More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.
--Martin Luther King, Jr. (Letter from a Birmingham Jail)
--Martin Luther King, Jr. (Letter from a Birmingham Jail)
I hold steadfast to a belief that artists can serve as the conscience of our times, and create work that speaks a people's truth in contrast to official lies. All we have is our memory against a celebrated and imposed amnesia. As an artist, educator, poet, performer, and writer, it's my job to remember and articulate--la lucha de la gente--the people's struggle against systems that look to deny our voices and dare to disappear us in their myopic versions of history.
I am a brown Mestizo Ecuadorian immigrant dedicated to social change, and in the Latin American tradition, it’s the mythic duty of artists to challenge systemic oppression exacted by governments and cultural organizations that collaborate to silence the marginalized voices of working people. Like my conceptual mentor Eduardo Galeano, I look to speak truth to the perverse abuse of power.
This Deep South sultry port city of New Orleans has been my muse and adopted home since 1984, and three days after Hurricane Katrina exposed the weakness of poorly built and under-funded federal levees that breached in her cross-hairs, I escaped my beloved Babylon by the Bayou on a stolen school bus operated by a Yin Yang duo of heroic buccaneers rescuing African American families,
I was on the same bus the iconic composer, singer, and native son, Allen Toussaint, rode out of the social storm that followed the natural tempest. The Jefferson Parish School Board Bus our good pirates commandeered delivered us to an illuminated and dry Baton Rouge Airport, as midnight merged into a new Thursday of September 1, 2005. We were catapulted into a dream reality with lights and electricity from a world that had become a living nightmare only eighty miles away.
I had to flee a U.S. city in peril—not via the efforts of “authorized personnel”, or the many invisible “FEMA armies of compassion”, who were AWOL, absent without leave a week after Katrina hit—but via a pirated vehicle operating the kind of rescue mission only imagined in a Hollywood South film version of Hotel Rwanda.
When recalling what happened, it plays out like an improbable contrived screenplay, but we were delivered to the welcoming arms of Laura and Andrei Codrescu. In another mission impossible-like scenario, I had saved one cell phone bar when the electricity went down three days before, and turned it off for any possible future use. As our rescue bus hit Gonzalez, Louisiana with lights on and cell towers working, I turned my Motorola phone on and called Codrescu, the famous poet, writer, compatriot, and NPR contributor I've known for some twenty years now.
I managed to reach him and blurt out, “We’re on a bus that will drop us off at midnight at the Baton Rouge Airport.” Then, the cell phone died. In their petite vehicle, Laura and Andrei ushered our traumatized bodies to the safety of their home. They offered us priceless refuge, much needed compassion, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, strong coffee, and Internet access.
From there, I wrote my first post-Katrina essay titled Hurricane Katrina and the Chaos of New Orleans in Her Aftermath. This piece was distributed widely and published on various sites, and with the support of famous writer friends such as Ariel Dorfman and Guillermo Gomez-Peña, the piece went international.
It was the first account by a Latino writer who had survived the storm. I was a real life media-branded "refugee". I had not witnessed the storm on TV, but had actually escaped my beloved city submerged in social chaos and despair on a pirated school bus. This essay was also distributed widely through the support of the National Performance Network (NPN) and its presenters.
Shortly thereafter, Leo Garcia, the ED of Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, CA extended an invitation to me. I became an artist in exile--not able to go back home--and he encouraged me to transform that cyber essay and others that followed into a performance piece. It was titled The Cone of Uncertainty: New Orleans after Katrina, and with an NPN residency grant for exiled artists and Leo's support, I debuted The Cone in November 2005 at Highways in California.
We staged four shows two months after my harrowing escape, and it was the first piece actually staged across the country that was written, performed, and conceived by a storm refugee.
In the thirteen years since, I have dedicated much of my writings to documenting the contributions of my Latin American immigrant people who have been invaluable to the rebirth of New Orleans.
For five years from 2006 to 2011, I contributed radio commentaries to NPR's Latino USA. Those commentaries explored the many challenges of life in the immediate years post-Katrina, and the human rights violations immigrants have been subjected to while rebuilding a once devastated and flooded city. Maria Hinojosa, the award-winning journalist and host of Latino USA, introduced many of these three-minute pieces that aired nationally, and most were recorded at WWNO, our local NPR Station.
For the 5th anniversary of the storm in August 2010, I contributed a piece titled Los Invisibles / The Invisible Ones that explored how Latin American immigrants were everywhere on reconstruction sites all over the city, but while they were physically ubiquitous, they were rendered invisible because the city and media turned a blind eye to their suffering. I expose the wage theft many reconstruction workers experienced, laboring arduously to rebuild the city for twelve-hour days, but not paid the promised wages by contractor who threatened calling Immigration Agents to have them deported. Contractors and local businesses exploited their undocumented status, and have cheated the people who have rebuilt this city out of millions maybe billions since the storm.
Because of my deep connection to the Latin American community and immigrant activist leaders, Paul Maassen, the WWNO General Manager, often recommended me to national reporters coming into town to work on stories concerning our immigrant people. One was the famous Richard Gonzalez, who reached out to me on behalf of Paul's recommendation, and I assisted him to connect to immigrant activists for a piece back in December of 2011.
