The Life of Hispanic Immigrant Cleanup Workers in the Gulf

Elena - An oil spill response worker in Hopedale, LA - Photo: Annie Correal

Elena De La Cruz (center) on the cleanup site in Hopedale, LA. She belongs to a crew employed by Tamara’s Group, the name written on her hat. (Photo: Annie Correal)

Listen to Annie Correal’s most recent story on PRI’s The World:

This story aired 6/23/10.

Reporter’s Notebook

My first day in Louisiana was a Sunday, which was a stroke of good luck. I needed to find people who could talk to me about the oil spill disaster, and on Sundays, people go to church—even, and perhaps especially, when there’s been a disaster.

I drove to an evangelical church in Metairie, on the outskirts of New Orleans. The church, Verbo, was a converted warehouse. The pastor stood in front of a Powerpoint presentation giving an animated sermon in Spanish about the challenges of marriage to an audience of around 150 people—mainly families.

I told a man in a blue suit hanging around the potted plants near the door that I was looking for people who had been affected by the oil spill, or perhaps who were working on the cleanup. He said he’d find Martha for me, after church.

Martha Mosquera is a Colombian woman whose company, Tamara’s Group, has hired several hundred Latino workers from around the area, and even from other states, to help protect and clean up the coasts of Louisiana—and now, Mississippi. She became the cornerstone of my reporting during my two weeks on the gulf coast.

Sitting in the church kitchen, she told me she got into this line of work eleven years ago, after she met a contractor specializing in oil spills through her husband, who worked in oil refineries and on spills. She worked alongside this subcontractor for six years before starting her own company, right after Hurricane Katrina. “I had 250 people sleeping in a gym,” she recalled, of her first contract.

Since then, she has worked for large oil cleanup contractors like Oil Mop, hiring thousands of people to work on spills around the country and essentially establishing a small network of what I call ‘disaster migrants’ – 90 percent of whom are Hispanic.

We went to her apartment, with her family, and she sat at the head of the table and said grace over a box of Domino’s pizza. After lunch, she asked if I wanted to drive to a Best Western hotel, twenty minutes away, where one of her work crews was staying. “Do you want to go out and meet las chicas?” – the girls?

Cleanup workers in Hopedale, LA - Photo: Annie Correal

Cleanup workers in Hopedale, LA. (Photo: Annie Correal)

The girls were in the pool when we arrived. They’d been sent home from work early on account of a thunderstorm, and they were laughing and hollering, visibly happy. Most were black, from the Dominican Republic. For the last month, these forty women had been stationed at the Hopedale site, unloading protective barriers from trucks and loading them onto boats, for twelve hours a day.  They had tan lines from their safety goggles.

Over the next two weeks, I interviewed them at work, at their hotel and at home. I watched them unravel cords of the bright yellow plastic boom that would be sent out to block the oil. I sat beneath the tent as they rested and drank Gatorade and joked around. I took note of the little drawings they had made on their life vests with sharpie markers — one drew the map of the Dominican Republic, another drew miniature portraits of the girls in the crew. They called themselves, “Las Aceitosas,” – roughly translated, “The Oilettes.”

On weekend nights, they’d go see their kids, in Bridge City, just outside New Orleans, where most of them live in an isolated housing development just off the freeway. Elena De La Cruz and her husband moved to Bridge City after Hurricane Katrina. They’d been living in Puerto Rico, where they earned their U.S. residency, and had come to Louisiana lured by the hurricane’s promise of work. Elena found a job right away, clearing debris at a navy base. She later worked as a day laborer and in oil refineries, and gradually migrated toward spill work.

She helped clean after spills in Port Allen, Louisiana, Port Arthur, Texas, and Belle Chasse, Louisiana, where two barges collided on the Mississippi in 2006. Elena told me that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) frequently visited cleanup sites, because they knew immigrants found work there. She’d never witnessed a raid, but once, at Belle Chasse, a rumor circulated that ICE was coming. She remembered with sadness how the undocumented workers in her crew had panicked, saying they were going to jump in the river or run into the marsh. All the women on the BP oil spill cleanup were, by contrast, legal workers.

