During the early days of the Katrina recovery we called a local construction company for estimates on repairs to our house. The damage was modest compared to other houses in the city, but still four feet of water had scarred the floors, mold was beginning to climb the walls, there were leaky spots in the ceilings throughout and scattered structural needs. After surveying the damage the company representative estimated the cost, which was exorbitant. As for the floor, they could not do anything until the electricity was back on and that could not happen until the underside of the house was cleared for fear of dead animals and syringes. Did they do that work? “No,” was the quick reply.
Then we happened to see a guy who had done some miscellaneous house painting for us before the storm. The native of El Salvador was eager for work. His English was challenged but not his enthusiasm. I showed him the floor. “I can do,” he said. “But how about the electricity?” I countered. “I can get a generator,” he answered without hesitation. “But under the house?” “We can clear it out.”
Then came his rate, which was totally affordable. When could he start? “I will be back later this afternoon.”
Working informally as our organizer/contractor, the El Salvadoran and his revolving pick-up crew comprised of mostly Mexicans did an unbelievable job. The floor was restored. The walls were fixed. There were no more spots in the ceiling.
One worker in particular could have qualified as a master carpenter. The work he did in our kitchen bordered on artistic. He did not speak a word of English but if he did, I thought, and if he lived in New Orleans, he could have thrived just on word of mouth.
Our house has a second level deck and one day as I came home, I saw three men doing work there. Each of them had classic Mayan features and skin color. I smiled when I realized that the deck was being restored by the descendants of the same people who built the Yucatan’s Chichen Itza and other great Mayan pyramids.
One morning, through the curtain on the front door, I could see the image of a young man standing on the porch carrying what looked like a gun. “Can I help you?” I asked through the door. “I have come to caulk the windows,” his Mexican accented voice answered. “Ok,” I said, “let me get the key,” “That’s OK,” this total stranger answered, “I have a key.” He jangled a ring full. I never hesitated. That’s the way it was in Katrina world; life was upside down, strangers with keys were dropping by to caulk. We just had to trust. In the end there was never a reason for me to regret that trust.
Truth is, the Mexicans saved us. Our personal recovery would have taken much longer and been much more expensive had it not been for them, and that would have altered the speed of the rebuilding of the rest of our lives.
In the months, and even years, after the recovery, it became common to see Hispanic men clustered outside of home improvement stores looking for work. A neighbor complained that the gatherings were unsightly. I argued to the contrary; there is nothing wrong with people looking for honest work.
Out world was built by virile young men migrating from one country to another hoping for opportunity. Louisiana’s Sicilian population descended from men who were imported here to work in the sugar fields once slave labor was lost. They came and sent money home; many intended to return to the old country and many stayed.
My dad was also an example. He was raised poor in Central Louisiana. There were no jobs. Because of a sister who had previously come to New Orleans, he moved to town hoping for a chance. I am only here now because he found it.
We know that the burgeoning Mexican population is a delicate issue; particularly in border states. Just as in any place where there is an influx of one mostly poor population on another, there will be serious social problems. It is a timeless story. Nevertheless, it hurts me to see people degraded as ammunition for political discourse.
I have been close enough the see the humanity.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.