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Laotians

Who are the Laotians of Louisiana?

Laotians were Louisiana's second largest Southeast Asian group, after the Vietnamese. The numbers of Laotians were not recorded in the initial versions of the 2000 Census, but it may be estimated that there were four to five thousand of them in the state. Iberia Parish held the greatest concentration of Laotians, since about 1,000 of them lived there. The Iberia Parish Laotians resided primarily in the city of New Iberia or in a Laotian settlement just north of the city near the boundary with Lafayette Parish. Outside of Iberia Parish, most Louisiana Laotians lived in the large cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, or in the suburbs of Jefferson Parish around New Orleans. 

Their History of Migration and Settlement:

Refugees began to leave Laos in large numbers in the spring of 1975, when Communists gained control of the government of Laos and proclaimed the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Most of the refugees fled to Thailand. In the late 1970's, the United States Government began to accept large numbers of Laotians for resettlement in the United States. The Government employed non-governmental voluntary agencies to find homes and American sponsors for the newcomers. Agencies such as the U.S. Catholic Conference began to place some Laotians in Louisiana, with the largest influx at the beginning of the 1980's. About half of the foreign-born people of Laotian ethnicity in Louisiana in 1990 had arrived in the years 1980 and 1981. 

The creation of large Laotian community in Iberia Parish in the early 1980's, and the growth of other Southeast Asian communities outside the New Orleans area, emerged from new job opportunities produced by the oil boom and by federal funding for job training. In Iberia, in 1980, Redfox Industries began providing training to do welding, pipefitting, and other forms of skilled labor, using funds made available under the federal Comprehensive Training and Employment Act (CETA). When a few Laotians learned of this training, and the jobs that networks and other began moving to the region. In 1987, the Laotians of Iberia Parish built a Buddhist temple north of New Iberia and streets named after provinces in Laos were laid out in front of it. The temple and the neighborhood around it became a cultural center for Laotians around the state. 

Economic Activities:

Partly as a result of the concentration in jobs such as welding, Louisiana's Laotian population has been heavily represented in skilled crafts. In 1990, over half of the Laotians in the state were classified by the U.S. Census as operators, fabricators, and laborers, compared to only 15% of all Louisianas. While many Laotian men worked as skilled workers in the oil industry, many of the women worked in textile factories in Southwestern Louisiana. 

Fishing and shrimping also provided jobs to a sizable proportion at the state's Laotians. Over one of every five men worked as fishers, although less than one percent of all Louisiana workers were in fishing.

During the 1990's, Laotians increasingly moved into self-employment in small businesses. In New Iberia, many Laotians established themselves as owners of small grocery stores, often specializing in Asian foods. Restaurants provided another avenue to self-employment. Louisiana Laotian restaurateurs often served Thai or Chinese food, since these were more familiar than the food of Laos to non-Laotian customers and both, especially Thai food, are similar to cuisine of Laos. 

By Carl L. Bankston III, Tulane University