Bridging the Divides

December 4, 2012

The dramatic increase in the Latino population around New Orleans was obvious after Hurricane Katrina as a huge workforce sped here for rebuilding jobs. But Rafael Delgadillo, program coordinator for the local nonprofit Puentes, says a different sort of demographic shift for Latinos is becoming clear around town today.

“You can just see it, there are more groceries, there are restaurants. You’re even starting to see families now. Where right after the storm you only saw men, now you’re seeing women and their children, so they’re settling here,” says Delgadillo.

Even as much of the recovery work that first led them here has wrapped up, many more Latinos are making New Orleans home. The word “puentes” is Spanish for bridges, and since forming in 2007 this group has aimed to bridge divides of education, economic opportunity and political access to help these Latin American families truly become part of the Greater New Orleans community.

“They’re thinking of New Orleans as their long-term residence, they’re thinking beyond 10 years. So that means this population is here and Puentes needs to provide services and resources so they can advance, so they can provide better opportunities for their children,” says Puentes executive director Scarlett Lanzas. “What we’re trying to do is get Latinos to participate in civil society and have a strong voice in decision-making processes.”

One of the biggest issues, Delgadillo says, is the language barrier in a metro area he describes as being not very language-friendly for Spanish speakers.

“Language access is the issue,” he says. “When we really look at how we can fix the challenges, or ease them, for the community, it’s about helping them understand how the services and systems work.”

Puentes does outreach through fairs and events, and its members sometimes go door to door to show the area’s widely spread Latino community what it can offer them. This can include programs for buying homes, starting businesses and building job skills. Moreover, the group is working to develop more Latino civic leaders, people who will stand up for their community as it works on issues like that language barrier and access to credit and capital.

“I would love to see parents communicating with teachers at schools, being involved with their children’s education,” says Lanzas. “I would love to see Latinos owning their own businesses and providing for their families and even giving jobs to other people. I would love to see a more engaged Latino community participating in decision-making processes.”

Despite the challenges facing Latinos here, there is plenty in New Orleans that is uniquely appealing for them in long run, says Delgadillo, who is himself a native of the Dominican Republic. In some cases, he says, the city already feels a bit like home.

“For many of us, this city is very familiar in its customs and in its culture. You know, before the Louisiana Purchase New Orleans was in Latin America,” he says. “There’s a familiarity. Carnival, every Latin American place has carnival. In Latin America we have laid back lifestyles, like New Orleans is famous for, it’s not the Big Easy for no reason, right? So I think that’s something. The actual culture is welcoming to us, because it’s familiar to us.”

Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about Puentes,  click here.