When ICE visited the Hopedale Site in early May, these were the women they met. For two hours a day, three days in a row, Elena told me they lined up so that an agent could check their IDs against federal records. (One man had brought a computer).

The workers made light of the visit. They said the men were very polite, and that they were discreet, arriving in unmarked cars wearing street clothes. Two of the younger women, Etanisla and Josefina, looked at each other and laughed when I asked about the agents. “Those men were fine!,” Josefina said. “You from Immigration? Take me with you!” said Etanisla, throwing up her arms.

Etanisla Hernandez is a flag girl on the Hopedale cleanup site; she guides trucks and forklifts unloading protective barriers - Photo: Annie Correal

Etanisla Hernandez is a flag girl on the Hopedale, LA cleanup site; she guides trucks and forklifts unloading protective barriers. (Photo: Annie Correal)

But in private, Elena confided that a current of fear had passed through the group at certain points during the visits: when one woman couldn’t find her I.D. and had to run out to the van to search for it; when another woman discovered her U.S. passport had expired. She was a citizen, but she was worried. They were all worried. “Even when you know you’re okay, you never know if someone else has been using your Social Security number, or what could go wrong,” Elena told me. “When they tell you your papers are okay, your soul goes back into your body.”

Martha Mosquera, the subcontractor at the church, told me she was not on the site when ICE agents visited, and ICE never contacted her office.

Martha and her crew thought it was a routine visit. But after my article confirming that ICE had visited the Hopedale and Venice sites was published in El Diario and on this blog, the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff, who oversees the Hopedale site, admitted in a statement that he’d called in the federal authorities, hoping to keep “criminal elements” out of the parish.

The ICE spokesmen in Washington D.C., Richard Rocha, confirmed in an email that the visits were conducted “at the request of the private sector and local law enforcement,” though he maintained that the visits were training sessions, meant to remind subcontractors of their obligation to uphold federal immigration laws. Meanwhile, the ICE spokesman for Louisiana, Temple Black, told me, “We visited just to ensure that people who are legally here can compete for those jobs—those people who are having so many problems.”

Cleanup workers in Hopedale, LA - Photo: Annie Correal

Cleanup workers in Hopedale, LA. (Photo: Annie Correal)

Elena was angry to learn the visits to the site hadn’t been protocol and vehemently defended the crew’s right to work; they were citizens and residents who paid taxes. She said it hurt her that local police had called in the federal authorities, “just because we’re Latinos,” because she felt that until now Louisiana had been good to immigrants. It had given them so many opportunities.

The oil spill cleanup, by all accounts, will take years. From my reporting, I believe it will have the unintended effect of revealing anti-immigrant feeling that lies beneath the surface all across the state, not just in Hopedale. Many people fear the oil spill, like Katrina, will bring an influx of immigrants, and now that jobs are scarce, that prospect is frightening.

But I believe the spill may also reveal the importance of the immigrant workforce that has settled in the region. “It’s the Latinos who are going to clean up this spill!” Elena declared. It’s not just Latinos cleaning up the oil, but they will play a major role in the recovery of the coast, and in their fluorescent green safety vests, they’re no longer invisible – they’re unavoidable.

Annie Correal is a reporter for El Diario/La Prensa and Feet in Two Worlds. She spent two weeks in the Gulf region, and with the help of FI2W produced radio reports for NPR’s Latino USA and PRI’s The World.

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AboutAnnie Correal
Annie Correal is a reporter based in New York, where she has covered crime, immigration and breaking news for The New York Times and El Diario, and contributed radio pieces to WNYC, NPR and This American Life. She is working on a new, Spanish language storytelling podcast, Radio Ambulante ( scheduled to launch in 2012. Annie was born in Bogota and raised between California and Colombia.