Census estimates for Latinos in Louisiana during the 1990s were upwards of 93,000, though the actual numbers were probably much higher, because of the undocumented Latinos in the state. By the 2000 census the total number of Latinos in the state had increased to over 107,700, reflecting an almost 16 percent population increase from the 1990 census. The highest concentration of Latinos from any single national group was composed of Honduran Americans, who accounted for 24 percent of the total Latino population in the state, with the Greater New Orleans metropolitan area serving as their principal enclave. This changed drastically after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region in 2005.
Hurricane Katrina has brought about profound ethnic and demographic shifts in Louisiana. Less than a year before the hurricane made landfall, the African American population in the Greater New Orleans metropolitan area alone had decreased from 37 to 22 percent.19 The 2004 U.S. census update reported a Mexican American population of just below 2,000, whereas by 2006 estimates ranged from between 10,000 and 20,000 Mexican Americans in the region.20 The astounding demographic shift in a state with a pre-Katrina Latino population of 3 percent was exacerbated by the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act that had required contractors to pay prevailing local wages. The suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act allowed contractors to hire ready Latino laborers and exploit them in the process. As with previous informal and more formal Bracero accords with Mexico, Latinos of Mexican descent in the United States often perform the most dangerous work. In post-Katrina Louisiana alone, 80 percent of the debris and mold removal of hurricane-ravaged areas was undertaken by migrant Latino laborers, many of whom are undocumented.
Louisiana Vacations Photo Gallery
The unprecedented number of Mexican American laborers alone in the Greater New Orleans metropolitan area led city Mayor Ray Nagin to rhetorically ask, How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers? in an utter collapse of all possible Latino American nationalities under the national signifier Mexican.21 Nagin’s inflammatory political rhetoric both fabricated scapegoats and elided the fact that the state itself had created the conditions for the arrival of contemporary forms of servitude that have profoundly benefitted the rebuilding efforts in Louisiana. In effect, the paradoxical verbal bashing of the very migrants who are rebuilding the region has created the conditions for the further dehumanization of Louisiana Latino laborers.
In August 2006 Latin American and Caribbean laborers on legal H-2B visas who were contracted to work in New Orleans hotels but denied their contractual right to work staged a protest in mock handcuffs in front of the hotels that had lured them from as far as Bolivia and as close as the Dominican Republic. With the assistance of the New Orleans Workers Center, the hotel workers sued their employers and won. They have since formed the country’s first H-2B visa workers alliance. As one Dominican hotel worker put it, Only by studying workers’ experiences can government create adequate reform.22 Supporting the struggles of
Latinos for social justice from the early nineteenth century to the present, the Latin American hotel laborers joined a long historical battle for the economic and human enfranchisement of Latinos in Louisiana.