The New World Geography of Latino Louisiana
For centuries the fertile landscapes and resource-rich economies of Louisiana have been pulling disparate groups toward its bounty. Both old world conflicts and the subsequent instabilities of the modern political economies of Latin America have long added to the push and pull of immigrants who have found their way to Louisiana. The cultural landscapes we walk in today reflect the significance of our Hispanic and Latino roots.
During the colonial period of the late 1700s it was the Spanish who opened Louisiana to Acadian refugees who were fleeing the then British-controlled Nova Scotia. It was the Spanish who promoted the early commercial production of sugarcane and cotton in the alluvial valleys of Louisiana’s fertile river systems, institutionalizing slavery for the next generation. And it was the Spanish, after a destructive fire in the busy colonial city of New Orleans, who built one of the most emblematic symbols of Louisiana still standing in the hearth of the French Quarter, the St. Louis Cathedral. The Spanish enabled a new Iberian hub where the old world gathered to exploit and engineer a new world that once independent would continue to draw people from the larger realm of Latin America.
New Orleans has long been an important gateway for Latin American immigrants. By the middle of the 20th century, the city was home to the largest Honduran community in the United States, an accomplishment largely the result of the banana trade and United Fruit’s center of operations there. Also finding refuge in the city were Cubans fleeing Castro’s revolution and later Nicaraguans fleeing cold war instabilities. By the early 21st century, the demand for labor, acutely felt after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, would spark an intense pull of people from Mexico and Middle America who would contribute to an already diverse Latino population united in language and the immigrant experience.
Non-traditional gateway cities in Louisiana, like Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Morgan City, Lake Charles and Alexandria and the smaller communities that surround them are now host to the contemporary movements of Latino populations in search of jobs in agriculture, forestry, food processing, oil and gas, and the general service sectors. Louisiana’s Latino mosaic is more vibrant than ever as communities of both first, second and even third generation Latino Americans carve their niche in a state that elevates the celebration of uniqueness. Festivals across Louisiana provide new theatres for Latino music, food, and dance. Churches offer special community and Spanish-language services. Latino grocers introduce new markets to local populations, and Spanish-language publications link the different Latino communities to business and social networks. The cultural landscapes of Latino Louisiana are a 21st century bounty that encourages all of us to reflect on the histories and geographies that created them.
by Kathleen S. Espinoza