There are a million Katrina stories out there, including this one from a man who after exile returned to his home, where the water mark was at the four-foot level, and tried to begin the repair process. He called a local contractor who wanted more than his insurance could cover, but could not guarantee when he could start the work, nor could he do anything until the electricity was turned on. Also, he could not do any work under the house until it was cleared of dead animals and hazardous debris that might have floated there.
Next came a Hispanic man looking for work. Did he need electricity before he could start the work? “No,” the man replied, “I can get a generator.” Could he clear beneath the house? “No problem.” When could he start? “Tomorrow?” On the question of cost, the price fit the budget.
That scene, in various forms, was enacted throughout the region. In this, the eighth anniversary of Katrina – an event none of us will ever forget – we should never fail to remember the contribution of Hispanic workers. They saved us.
World history is filled with the saga of young men from poorer countries journeying to other places in hopes of making a living, often sending money back home, quite often with the intention of returning themselves one day. Locally, during the 1890s Sicilian men were recruited to work in the Louisiana sugar cane fields, which no longer were served by slave labor. Like the Hispanics, many stayed and added their own flavor to the culture.
From the days after Katrina, and still today, it has been a common site to see men from Mexico and Central America clustered outside of home supply stores eager for someone to pull up looking for workers. To some the sight was at first off-putting, but to us it is an encouraging sign of enterprise and globalization. Just as young Angelo Brocato from Cefalù in Sicily brought with him a skill in baking, there will be some people in the crowd whose talents will manifest themselves in ways far beyond fixing a house. Assimilation often begins with food service; predictably the taco truck has already become a part of the landscape.
To all the Hispanics who came here to work, we offer our thanks and best wishes for their future. When the final list of heroes of the recovery is recorded they, like the Saints, will be in that number.