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Los Invisibles Inmigrantes of the Post-Katrina New Orleans reconstruction apocalypse blues


This is an excerpt from Immigrant Dreams and Alien Nightmares, a new collection of poetry by José Torres-Tama. Room 220 hosted Torres-Tama for a reading/performance to celebrate the launch of the book from on Sunday, December. 7.


In the summer of 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center released their data that 80% of Latino immigrant reconstruction workers in post-Katrina New Orleans were victims of wage theft. Thousands of workers were not paid for their labor, and often contractors called Immigration to have them deported after a job was done or the NOPD to run them off. Some contractors took matters into their own hands, and simply pulled a gun instead of the promised cash for work. If we ever have the courage and will to deeply investigate these practices and human rights violations, the recovery era for Latino immigrant workers will go down as one of the most extensive cases of labor abuse in U.S. history.

This is but a mere poem against a tidal wave of atrocities my immigrant brothers and sisters suffered while resurrecting the flooded Crescent City. It was hard living in the Big Easy for many workers here, and they continue to suffer brutal deportation raids and wage theft.

Los Invisibles Inmigrantes of the Post-Katrina New Orleans Reconstruction Apocalypse Blues

1. Corporate Coyotes Smuggle Immigrant Workers

Resembling a migratory locust of reconstruction angels, they descended upon the fragile pueblo in thousands, miles y miles, by foot, by car, by trains,
but initial workforce was brought in by truck loads,
by Haliburton awarded first no-bid reconstruction contract, Cheney’s pals, subsidiaries KBR and Shaw Group,
playing corporate coyotes on the slide,
smuggled men inside the ruins while we were exiled.
One hotel flew workers in from Brazil,
another from Peru to rebuild,
clean human waste from the Superdome,
pull cadavers from the Morial Convention Center, to reconstruct, to hammer, to sheetrock,
put up roof after roof, after roof, after roof.
Some died in collateral reconstruction apocalypse blues,
disposable brown paper bag people,
branded illegal for a 21st century Slave Labor Fiesta,
invisible in big freedom parades
because the City that Care Forgot
has forgotten to applaud thousands of immigrant hands
who resurrected New Orleans from her death bed,
from critical condition one right-wing zealot gloated
was due to God’s wrath on homosexuals who inhabit her,
or the GOP pundits who questioned federal money
to rebuild when Bush’s Iraq War siphoned billions
for levee improvements in 2004.
Can I get a witness?

But Latino laborers reignited engines of the tourist industry,
salvaged flooded hotels before condemnation by health officials,
rebuilt churches, schools, government buildings,
galleries, museums, and even City Hall with Mayor Nagin,
stupidly joking to an all white business core and press
of Chocolate City “overrun by Mexican workers!”
Laughter and applause followed that October 2005 faux pas,
but Brazilians restored the Woldenberg Art Center at Tulane,
played soccer during breaks,
mostly working the shadow economy in the clear of day
with filthy labor like our black brothers before,
crippled for a big bad Democracy
that spits out colored men like chewed tobacco
into worn spittoons whose stench is evident today
in the apartheid economic state.
We know this.
We remember.
We urge others not to forget
that these Deep South plantation fortunes
were deep fried in Ku Klux Klan terror,
and post-Katrina reconstruction became
new cotton for a lingering legacy of abuse.

My brown paper bag people the new black
for a Jabba the Hutt gluttonous apparatus
feeding on our men because it can.

Oh, come, all ye faithful!
Oh, come, let us explode you!
Oh, America, the beautiful, you make
my life a nightmare with such addiction to slave labor.
Oh, America, your underbelly is my undertow.
Do you remember?
Did you hire one?
Did you cheat one?

