Rare is the moment in American history when the question of immigration does not arise. Despite the fact that the United States was founded as a nation of immigrants—or perhaps because of it—debates over the arrival of peoples to its shores continue to quicken the country’s pulse. Recognizing the intensity of these debates in the past two years, this past March, the New Orleans/Tennessee Williams Literary Festival hosted a panel on immigration from historical and cultural perspectives, featuring scholars who have studied the topic from a variety of angles.
Following the festival, Room 220 contributor Benjamin Morris spoke with panelist Jana K. Lipman, Associate Professor of History at Tulane University, to dig deeper into the events and policies that have contributed to the ebb and flow of communities to New Orleans. Lipman is the author of Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution, 1939-1979 (University California Press, 2009), which won the 2009 Co-Winner of the Taft Prize in Labor History, and is currently finishing a book entitled In Camps: Vietnamese Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Repatriates, 1975-2005, under contract with UC Press. Joining the conversation was Lipman’s colleague (and former student) Sarah Fouts, Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
RM 220(BM): Among other things, your research explores the migration of Latinx and Spanish-speaking communities to New Orleans and the Gulf South. You argue that Latinx groups reflect a rich array of traditions, geographies, and languages, and as a result should not be casually grouped together. As commonplace as they are, how do you combat such widespread generalizations?
SF: Widespread generalizations can be dangerous when thinking about the complexities of Latinx communities who come from a range of backgrounds, including Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. When lumping groups together as such, we fail to understand the nuance that exists as a part of these migration processes, particularly why people are forced to leave their countries of origin and how people adapt to the places in which they settle.
I study the Latinx community and their foodways, and we can see how regional and national practices are seen by most Americans as simply “Mexican.” For example, New Orleans is unique in that the majority of the Latinx population is Honduran, at around 33% in the metro area compared to a national level in which is it less than 2%. At the same time, Hondurans have to pitch their foods as “Mexican” foods in order to attract non-Latinx clientele to their food establishments. For example, a sign on the way to Abita Springs read in English, “Mexican Café and Lunch,” but above the sign and in Spanish read, “Typical Honduran Foods” to lure in an English-speaking crowd less familiar with the distinct Central American cuisine. However, at the same time, Mexican immigrant food vendors in New Orleans have also had to adapt, and many place typical Honduran dishes on their menus to cater to this clientele.
RM 220(BM): Your remarks at the Tennessee Williams Festival, you noted that the classic ‘push/pull’ dynamic use in migration studies applies less to Latinx and Spanish-speaking communities relocating to New Orleans than other networks. Why exactly is that the case?
JKL: Many scholars, myself included, have moved away from the traditional “push/pull” thesis. While there are ways that this formulation is still helpful, it is also necessary to recognize the circulation of people and information between countries of origin and the United States. For example, in the early 20th century, more than 30% of Italian migrants returned to Italy. As a result, families, communities, and economies often spanned across nations, creating transnational networks. In our present moment, many Mexican and Central American families in New Orleans are divided, remittances are sent back, and with electronic media, culture and political debates are quickly shared. In this way, I think recognizing the ongoing connections Latinx migrants develop can be a more helpful way to understand migration than a simple “push/pull.”
RM 220(BM): studying the movement of Cubans to America, you’ve identified specific key events such as the Mariel Boat Lift in the 1980s and the exodus by raft in August 1994 . Has the lifting of the Cuban embargo under the Obama administration changed the local demographic? If so, how?
JKL: I don’t know the specifics in New Orleans, but I would doubt it. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are approximately 3000 Cuban immigrants in New Orleans.
In fact, the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, also means a more normal relationship for immigration. For more than two generations, Cubans were exceptional in U.S. immigration, because even if they didn’t enter the United States through formal channels, they could almost always stay in the United States. This was because of the United States’ Cold War ideology, which favored anti-communist migrants. To the U.S. government, the Cubans who left embodied the failure of Castro’s Cuba and communism.
With normalization, Cubans are no longer automatically given legal status when they come to the United States. Even more worrisome is that Cubans who might have committed a crime 10, 20, even 30 years ago, but have moved on with their lives, now face possible deportation.
While it is probably better policy to treat all nationalities equally, for Cubans caught in between this change, the consequences can be devastating.
As for the local consequences, New Orleans and Cuba have numerous cultural ties and connections. Improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba will make it easier to facilitate cultural, intellectual, and economic exchanges. Governor John Bel Edwards visited Cuba in 2016, and Mayor Latoya Cantrell visited in 2019. However, with the Trump administration’s hostility toward Cuba and the downsizing of the U.S. Embassy due to the still mysterious sonic attacks, much of the initial optimism of the Obama opening has died.
Reading the news, it’s all too easy to encounter unfounded claims or opinion passed off as fact, especially in the immigration debate. What are some of the major misconceptions you have sought to debunk regarding arrival of Latinx groups to this area?
