Hard Living in the Big Easy: Immigrants & Photography of Post-Katrina Protests 2010 - 2019 José Torres-Tama This ten-year documentation project is being developed into a book with the same title and support funds from a Documentary Grant Award from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Part of PhotoNOLA 2021 Open Studio Event Sat, Dec 11, 2021 / 4-8 PM Torres-Tama Studio 1329 Saint Roch Avenue, New Orleans
In July 2010, I began documenting the many public protests of the Congress of Day Laborers, the immigrant activists group in New Orleans. That July, they were protesting the mysterious death of José Nelson Reyes Zelaya, a twenty-eight year old El Salvadorian reconstruction worker. He died within twenty-four hours of being in the custody of local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agents.
They said he committed suicide and offered no further evidence to his family or the local diplomats of the El Salvadorian Consulate. The Day Laborers' leadership and their lawyers presented an ICE official with "Freedom of Information" legal petition papers, but to this day, there has been no more information given because this agency operates with little oversight like a notorious U.S. secret police.
Immigrants have died and disappeared in the custody of local police and the brutal ICE Agents that operate across from City Hall on Poydras Street, but our mainstream media ignores their deaths and plight because the undocumented status of many marks them "as less than human."
El Congreso was founded post-Katrina in 2006 to defend the human rights of thousands of Latin American reconstruction workers, who have contributed their sweat, labor, and love to rebirth of our city.
Corrupt contractors and local businesses have exploited the undocumented status of many, and immigrants have experienced rampant wage theft, random incarcerations by local police, and brutal deportations separating families by ICE Agents in the fifteen years post-Katrina.
Such blatant abuse and labor exploitation of immigrants should come as no surprise in a city whose bloody history as a premiere port for the Slave Trade of African people will not be found in the tourist brochures for the so-called "Big Easy" party town.
Enslaved African men, women, and children were designated as "less than human" by French and Spanish Catholic colonizers and later by the Anglo Southern gentry who built the city's wealth on the backs of Black labor.
The current reconstructed Crescent City has been built on the backs of immigrant laborers, but amnesia is so prevalent that our people have been easily forgotten. Yet post-Hurricane Ida, we have witnessed Latin American labor crews repairing the many roofs Ida's winds damaged and blew off houses and businesses in New Orleans.
Our Latin people have contributed to the epic rebirth of New Orleans, but it has been “hard living in the Big Easy” post-Katrina. Undocumented immigrants have done the heavy lifting for the past fifteen plus years, but continuously face deportations by ICE Agents. They struggle to remain in a city they have helped to rebuild.
From 2006 to 2011, I contributed commentaries that aired on NPR’s "Latino USA" news journal, and Maria Hinojosa, the award-winning journalist, introduced many of them that addressed the challenges immigrants have endured.
For the 2010 5th anniversary of the storm, I contributed a piece titled Los Invisibles / The Invisible Ones, and it noted how immigrants have been rendered invisible while they were ubiquitous on reconstruction sites all over the city. Latino USA published my photos on their web site with the commentaries, and so has Syracuse University's Public: A Journal for Imagining America.
There is no other photographer in New Orleans that has dedicated the past ten years to documenting the public protests of our undocumented Latin American immigrants, and their "Live Art" manifestations are a testament to their valiant resistance to expose the many abuses that have besieged a hard-working people who have aided the rebirth of New Orleans.
In the spirit of Michael P. Smith’s work, who was drawn to the live street theater of a marginalized Black community, my images capture the street protest rituals of a neglected people with dramatic stills of immigrant children, workers, and their families demanding their dignity and human rights during this era of rampant anti-immigrant hysteria.
This dark episode of dehumanizing immigrants began with the Bush administration, continued with Obama and the three million he deported, and has reached inhumane heights with the cruel agent orange of chaos, who initiated his hateful campaign by making immigrants enemies of the state.
In the Latin American tradition, it's the job of the artist to speak the people's pain and document their history against the official lies of governments. My prime directive is to have my immigrant people remembered and honored for their contributions to our epic reconstruction and their heroic resistance to exploitation.
Post-Ida, Latin American workers have been reconstructing the many damaged roofs, and you can see them risking their lives without the proper scaffolding or even harnesses offered by GrinGo contractors to protect their lives.
It's obvious that Immigrant Lives Do Not Matter here in New Orleans.