Speaking the Unspoken

Invisible Latino Immigrants of the Reconstruction & St. Claude A Gentrification Tool)

More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.  We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

In the Latin American tradition, I believe the poet, writer, performing, and visual artist bears a social responsibility, a mythic duty, to document and articulate the people’s struggle—la lucha de la gente—when they are denied effective means to have their voices heard in their fight against oppression and their many oppressors.

My performance work and writings explore the underbelly of the “American Dream” mythology. For the past seven years, I have challenged the mainstream post-Katrina narratives that have rendered the Latino community invisible.

New Orleans remains 60% African American and that statistic is growing because more of our brothers and sisters are coming back, even seven plus years after miss bad thing exposed the inadequacy of the federal levees and the criminal Bush cronies.

In the birthplace of Jazz that revels in its history, a forgotten legacy of New Orleans is that Spanish Colonials ruled from 1762 to 1803. In the late 1700s, after two fires burned most of the French Colonial settlement, the Spanish rebuilt with plaster and bricks. They reconstructed an old city that looks more like San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Havana, Cuba. The famous “French Quarter” moniker is actually a misnomer, but if you repeat misinformation enough it becomes historical truth.

Today’s neglected truth is that New Orleans was rebuilt by thousands of Latino immigrants, most of whom were cheated out of their promised pay by ruthless local and national contractors. They were brutalized by local police; languished in jails without due legal process—subjected to the most abhorrent working and living conditions imaginable. Some became indentured servants within hotels in the French Quarter. Others were deported by Immigration Agents after they finished many a construction job. Many millions in unpaid wages have been stolen.

In June of 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that up to 80% of Latino laborers in New Orleans were victims of wage theft. Immigrant men and women gave of their sweat, blood, and some of their lives to rebuild an ungrateful city that exploited their labor—as easily as it abused enslaved Africans when “cotton was king.”

Thousands of immigrants were actually brought in by subcontractors for the sole purpose of exploiting their undocumented status. This was intentional. It was not an accident. You will not find this unspoken truth in your tourist brochures or official reconstruction accounts. As an immigrant born in Ecuador, raised in New York, and making New Orleans my adopted home since 1984, my primary directive as an artist is to speak the unspoken.

 

Thousands of immigrants were actually brought in by subcontractors for the sole purpose of exploiting their undocumented status. This was intentional. It was not an accident. You will not find this unspoken truth in your tourist brochures or official reconstruction accounts.

 

ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS is a sci-fi Latino noir, genre-bending performance that explores the persecution of immigrants across the so-called land of the free. It’s informed by interviews with immigrants in Houston, New Orleans, and Washington, DC. Ashé was the local commissioning partner, and Executive Director Carol Bebelle has intentionally let the Latino community know that her casa is our casa.

When we staged ALIENS, a Nicaraguan woman, who has lived in New Orleans for twenty years, revealed it was her first time stepping inside a local theatre because she never expected to hear a story that connected to her life. With tears in her eyes, she spoke in Spanish about a segment where I shape-shift into a Nicaraguan character who recalls crossing the border as an eight-year old girl with her three little sisters to reunite with their father and escape the civil war.

ALIENS is also bilingual, and there is no theatre in Spanish here. I had reached out to a Mexican minister to connect the work to his Latino congregations, and with the support of an Alternate ROOTS C/APP grant, we also reached day laborers and brought them into the theatre gratis. I reached out to PUENTES New Orleans, Hispanic Catholic Charities, Tulane’s Latin American Studies Department, and others to develop a wide support network.

Torres-Tama, in costume, holding a mask and a wooden cylinder
José Torres-Tama in ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS​

As the NET Micro-Fest unfolds this week, let’s use this opportunity to acknowledge the immigrant contributions, speak the unspoken, and confirm the uncomfortable white elephant that this thriving arts scene is dishearteningly segregated—just like the famous Mardi Gras that is the city’s epic yearly bacchanal. Deep South segregated norms still plague this public performance ritual that transforms the entire city into a live art installation. Many street celebrations reveal the lingering racial divide, and for Black carnival, the corner of Claiborne and Orleans in the Faubourg Treme is the epicenter. At Frenchmen and Chartres in the Marigny, you will witness a whiter carnival.

Let’s seize the moment and acknowledge some difficult truths. The celebrated Saint Claude Avenue alternative arts community thrives along the urban corridor of a predominantly African American stretch from Elysian Fields to Poland Avenue, but drop in on the many gallery openings of a Second Saturday art night, and the black neighbors are obviously not part of the hip party taking place. I find this highly disturbing.

Undoubtedly, numerous artists have created valuable spaces to further nurture the expanding visual arts scene in New Orleans, but the artists and their audiences certainly do not reflect the larger community. Nonetheless, the arts scene makes this the hottest place to live, and developers are circling like vultures.

As a homeowner and artist of color deeply invested and living in this community since the late 80s, I want to see a more integrated arts culture that rewrites the exhausted narrative where artists, mainly white, move into black or brown neighborhoods because rents are low and become willing or unwilling tools of radical gentrification in a five to ten-year period. Rents and property values are rising, and while gunshots sometimes disturb the night silence, the gentrification is on fast-forward.

The area has been re-branded the Saint Claude Avenue Arts District since 2007. We are past the five-year period that is a norm in national studies about the impact art spaces and artists make in the transformation of neighborhoods as a collective cultural force.

At a meeting last summer of the usual suspects of the St. Claude visual arts community, one person vocalized that we need the New York Times to pay attention to the arts scene here. I suggested that a more progressive storyline would be one where New Orleans’ alternative arts entrepreneurs were rightfully revered for having integrated their art practices with members of the African American community in a genuine way that empowered both to co-exist well and equally into a prosperous future. Applause from most attendees followed.

Let’s dare to take a moment and honestly ask ourselves who this “arts renaissance” is serving, and who it is ignoring. Let’s change the tired storyline where artists become pawns of developers. Let’s strategize to encourage more ownership for artists and the community. Let’s work outside of our comfortable cyber bubbles and make human connections with our many neighbors. If we choose to ignore this reality, we may all be moved out.

Finally, I encourage you to simply say “Hola” to the next immigrant worker you encounter at reconstruction sites. Make eye contact and make them human.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series featuring voices from in and around New Orleans's theatre community.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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