SF: First, it is essential to consider the longstanding history between New Orleans and places like Honduras and Mexico that link these regions. For Honduras the banana trade has long brought executives and their families to the city as well as some dock workers. For Mexico, historian Julie Weise writes about the links between New Orleans and Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, which saw more affluent Mexicans arriving through the port to protect their wealth and escape the revolution. Just off of the French Quarter is the Garden of the Americas which was created during the 1950s under Mayor Chep Morrison in commemoration of these ties between Latin America and New Orleans. It features statues of the revolutionary figure, Simon Bolivar, the first Central American president, Francisco Morazán, and Benito Juarez, the Mexican president who lived exile in New Orleans during the 1850s. Many New Orleanians don’t realize the longstanding ties between our community and Latin America.
Second, the media doesn’t always explain why people leave in the first place.. When it is mentioned, it is oftentimes just framed solely in terms of gang violence, like in this recent piece in the New York Times, but it is much more complicated than that. Especially in terms of Honduras (which is where I conduct part of my research), fights over land rights and extreme privatization plague the region and land grabs impact and displace small-scale subsistence communities. Violence is ubiquitous, but it also impacts journalists and environmentalists who try to protect lands from unfettered growth of industries like palm oil and tourism. Impunity abounds, with 95% of murder cases going unresolved. Moreover, it is also important to keep in mind the role of U.S. intervention in supporting policies, legitimizing coups, and even in validating an extremely corrupt election in December 2017 in Honduras. We are not really considering these components as part of transnational and migration processes.
RM 220(BM): New Orleans prides itself on its diversity, you and other scholars have detailed numerous instances of nativism (severe anti-immigrant sentiment), such as the famous Irish-Italian conflicts of the nineteenth century, or more recently, post-Katrina resentment against Central American workers. How do you explain this seeming contradiction, of a tolerant, cosmopolitan city where hostility still flares up?
SF:New Orleans evokes cosmopolitan, yet it is still located in a Right to Work state and amidst growing anti-immigrant sentiments. Like most cities, New Orleans continues to be rife with policies that disenfranchise middle and working class communities, particular people of color. The post-Katrina milieu has seen a major investment in tourism and policies that favor privatization, like the destruction of public housing projects for mixed income housing and the dismantling of public schools system in favor of charter schools. And there is often an effort to pit working class communities against each other, with undocumented workers often bearing the majority of the brunt for “taking jobs,” when the real culprit is the neoliberal, capitalist economy that thrives on the precarious labor and hyper investment in the carceral state. An article recently came out in Mother Jones, which showed how Governor John Bel Edwards’ temporarily successful efforts to implement criminal justice reform to lower the incarceration rates have been essentially reversed by ICE. Because of Trump’s policy, which forces mandatory detention of asylum seekers, ICE has increasingly used Louisiana jails to detain immigrants, which the article argues, sets Louisiana on track “to surpass California as the state with the second most detainees” and limits immigrants’ access to resources/attorneys.
JKL: While I think New Orleans is a wonderful place to live and has a cosmopolitan vibe, I wouldn’t overly romanticize it. New Orleans is actually quite similar to many other urban areas in the United States with deep histories of racial violence, segregation, and disinvestment in communities of color. Historically, African Americans have been the most marginalized and targeted; however, it is not surprising that new immigrants also face hostility, racism, xenophobia, and discrimination.
New Orleans’ “brand” of Mardi Gras, carnival, and cultural “gumbo” is real, but it doesn’t erase an economy that has benefited from low wage workers for generations. Central American and Mexican migrants are just the newest populations, and they struggle alongside African American workers in the generally underpaid service sector and in casual labor. Because many are undocumented, they are particularly vulnerable, as they often fear contacting the police or lawyers when they are abused.
The New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice works to build coalitions between Latinx migrants and African American New Orleanians, and they have had impressive successes over the past ten years.
RM 220(BM): there aspects of New Orleans’ history that you believe can be used to mitigate that hostility? This is to say, what appeals to shared local identity or culture can unite New Orleanians against nativist tendencies?
The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) is a great example of a local organization that builds connections between working class communities of color. Founded in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the NOWCRJ is a member-led, grassroots organization that fosters worker power and advances racial justice. The NOWCRJ’s model is based on a cross-racial coalition of workers through three organizations: the Seafood Workers’ Alliance, the Congress of Day Laborers, and Stand with Dignity. Over the past thirteen years, members of the NOWCRJ have been pivotal in generating political power from a grassroots level to foster change through campaigns on issues like housing, living wage, deportations, sanctuary policy, policing, wage theft, and warrant clinics.
One of my favorite moments working as a volunteer with the NOWCRJ was when members of each of the organizations acted out a skit based on a campaign against a corrupt boss in rural Louisiana. The teatro campesino skit starred the NOWCRJ members and chronicled how the boss pitted Black and Latinx workers against each other–the content worked to dismantle stereotypes that exist between these groups and the ending illustrated how the broader capitalist system that holds workers’ rights back. It was brilliant.