2. No Mint Juleps for Workers Who Fall from Rooftops

Heard a young Mexican boy fell from a roof
while on a ladder in my Marigny neighborhood.
His body hit the pavement
and chest bones shattered into his lungs.
He coughed blood, and hours later
when the ambulance arrived, he died at the hospital
because this was his on the job training,
because there were no circus safety nets,
because others went back to work, and work, and work,
because a roof still needed mending,
because of no protective ropes for day laborers,
because he was jus another collateral casualty
of the post-Katrina reconstruction apocalypse blues.

Hundreds cheated from back-breaking wages
when Immigration threats were given instead of cash,
left homeless to walk back to Méjico, Honduras,
Nicaragua, El Salvador, and even Brasil.
It was hard living in the Big Easy, carnales,
but my invisible brown paper bag people
transformed Chocolate City into an enchilada village
of Latin American café con leche obra de mano corriente,
hammering their sweat and blood into every house
and building needing renovation.
Remember, how they crowded Lee Circle?
Ironic to witness forty, maybe fifty, homeless immigrants
underneath the hundred-foot cement phallus
holding Confederate General Lee erect in frozen pomposity.
Good Ole Robert E. looked new millennium proud
traveling us back in time to a slave state
with new colored population to oppress,
as if cotton and he was king all over,
because reconstruction for my brown paper bag people
had no human rights, no English language
to contest their bitter sweet Southern dilemma.
No Mint Juleps for day laborers here, homes,
just pain of labor without pay.
You know what I’m saying?
Did you ever dare look one in the eyes,
make them sentient even for a minute?
Ever ponder their humanity?
Ever say ¡Hola! to one of many
you saw daily while walking the dog,
or before morning car ride to the office?
We know this.
We remember.
We urge others not to forget.

Oh, come, all ye faithful!
Oh, come, let us explode you!
Oh, America, the beautiful, you make
my life a nightmare with such addiction to slave labor.
Oh, America your underbelly is my undertow.
Do you remember?
Did you hire one?
Did you cheat one?

3. The NOPD Raids the Workers’ Encampment

A U.S. citizen, with passport and no English,
from Puerto Rican farmlands,
accompanied by an even younger
Mexican boy seventeen, maybe sixteen,
who looked stunned without blood,
without remedy, without a floor to sleep
that night, or the night before,
at Molly’s at the Market on Decatur during Halloween
October 2005 in the forsaken city,
this Borinqueño told he worked
with a force of three hundred men
for three weeks from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Promised twelve hundred dollars per week,
promised and promised to be paid
on the final Friday of the third week,
but on Thursday night before the much-awaited pay day,
New Orleans Police raided their encampment,
an abandoned factory building with three hundred cots.
All of them ran, fled, the sound of sirens,
the chaos, the fright, la migra,
la policía, auxilio, socorro.
How convenient for the contractors, don’t you think?
The benevolent NOPD just happened upon them,
and I wonder how much they got paid,
New Orleans Finest, for their accidental raid
on los invisibles of the post-Katrina
reconstruction apocalypse blues.
This Puerto Rican young blood
with commonwealth citizenship papers,
went back to the boss’s trailer to collect
his thirty-six hundred owed.
He was told the company headquartered in Alabama,
and if he wanted his check,
he could walk to Birmingham.
Not a dime in his pocket and hunger in his belly
for three weeks work of $3600 his hurt back and
blistered feet remembered.
Multiply by three hundred men,
and more than a million never paid
in one episode of 21st century Slave Labor
post-Katrina reconstruction apocalypse blues.
Can I get a witness?
We know this.
We remember.
We urge others not to forget.

Oh, come, all ye faithful!
Oh, come, let us explode you!
Oh, America, the beautiful, you make
my life a nightmare with such addiction to slave labor.
Oh, America your underbelly is my undertow,
and there’s no refuge in your forgotten Lady Liberty song:
Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shores
to labor down yonder in New Orleans
and abuse them to no end
while reconstructing your flooded Mississippi Queen.

Do you remember?
Did you hire one?
Did you cheat one?
I bet you did.
If not in reality, at least in your sleep.

This article was reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a NolaVie content partner. 


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