They are the thankless, the faceless and the forgotten. They are the men and women who actually rebuilt the coast. And they are no longer few in numbers.
story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 26, 2010
On Sunday afternoon, at a ceremony in Gulfport, Miss., Haley Barbour will give thanks for what has been done. Sunday afternoon will mark five years to the day — and nearly the hour — when Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
The fact that Mississippi has even built back to current levels is remarkable, really , so Barbour will also take time Sunday to give credit to the feds and state officials for helping bring Mississippi back, and to community leaders, obviously, and to the Red Cross and the thousands of church groups who came down after the storm to rebuild.
But it is beyond unlikely that Barbour will offer a few specific words of thanks to the thousands of Hispanic immigrants — both legal and illegal, from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba and beyond — who came to Mississippi in the storm’s immediate aftermath to take the construction jobs that Americans refused to do.
“Without them,” says Mary Townsend, “we would still be digging.”
Townsend is the interim executive director and immigration specialist at El Pueblo, a Biloxi-based enterprise that opened in 2006 to serve the thousands of Hispanics who have come to the coast to work construction and landscaping jobs. They are the thankless, the faceless and the forgotten, Townsend says, and they are the men and women who actually rebuilt the coast.
But they are also no longer few in numbers. A decade ago, less than four percent of the Biloxi population was Hispanic, according to the 2000 Census. In Gulfport, to the east, the percentage was even smaller.
In the next Census, Townsend believes the population will triple, with about 50,000 Hispanics now living in cities across the Mississippi coast.
This type of immigrant surge is not unusual for the coast, says Murella Herbert Powell, Biloxi’s historian emeritus. At the turn of the 20th century, when two generations of Biloxi fisherman drowned during a hurricane, the city suddenly needed to find new men to work for the seafood companies. So the city made their pitch: “Come to Biloxi. We’ll give you a job and wood for your fire.” It’s with that that Biloxi was able to draw in thousands of immigrants from eastern Europe to work in seafood.
In the 1970s, the seafood industry was again short on workers. The immigrants from the early 1900s had told their children and their children’s children to build better lives, and that meant that low-wage seafood jobs were not being filled by young Biloxians. The workforce was eventually bolstered by immigrants from Vietnam.
It’s the need for new low-wage workers that has always brought changes to Biloxi and made the city one of the most multi-cultural in the entire state. The latest change came from Katrina, which opened up thousands of construction jobs on the coast.
“You could see them everywhere, working on roofs,” says Roberta Avila, the former director of the Interfaith Disaster Task Force and current executive director of the Steps Coalition. Father Paddy Mockler — the pastor at Our Lady of Fatima, which has hundreds of Spanish-speaking parishioners — estimates that 90 percent of the construction jobs on the coast were filled by Hispanics.
Politicians had made promises — a chicken in every pot and a Walmart on every block was the modern twist on Roosevelt’s guarantee — and construction crews needed workers to build out those promises. Both Mockler and Townsend confirm that many of these workers had immigrated illegally to the United States. But both say that with so much debris to clear and so many homes to build, any able bodies — legal or illegal — were welcomed.
“That was never an issue when they were needed here,” Mockler says.
The rush to get workers to the coast also meant that construction companies were employing workers before there was enough housing to accommodate everyone. Some companies paid for workers to stay in hotels or casinos, but many of the workers who had come to rebuild homes for others were left to find their own shelter.
Politicians had made promises — a chicken in every pot and a Walmart on every block was the modern twist on Roosevelt’s guarantee – and construction crews needed workers to build out those promises.
Townsend remembers “Latino immigrant workers who were sleeping in cars, sleeping in pup tents on the grounds of various churches, some having to drive in every day from Mobile or Hattiesburg or equally distant places,” she says. “A lot of people were staying in here in really horrible conditions.”
Townsend still remembers the pup tents vividly. She says when she arrived in Biloxi in the summer of 2006, a year after the storm, the once-impromptu pup tents were still there. At one site, she remembers a pipe sticking out of the ground providing clean water, and a port-o-potty acting the sole bathroom for the dozens of people living there. Townsend says police only allowed the pup tents to stay because they knew the workers had nowhere else to live.
“It is pretty incredible when you think about it,” says the Steps Coalition’s Avila. “Where did we put everybody?”
Eventually, housing became available for these workers. But issues still remained in the community. Companies didn’t have enough Spanish speakers on staff, so El Pueblo worked to mediate disagreements between the companies and their workers — especially on payday.
“We had millions of dollars in unpaid wages,” Townsend says. So El Pueblo and Father Mockler — the Irish-born, Spanish-speaking priest — worked on behalf of both legal and illegal immigrants. They say that in most cases, construction companies weren’t deliberately withholding wages. Instead, Townsend and Mockler both found that the workers just didn’t speak enough English to ask where they could pick up their paychecks.
In cases where additional help was needed, Townsend says the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance stepped in to negotiate for workers.
