La Ruta del Voto Latino (The Road to the Latino Vote): New Orleans, The "Invisible" Latinos

Journalist Diego Graglia has been documenting the lives of Latinos during this presidential election year. He recently traveled from New York City to Mexico City, stopping along the way to talk to Latinos in small towns and big cities about the issues that matter to them. For more on La Ruta del Voto Latino/The Road to the Latino Vote visit www.newyorktomexico.com.

A street sign in New Orleans' French Quarter

New Orleans was Hispanic before being American, as street signs remind you in the French Quarter. Bourbon Street, no less, was named over two centuries ago after the royal family -last name Borbón- that still reigns over Spain.

Three years ago, after Hurricane Katrina, Latino workers poured into the city to help with clean up and rebuilding. But Hispanic Americans were in New Orleans long before that demographic explosion. The sense I got from talking to Latinos who’ve been there for many years, though, was that there was no real Latino community to speak of: no civic or cultural organizations, no newspapers, only one store where you could buy Latin American groceries!

“Before, we used to have one supermarket, two restaurants, the Honduran consulate, and that’s it,” says American-born Diane Schnell, the daughter of Honduran parents, who grew up in the city. “Now there’s ten or twelve supermarkets and the stores have tripled and quadrupled. There’s a Mexican consulate too.”

Diane Schnell and Maria Juliana Rivera, of New Orleans' Telemundo station

Diane Schnell and María Juliana Rivera at the offices of KGLA TV.

Latinos in New Orleans seem to have been more assimilated into mainstream culture than in other parts of the country. They were, “invisible Latinos,” Schnell says. And understandably so, since maintaining the most basic cultural practices from back home was quite difficult. Schnell’s parents, for example, had friends bring them lots of white cheese when they flew home — now they can buy this Honduran cooking staple at a number of local stores. “They feel like they are in their own country,” she says.

I interviewed Schnell because she is the news and marketing director of the brand-new Spanish-language Telemundo KGLA-TV 42 station, which last July launched New Orleans’ first ever Spanish-language newscast.

The sprouting of Spanish-language media outlets -in addition to a baby boom that’s altering the city’s demographic composition– is another aspect of the Latino explosion about which I wrote in a previous post.

“We are making the show that the community needs,” says María Juliana Rivera, the newscast’s Colombian anchor, who moved here recently after working in south Florida. The audience the show caters to many times needs help navigating a new country, city and society, she adds: “Most of the problems we have are a product of ignorance.”

“The Latino community is quite poor, 90 percent working class,” says César Castle, a Colombian who’s lived in New Orleans for over three decades and last year launched his own newspaper, Herencia Hispana. “They come looking to make some money and leave. Then they stay, but they have a complete ignorance in social matters, in health matters.”

César Castle, owner of Herencia Hispana newspaper in New Orleans

César Castle, owner of Herencia Hispana newspaper.

Castle says he launched Herencia, a monthly, because he saw the need for it in the community. It was the third local Spanish-language newspaper to launch in recent years.

For US born-and-raised local Latinos like Diane Schnell, the arrival of the new Latino wave also meant they rediscovered their heritage, their herencia.

“It has been an experience for me, a learning experience,” Schnell says. “Before, I was more Americanized, basically that’s all I needed to know. I just spoke Spanish at home, but it was because my parents wanted me to learn both languages. But now I use it more, I work here, Telemundo. I see the demand and I feel like it’s a great opportunity for me to help service a community that is in demand.”

Another example of this new involvement is Puentes New Orleans, “the first Latino serving, Latino run community development organization in the Greater New Orleans Area.” It was launched last year and is led by young Latino professionals. As you’ll see on their site, the NGO was born in response to the need to, “become more united, and become more active as Latinos who have been here for generations.”

Towards the presidential election, old-time Latino New Orleanians seem to be more involved and informed than the new arrivals (the latter, as I wrote recently, don’t have it among their main concerns.) To show how passionate her family is about the process, Schnell called her aunt Aída Hernández on the speakerphone while I was in the office.

Hernández called herself “a 100% Democrat” but said this time she’s going to go with John McCain. You can hear us chatting here:

[audio:http://www.diegograglia.net/newyorktomexico/wp-content/uploads/podcasts/Aida.mp3]

“What I want is for the country to be safe -Hernández says-. McCain has promised to bring 12 million people out of the darkness, and he will do it, because Latino Republican Congresspeople will help him. Obama promises a lot but he can’t do everything he says.”

McCain has done more to court local Latinos, Schnell says. His campaign has run commercials on KGLA. The Obama camp, she adds, seems content in the assumption that most black voters will vote for the Democratic candidate, all but ensuring him a victory in Louisiana.

“In that respect,” she says, “the Hispanic is still sort of like the invisible market.”

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