Similarly, my own work uses food to engage in these larger debates on immigration. For one, I draw on individual foods to consider how traditions like hot tamales link New Orleans with Mexican laborers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I also situate these histories with Native American foodways traditions, particularly the Louisiana Choctaw-Apache, who subsisted on using cornmeal and lye in their foodways long before colonization. Drawing on this food culture sheds light on these elements of shared local identity. Perhaps more central to my book project, I underscore the importance of immigrant workers in New Orleans’ tourist economy. As the backbone of the city’s food industry, these workers, many of whom are undocumented, are rendered invisible and especially vulnerable to increased ICE raids in the city. It’s essential to understand the long history of these foodways traditions along with our increased reliance on these individuals (and more awareness of their exploitation) who maintain our food systems, from the farms to the kitchens.
RM 220(BM): We know that literature and storytelling have key roles to play in fostering empathy and imagination; one of the effects of books like Yuri Herrera’s novel Signs Preceding the End of the World is to humanize someone undertaking a migrant crossing (in this case, a teenage Mexican girl). What role do you see writers playing in this sphere, and which books do you see best doing that work?
JKL: I absolutely agree. One of the great values of literature and narrative writing is working to connect readers with the lives of people who they otherwise might not encounter.
One of my favorite books to teach is Edwidge Danticat’s Brother I’m Dying. Danticat is an award-winning Haitian American writer. The book is both a memoir about family, connection, and separation, as she lived for many years with her uncle in Haiti (while her parents lived in Brooklyn), and then joined them in the United States. However, the book is also about the violence and trauma of U.S. immigration detention. Many years later, her uncle fled Haiti due to political violence, and when he arrived at the Miami airport and asked for asylum, he was sent to the Krome detention center. Even with Danticat’s literary fame (Oprah Book Club author, MacArthur genius grant winner), she could not reach him, and he died due to medical inattention while in government custody.
I have written about this book multiple times, because it invokes both the experience of transnational families, the alleged promise of the “American dream,” and the current brutality of America’s immigration detention.
SF: I would add the film Sleep Dealer, which like Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World takes a dystopic examination of the border policy/crossings which uses an environmental studies and labor studies framework to humanize these migration experiences. Alex Rivera, the director of Sleep Dealer, explores transnational processes through virtual technology. The border wall has been built, yet the United States still relies on labor from Mexico. Maquiladoras at the border in Mexico become sites of virtual labor, where Mexicans do virtual work in the United States through implanted nodes. A key quote from the film is from a construction manager based in the United States who says, “All the work, without the workers.” Themes of displacement, privatization, and militarization are evident throughout the film as well. It is useful in teaching especially coupled with Herrera’s text.
RM 220(BM): What are you working on now, and what contributions do you hope to make to this debate?
JKL: I’m finishing a book, tentatively titled, “In Camps: Vietnamese Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Repatriates, 1975-2005.” This is the history of refugee camps in Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War. It is all about how who got asylum (and the chance to come to the United States) depended on when and where a person first landed. It feels extremely relevant right now, because of the large number of Central Americans claiming asylum along the U.S.-Mexico border.
I also just co-translated (with Bac Hoai Tran) a memoir by Tran Dình Tru, titled, Ship of Fate: A Memoir of a Vietnamese Repatriate. Tru was a Vietnamese naval captain who fled Saigon in 1975, along with over a 100,000 Vietnamese who had been allied with the Americans. In the chaos, he was tragically separated from his wife and children. However, rather than moving on to the United States with the majority of Vietnamese refugees, he decided to return to Vietnam with the hopes of reuniting with his family. The story is remarkable, because it is so unexpected. Why would anyone choose to go back to Vietnam? What decisions does one make when faced with never seeing one’s family again? Tru waited in a refugee camp in Guam for 6 months, and along with more than 1500 Vietnamese men and women, insisted on returning to Vietnam. However, when they returned, the Vietnamese government imprisoned them in a network of “re-education camps.” It is a story of loss, attempts to reunite with family, and the trauma of war.
SF: I am working on my first book tentatively titled, Tacos and Gumbo: The Politics of Food and Labor in New Orleans. This project looks at stories of Central American and Mexican food vendors who followed immigrant reconstruction workers to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I explore the relationship between food vendors, worker activism and entrepreneurship. Given the hyper investment in New Orleans’ tourist industry and the growing anti-worker/anti-immigrant policies at the national level, I show how Latinx migrants experienced (and resisted) policies and regulations that affect both food regulation and immigration status. I hope to show how despite being criminalized and pitted against other working class communities of color, undocumented immigrants can cultivate networks and maneuver unfamiliar bureaucracies and politics to shape the city in their own terms.