,000 pre-Katrina. One of the newest members of that growing population –and the Savillón-Madrid household in Metairie, LA– is 46-day-old baby Marbella Savillón-Madrid.
It’s for Marbella and for the future of the family’s other children in Honduras, 10-year-old Evelyn Madrid and 9-year-old Joan Madrid, that their mother is supporting Savillón’s decision to forge ahead in New Orleans. “There have been people who have mistreated us,” says Madrid, a 30-year-old homemaker. Savillón, who worked as a welder in Dallas, adds: “Several times we worked throwing trash away and weren’t paid. We were hired and when the job was done, they would say they’d pay us later. And after, they would give us checks that bounced.”
But there have been those who have offered a helping hand, be it teaching them English or helping them find an apartment. “We’re going to stay here,” says Savillón. “Because going to another place [would be] like starting over.”
SHOOTING FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM
Following Katrina, Houston residents María and Abraham Rivas never hesitated to take in friends after they had evacuated New Orleans. “When they arrived, we realized they had money, a lot of it,” says Abraham, 36, of Mexico, about his guests who worked in construction in the Big Easy. “That gave us the push to come to New Orleans when they returned after the hurricane.”
For the Rivas family, it was the right call; since arriving on July 1, 2006, Abraham hasn’t stopped working as a contractor. On a block lined with U.S. flags in the suburb of Gretna, LA, Abraham, María and their children –11-year-old Daniel, 9-year-old Karen, and 7-year-old Esmeralda– live in a large, two- bedroom home filled with toys and family pictures. Since moving from Houston, the family’s income has doubled, according to Abraham. “I like it better here, because it’s quiet and we can play in the park and go to the store,” says Karen, his precocious daughter who says she wants to be an FBI agent when she grows up. “Everything we want is here.”
For the Rivas’ next baby, due August 29, this includes free prenatal care provided by Catholic Charities’ Hispanic Apostolate, the St. Charles Community Health Center, the Mount of Olives Lutheran Church and a mobile clinic run by the Daughters of Charity/March of Dimes. “They say that before Katrina none of this was available,” says María, a 29-year-old homemaker who, like her husband, was also born in Mexico and doesn’t regret having started a new life in a city still struggling to recover. “I love it. We’ve had a lot of help.”
And for Abraham there’s been plenty of work. “Wherever we’ve gone to work, the American bosses have been happy with us,” says Abraham, who supervises a team of five to six workers. “It means that, thanks to us Hispanics, New Orleans is rising.”
To keep that momentum going, María and Abraham are already urging friends they left behind in Texas to come to New Orleans. “When they see what’s here, they’ll decide for themselves,” says María. “We’re staying.” Her husband agrees. “As long as there isn’t another hurricane, we’re here to stay.” FAREWELL TO THE PAST
Thrilled to be home with son John Steven, born July 2nd at Tulane-Lakeside Hospital in Metairie, LA, Alma Garay holds the newborn in her arms. This simple act, however, brings back bittersweet memories for this 31-year-old mother who hasn’t seen her three other children since she came to the U.S. from Honduras three years ago. “I miss them so much,” she says. “Saying goodbye to them was very hard, but I told them that mommy had to go work far away to send them money.”
A difficult decision, to say the least. Now 11-year-old César, 9-year-old Alma and 3-year-old Alejandra live with Garay’s parents in a Honduran town ironically named El Progreso (Progress). While she lived and worked as a seamstress in a factory there, Garay had to stretch her salary to support her three kids and help her parents and younger siblings. “It was too heavy a burden,” she admits. “My father was handicapped and my mother did laundry and ironed clothes, but what she earned wasn’t enough.”
Even though it pains her not to see them, Garay says she would never put her kids at risk by bringing them into the U.S. with “coyotes” (smugglers), as many of her fellow Hondurans do.
When she left Honduras, Garay was also fleeing an abusive relationship with her ex, a drug addict who used to beat her. “He would tell me that he loved me and that I was the woman of his dreams, but the last time he left me black-and-blue and bleeding,” she confesses. “He also hit my son, César, and I couldn’t take it anymore.” Fortunately, her current companion, 22-year-old Casildo Olnés, is tender and supportive. “Thank God he’s a wonderful man,” says Garay of Olnés, a construction worker. The couple met in Louisiana, where she worked demolishing damaged houses. Used to hard labor, they each went to Miami, FL, where Garay lived for a year and Olnés for three, but their paths never crossed there. Unable to find steady jobs in South Florida, both moved to New Orleans where they eventually met and have now settled.
Now at home, mom fawns over her son and buries the ghosts of the past, while never losing hope that one day she will be reunited with her other children. Looking at John Stevens she adds: “One day, they’ll meet their new little brother.”
