A New Latin Quarter

Michael Joe on how Vietnamese-Americans in eastern New Orleans are adapting to the area's new Hispanic population, and vice versa


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At the Viet My supermarket off Chef Menteur Highway, where a stream of customers has for two decades sustained an immigrant family's dreams, 21-year-old Eddie Benitez works day by day to fulfill his own. Arriving from Honduras 16 months ago, Benitez has been working at Viet My for the last year — except for two weeks in May, when he quit for the promise of better pay doing construction work. It rained hard and often during those two weeks, and he says the work was not as steady as he needed it to be.

  He knows the money he sends home to his family — his mother, father and seven younger siblings — buys food and pays the rent, but he is unsure how long he will remain in New Orleans.

  "I don't know," Benitez says. "I might marry here. I might find someone here who loves me."

  Thanh Vu, the matriarch of the Vietnamese-American family who owns Viet My, did not hesitate when Benitez asked for his job back. Her six children are doing well at work or in school; her youngest plans to attend Tulane University this fall. She says she understands that Benitez and her other Hispanic workers will try to find better jobs. "They are good workers. So when they come back, I just hire them," Vu says.

  A number of Vietnamese-owned stores in the neighborhood have employed Hispanic workers since Hurricane Katrina, Vu says. "Most of them hire one or two Hispanic workers to speak the language," because "many Hispanic customers speak very little English."

  Benitez does just about everything at Viet My: he butchers meat for the fresh food display; keeps the stockroom in order; stocks shelves with Asian and Latin food products; and provides translation for an increasing number of Spanish-speaking customers, who now account for about 30 percent of sales. "I want to grow in America. So it is very important I learn English," Benitez says. Twice a week, he attends an English as a second language (ESL) class around the corner, at a storefront Baptist church led by a Honduran-American pastor.

  Outside Viet My is a taco truck, whose Honduran-born owner pays the Vu family a couple hundred dollars a month for water and electrical hook-ups. Vu says the truck is good for business and provides her with a sense of security.

  After 5 p.m. each evening, the parking lot fills with weary construction workers seeking nourishment and maybe a beer, which they buy from the store because the taco truck does not have a liquor license, says Officer Janssen Valencia, the New Orleans Police Department's liaison to the Hispanic community.

  "Here you have two businesses: one surviving off the other because they are helping each other," Valencia says.

The booming Hispanic population has diversified neighborhoods throughout the New Orleans area. But in Village de l'Est in the far northeastern corner of Orleans Parish, the predominately Vietnamese population has embraced its new Hispanic neighbors in remarkable ways, forging economic and social relationships around work, religion and a shared sense of what it is like to be an immigrant in America.

  Ethnographers warn against putting too much stock in the idea that ethnic groups choose to live in close proximity to one another due to some sort of cultural understanding of one another; they say pragmatic factors like proximity to good schools, economic considerations like affordable rents and oftentimes pure serendipity have more to do with creating a neighborhood's ethnic milieu. But while circumstance and simple chance may explain why Hispanics are moving to his neighborhood, 35-year-old Michael Tran says the groups have a common understanding.

  "I think we share the struggle, coming from a Third World country," Tran says.

  For decades there has been a recognizable Hispanic presence in the New Orleans region, many of them from Honduras. But when more Hispanics arrived as part of the workforce required to rebuild the region, suddenly, it seemed — as had occurred in other parts of the country where housing construction boomed — the New Orleans area now had a sizable number of Hispanic residents.

  The Hispanic population is growing most rapidly in the suburbs, reflecting a national trend. In Jefferson Parish, the Hispanic population grew from 7 percent of total population in 2000 to 12 percent in 2010, census data show. But Orleans Parish has seen its Hispanic population grow significantly as well, from 3 percent overall in 2000 to 5 percent in 2010. The growth is happening primarily in Mid-City and less densely populated eastern New Orleans, where a census tract that runs parallel to Chef Menteur Highway more than doubled its Latino population, from 70 to 183, according to an analysis by Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella.