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(At top) A home on Biloxi’s back bay that was rebuilt to the government’s flood zone standards after Hurricane Katrina. (Above) Father Sergio Balderas addresses parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima Church
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Five years after Katrina, the Hispanic community is larger than ever, but they’re no more visible than they were before the storm. The first Spanish-speaking churches have been founded, and Spanish-centric grocery stores have opened across town, but the Hispanic community still has few advocates along the coast. In Biloxi, there isn’t a Hispanic in any position of power within local government. The city’s website mentions whites, blacks and Vietnamese as part of the population — but not Latinos.
So how do you find a group that’s all but invisible within its own community?
The answer came from Father Mockler, who suggested that I visit Our Lady of Fatima on a Monday afternoon, when the church holds its weekly Spanish mass. Mockler says that after Katrina, it wasn’t uncommon for 500 or 600 Spanish speakers to pack his church for the Monday mass. Now, he says that number has been halved.
A drop in construction work could be the reason for the decline in the overall Hispanic population. Dozens of Katrina-related projects were finished in the past year, and the recession has kept developers from investing in new, multi-million projects across the coast.
“I think it’s getting harder and harder for immigrants to find jobs,” Townsend says.
Hispanics on the coast are also dealing with a second obstacle: racism. The fears of illegal immigration that boiled over in Arizona this year have reached the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a situation almost identical to what happened in the late ’70s with the Vietnamese; natives have a strange mix of admiration for and fear of this new ethnic group. Powell, the historian emeritus of the city, puts it this way: Biloxians respected the work ethic of the Vietnamese, but they also resented them for working so hard.
Native fishermen feared for their jobs, she says, as the Vietnamese were willing to work hours that other fishermen refused to put in. The language barrier also made locals uneasy. Bumper stickers appeared around town reading, “Save Your Shrimp Industry – Get Rid of Vietnamese.” It wasn’t uncommon for white Biloxi fisherman to actually fire upon Vietnamese shrimp boats, and many locals referred to the Vietnamese as “gooks.”
With time, the Vietnamese were accepted into the community. They built churches and Buddhist temples in Biloxi, and their families opened local businesses. Bobby Mahoney, who runs Biloxi’s famed Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, and whose menu relies heavily on local seafood, says the Vietnamese saved the city’s fishing industry in the same way casinos saved the city’s tourism industry.
Native fishermen feared for their jobs, she says, as the Vietnamese were willing to work hours that other fishermen refused to put in. The language barrier also made locals uneasy. Bumper stickers appeared around town reading, “Save Your Shrimp Industry – Get Rid of Vietnamese.” It wasn’t uncommon for white Biloxi fisherman to actually fire upon Vietnamese shrimp boats.
But now the same scare tactics that were used against the Vietnamese thirty years ago are being used against the Hispanic community. Some old-timers say they don’t like the fact that these new Biloxians don’t speak English. There’s no term as derogatory as “gook” being used against Hispanics, but residents often refer to all members of the Latino community as Mexicans, even though Townsend says many local Spanish speakers come from parts much farther south of the border.
Townsend says she’s also worried about racism on a larger scale. She says she’s seeing high rates of unwarranted incarceration for Latinos across the coast. Police, she says, believe that Spanish-speakers are a flight risk, and they’re using that rationale to arrest some Hispanic men and women after mere moving violations.
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On the day I visit Our Lady of Fatima, I meet with Father Sergio Balderas, a Mexican-born priest who has worked for the past nine years in American churches. He’s only in his second year, though, in Biloxi.
Balderas says there’s a general distrust of reporters among his parishioners. Some fear that anything said on tape could be used against them by their employers or, worse, the government. He promises to introduce me at the end of the mass; to explain my story and my publication in full; and to request that anyone with a Katrina story approach me after services. 
When the service ends, I stand out in the lobby as the crowd of 200 files out of the church. One woman approaches me and shares, in rapid-fire Spanish, a story about evacuating to Maryland during Katrina. Otherwise, church-goers stay away.
That is, until it starts to rain.
Thunder booms out beyond the church walls, and suddenly, with parishioners stuck inside, men and women start approaching me with stories.
One man is named Octavio. He worked on roofing after Katrina. These days, he works as a carpenter. I ask him if he likes Mississippi, and he admits that at first, he didn’t like the coast. Now, he loves it. Plus, he says, he knows he has a job here.
“In other states, I think there is less work,” he says. “Here, little by little, there is work.”
Others say they’re frustrated by the lack of employment. One man tells me, “We came here to work.” He arrived in Biloxi nine years ago, when the city was what he calls a “miniature Las Vegas.” Now, he says the jobs just aren’t available.
But what does exist — and that didn’t exist before Katrina — is a real Spanish-speaking community. It’s not easy traveling from place-to-place, chasing jobs, says Cirilo Villa, who has lived in Mississippi for nine years, working on a farm about 45 minutes north of Biloxi. He points out that the community survived Katrina, and then the difficult years that followed. Now, just as the French first found in the 1700s, and the eastern Europeans after them, and the Vietnamese after them, the Hispanic community is discovering that the coast is a place that immigrants can actually call home.
“This is a very strong community,” Villa says.
If history is any indication, it will only grow stronger. ❑