WITNESS TO DESTRUCTION
The night before Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, Juan Carlos Méndez and two friends drove under heavy rain and wind from Houston, TX, to Pensacola, FL, in order to be on time at their construction jobs in that Florida city that just seven weeks earlier had been hammered by Hurricane Dennis. Once they arrived, the group heard about the devastation left in the wake of Katrina. They didn’t think twice about heading there. “We only heard ambulances and fire trucks en route to New Orleans,” says Méndez. “We knew there was work there.”
When he finally arrived in New Orleans in October of 2005, what he found was terrifying. “I saw all the destruction from [Interstate] 10,” remembers the 32-year-old Mexican, still shaking his head. “Cars were overturned, boats were on top of houses. I had never seen a disaster like that; I had never experienced it first hand.”
If indeed today certain areas east of the city still resemble ghost towns, Méndez is proud of the work he has done rebuilding other areas. He is also proud of the fact that in just two short years he’s been able to improve his family’s finances. “Before, I was working only to pay the rent and the bills,” Méndez says. “I lived in Houston five years and in those five [years] I didn’t accomplish what I’ve accomplished here in two, money and housing-wise, in everything.”
Things have gone so well for Méndez that in August of 2006 he went to Houston to bring back his wife, María Elena Piña, 33, and their kids, Karla, 4, and Luis David, 3. The family lives in a simple, yet comfortable apartment in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, where they are the only Hispanics in the neighborhood. There, Piña is expecting the couple’s third child and Méndez is planning to spend the next eight years working on the city’s reconstruction.
Méndez’s case is the perfect example of how the makeup of the city has changed since Katrina, says Martín Gutiérrez, executive director of the Archdiocese of New Orlean’s Hispanic Apostolate. “There’s been an exchange,” says Gutiérrez. “The African-American population went to Houston and the Hispanics came to New Orleans.” Once there, they are renting apartments and opening businesses that cater to the Hispanic population. “The kids who are going to grow up here are going to have the opportunity to become more integrated [into the community],” Gutiérrez adds. When her kids are older, Piña says she would like to go back to México. For now, though, she knows where she needs to stay: “Here, they can have a better education.” Adds Méndez: “I thank God. This stability is what we were looking for and it’s what we have found here for the whole family.”
When 18-year-old Keily Estrada arrived at the Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans with contractions, she was worried. According to her, she was 41 weeks pregnant and her baby was long overdue. After performing an ultrasound, Dr. Diego López told her she was only 38 weeks pregnant and could go back home. “I just came to the hospital today because I thought it was time,” confesses Estrada, who is going to name her baby girl Belén. She is one of dozens of recently-arrived Hispanics in New Orleans who received no prenatal care for lack of medical insurance.
For now, Estrada –who can’t count on help from the baby’s father, a fellow Honduran she hasn’t spoken to in six months– can only wait. Before her pregnancy, she worked passing out flyers. Now, she and her mother, Maribel Ramos, 34, who shucks oysters in the bay, live in a FEMA trailer in Violet, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina.
According to Angela Davis-Collins, who supervises the Birth and High Risk Unit at the LSU Medical Center, a third of all Hispanic women who have given birth there – a total of 72 since they opened in February– are unwed mothers who are “getting a lot of support from sisters, aunts, mothers or grandmothers.” The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals reported that in its health unit in Metairie, the percentage of visits by pregnant Hispanics increased from 30 percent in 2005 to 55 percent in 2006. So far this year, that number has risen to 65 percent.
Estrada is one of them. The young woman will stay at home caring for Belén and her half sisters Lily Samantha, 5, and Abigail Patricia, 6, whom she first met when she reunited with her mother in New Orleans in 2004 after a 15-year-absence. “I dream of becoming a mother,” Estrada says, “and providing the best for my daughter.”
Russell McClulley in New OrleansHISPANIC BOOM
According to the 2005 U.S. Census, before the storm there were 50,099 Hispanics in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes.
Martín Gutiérrez, executive director of the Archdiocese of New Orlean’s Hispanic Apostolate, estimates that the number of Hispanics now living in the area is between 120,000 and 150,000.
Before Katrina, Hispanic Apostolate served the needs of some 5,000 people a year. Today, they help more than 20,000 a year, according to Gutiérrez.
According to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, in just its Metairie health unit, the percentage of visits by pregnant Hispanics increased from 30 percent in 2005 to 65 percent so far this year.
For medical advice, prenatal care and health services, contact Catholic Charities’ Latino Health Access Network at 1-504-523-3755. www.ccano.org