  In the eastern areas of the city, Campanella says, "It is probably reasonable to say that the post-Katrina housing that came back online as rentable real estate, at reasonable rents, provided housing opportunities" for workers who needed to live near construction jobs.

  Martin Guiterrez, the vice president of social services at Catholic Charities, says the numbers confirm what he and others have witnessed since Katrina. "It flooded in that area along Chef Highway, but it did not flood as badly as in other areas of New Orleans East, so people were able to fix the properties and they started renting to immigrants," he says. Thanh Vu's third daughter, Mai Vu, says Hispanics replaced a lot of Vietnamese who moved to the West Bank or along Bullard Avenue.

Jose Maldonado says he was one of the first Hispanics to move to Village de l'Est — in fact, he rented a house he had helped to rebuild. Back then, he says, "It was so easy to find work. We worked 10 houses at the same time."

  But being away from his family in Houston was difficult. He would trek there every other weekend to spend time with his two daughters, Sary and Audry, and their mother, Alma. When he asked Alma to move to New Orleans, she told him that she would, but only if he made a commitment to stop drinking.

  "When I lived in Texas, I drank too much. When I moved over here, I still drank a lot," Maldonado says. "She said, 'Well, are you going to change your life?' And I said, 'Okay, let's go look for God and change our life.'"

  Since 2006, Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church has held a Spanish-language Mass for Hispanic parishioners. Maldonado said they use the church's original chapel, off Alcee Fortier Boulevard, for Sunday Mass and Friday night Bible study. The Rev. Nghiem Van Nguyen, who leads the church, says, "When we came here in 1975, Americans gave help to us, and now we want to help."

  The chapel is being renovated, and the Mass has moved to the big church on Dwyer Boulevard. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Maldonado sat in a pew near the front with his daughters and Alma, who is now his wife. "We got married at the church a year ago; we were the first Spanish marriage at the church," he says with a smile, adding the church has now seen six Spanish marriages, "and (there will be) three more in the next three months."

While the church is one of the things that attracted him to the neighborhood, Maldonado says Hispanics are also moving here because he believes they feel more comfortable here than in other parts of the city. "Because downtown, it's hard to live. In Kenner, the rent is too expensive, and some people don't have papers and they ask for papers to rent places there," he said.

  Valencia says Vietnamese property owners worry less about issues that bar Hispanics from renting property elsewhere. For instance, Valencia says, "They are not as concerned with how many people are going to live in a place." As long as the rent is paid, he says the Vietnamese owners understand a lot of people might be living under the same roof, because they have done it too.

  With the help of Catholic Charities, Valencia has been addressing ESL classes and community and church groups in the city to teach Hispanics about the law and help ease their fears of police. Many people he talks to are in the country illegally. Valencia says he tells them, "We're not going to ask about your documentation. We don't care about your status. We just want to know if you are victims. Because our job is public safety in the community and you are part of the community." He says that kind of message helps ease fears and starts a conversation.

  Valencia has reached out to law enforcement agencies in surrounding parishes with an offer to give similar speeches in their jurisdictions, but he has yet to find anyone to take him up on his offer. "I've been lucky in the sense that with the past mayor and the past (police) superintendent, and with this mayor and this superintendent, they have continued this amnesty toward Hispanics," he says.

  Since January, Valencia has been working from a shed in the parking lot of Mary Queen of Vietnam's original chapel. He says he leaves his office at least a couple of times a day to stop by Hispanic-owned businesses along Alcee Fortier Boulevard and just to talk with people in the neighborhood.

  Asked whether there have been any major conflicts between Vietnamese and Hispanics, Valencia says no. But he says he often reminds Hispanic residents they have not been there as long as their Vietnamese neighbors.

  "You are guests in their community," he says he tells them. "This is their community, and you guys have to learn to get along with them."


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