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New Orleans: The Invisible Latinos

08.20.08 | Comment?

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A street sign in New Orleans' French Quarter

New Orleans was Hispanic before being American, as street signs remind you in the French Quarter. Bourbon Street, no less, was named over two centuries ago after the royal family -last name Borbón- that still reigns over Spain.

But Hispanic Americans also were in New Orleans immediately before the demographic explosion caused by laborers pouring in after Hurricane Katrina three years ago. The sense I got from talking to Latinos who’ve been there for many years, though, was that there was no real Latino community to speak of: no civic or cultural organizations, no newspapers or other media outlets (there was one radio station in Spanish,) only one store where to get Latin American groceries!

“Before, we used to have one supermarket, two restaurants, the Honduran consulate, and that’s it,” says American-born Diane Schnell, the daughter of Hondurans, who grew up in the city. “Now there’s ten or twelve supermarkets and the stores have tripled and quadrupled. There’s a Mexican consulate too.”

María Juliana Rivera, anchorwoman, and Diane Schnell, news director, of KGLA TV.

María Juliana Rivera, anchorwoman, and Diane Schnell, news director, of KGLA TV. (Photo: Courtesy Diane Schnell)

Latinos in New Orleans seem to have been more assimilated into mainstream culture than in other places in the past. They were “invisible Latinos,” Schnell says. And understandably so, since maintaining the most basic cultural practices from back home was quite difficult. Schnell’s parents, for example, had friends bring them lots of white cheese when they flew home — now they can buy this Honduran cooking staple at a number of local stores. “They feel like they are in their own country,” she says.

I interviewed Schnell because she is the news and marketing director of the brand-new Spanish-language Telemundo KGLA-TV 42 station, which last month launched New Orleans’ first ever Spanish-language newscast.

The sprouting of Spanish-language media outlets -in addition to a baby boom that’s altering the city’s demographic composition- is another aspect of the Latino explosion about which I wrote in a previous post.

“We are making the show that the community needs,” says María Juliana Rivera, the newscast’s Colombian anchor, who moved here recently after working in South Florida. [Watch her in some KGLA news clips here.] The audience the show caters to many times needs help in navigating a new country, city and society, she adds: “Most of the problems we have are a product of ignorance.”

“The Latino community is quite poor, 90 percent working class,” says César Castle, a Colombian who’s lived in New Orleans for over three decades and last year launched his own newspaper, Herencia Hispana. “They come looking to make some money and leave. Then they stay, but they have a complete ignorance in social matters, in health matters.”

César Castle, owner of Herencia Hispana newspaper in New Orleans

César Castle, owner of Herencia Hispana newspaper.

Castle says he launched Herencia, a monthly, because he saw the need for it in the community. It was the third local Spanish-language newspaper to launch in recent years.

For born-and-raised local Latinos like Diane Schnell, the arrival of the new Latino wave also meant they re-discovered their heritage, their herencia.

“It has been an experience for me, a learning experience,” Schnell says. “Before, I was more Americanized, basically that’s all I needed to know. I just spoke Spanish at home, but it was because my parents wanted me to learn both languages. But now I use it more, I work here, Telemundo. I see the demand and I feel like it’s a great opportunity for me to help service a community that is in demand.”

Another example of this new involvement is Puentes New Orleans, “the first Latino serving, Latino run community development organization in the Greater New Orleans Area.” It was launched last year and is led by young born-and-raised Latino professionals. As you’ll see in their site, the NGO was born in response to the need to “become more united, and become more active as Latinos who have been here for generations.”

Towards the presidential election, old time Latino New Orleanians seem to be more involved and informed than the new arrivals (the latter, as I wrote recently, don’t have it among their main concerns.) To show how passionate her family is about the process, Schnell called her aunt Aída Hernández on the speakerphone while I was in the office.

Hernández called herself “a 100% Democrat” but said this time she’s going to go with John McCain. You can hear us chatting here:

icon for podpress  Aída Hernández interview (in Spanish) [0:44m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

“What I want is for the country to be safe -Hernández says-. McCain has promised to bring 12 million people out of the darkness, and he will do it, because Latino Republican Congress people will help him. Obama promises a lot but he can’t do everything he says.”

McCain is the one candidate who has courted local Latinos more, Schnell says. His campaign has run commercials on KGLA. The Obama camp, she adds, seems content in the assumption that most black voters will vote for the Democratic candidate, all but ensuring him a victory in Louisiana.

“In that respect,” she says, “the Hispanic is still sort of like the invisible market.”

Permanent link: http://diegograglia.net/newyorktomexico/?p=47

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