That NPR series was called Hard Times in America, and Richard’s piece was titled Latinos Get Little Thanks for Rebuilding New Orleans. I’ve had a friendship with Richard since, and it was an honor to meet the iconic Chicano commentator. I connected him to Jacinta Gonzalez, the Wonder Woman leader then of the Congress of Day Laborers, and the activist Mexican Methodist Minister, El Pastor Oscar Ramos.
The interviews I have conducted of many honorable Latin American reconstruction workers have informed other writings and a total of three performances, two solo shows, and the Taco Truck Theater / Teatro Sin Fronteras ensemble project.
My life experiences inform my work, and when I returned a month later on October 1, 2005, I was witness to a remarkable and unexpected site: Thousands of Latin American immigrant workers were covering all neighborhoods of the devastated Crescent City—like a locust of reconstruction angels engaged in the epic recovery.
Immigrant reconstruction workers were on thousands of rooftops laying down hundreds of miles of plastic blue tarps to cover water damages. They were on every construction site across the city. Immediately, I began documenting their stories through informal Spanish language conversations on the streets, and trying to understand how they managed to inhabit a city that was under a state of Martial law—where you couldn't get in or out. They were smuggled in on purpose to assist with the massive rebuilding efforts, and because of the undocumented status of most, they became victims of wage theft at the hands of ruthless contractors.
My immigrant people, compadres y comadres, and children, have suffered random police brutality; deplorable working and housing conditions; and human rights violations at the hands of abusive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agents.
Communicating in Spanish, I developed trust and relationships with this imported Latin American labor force, and later with their approval, I began filming those interviews. I photographed the many public protests reconstruction workers staged with the Congress of Day Laborers / El Congreso de Jornaleros—especially every May 1 for International Workers’ Day.
Congreso activists have exposed a myriad of human rights abuses and health risks reconstruction workers have been subjected to in the toxic waters of the flooded city. They have exposed the disappearances of immigrants in local jails while others are held indefinitely to profit a city that thrives on the incarceration of Black and Brown people as one its big businesses.
In July of 2010, Congreso challenged the so-called suicide of an El Salvadorian immigrant, who was picked up by the NOPD and turned over to ICE Agents. Within twenty-four hours in ICE custody, they claimed he committed suicide and offered no further evidence to the El Salvadorian Consulate or his family. Immigrants die in ICE detention regularly, and their deaths are generally mysterious and proclaimed suicides.
José Nelson Reyes-Zelaya was twenty-eight years young and a father of two U.S.-born children. Congreso’s moving protest and vigil across from City Hall inspired me to take further action, and I began using all of my creative strategies to bring greater attention to such violations against my immigrant people. The black and white photos I took inspired a series of works on paper titled Hard Living in the Big Easy: Immigrants & the Rebirth of New Orleans, and some three hundred visitors attended the opening this past September 2018 at the University of New Orleans Saint Claude Gallery. These works are inspired by the Congress of Day Laborers and honor their valiant efforts to fight for the rights of reconstruction workers.
But not surprisingly, the most neglected story of the city’s recent 2018 Tricentennial celebration is the immense contributions Latin American immigrants have made to our massive reconstruction in the thirteen years post-Katrina.
The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities has published the official anthology titled New Orleans & the World, and have brutally disappeared our immigrant community and our valiant reconstruction workers who have contributed their sweat, labor, and love to our city’s resurrection.
Its Executive Editor, Dr. Nancy Dixon (Ph.D), and previous Executive Publisher, Bryan Boyles, now the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, have made us invisible in their anthology, which fills libraries across the city and state.
I imagine the LEH is so powerful that they might have already convinced the many library leaders of the other forty-nine states in the Union to purchase and carry their book as the official chronicle of New Orleans history--further pimping their version that wipes out immigrants like the agent orange of chaos at the extremely white White House, who leads an ethnic cleansing campaign against my immigrant people. They should stand up and take a long ovation because they are adding to this ethnic cleansing of our immigrant people in an era of straight up unapologetic xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria.
The LEH needs to send POTUS a copy to make him proud of their surgical work to remove immigrants out of the big reconstruction picture in New Orleans because its vital when cultural institutions abet the disappearance of a people from their history chronicles. The LEH and its editor should be very proud that they have done just that to support his White Nationalist beliefs. Maybe, they secretly greeted him with a book copy just this past Monday, January 14 when he was in the Big Easy to cause big traffic interruptions and promote his border wall while talking about the Saints playoff victory.
I personally called Dr. Dixon back in late February 2018. I've known Nancy for some ten years plus, and had believed her to be a friend and ally. We saw each other during the 2018 Tit' Rex' 10th Annual parade that marches right in front or my house on the Saint Roch Avenue expansive median, and while it's an all-white petite shoe-box float Krewe that actually mirrors the same high-end big papa Rex Uptown Krewe that they actually had legal battles with over the similarity of names, New Orleans is such a deep plantation city that we have been accustomed to accept the benign racism and segregationist ways of its "Blue Dog Democrats" or so-called white liberals, who we hope will not do us too much harm.
After all, New Orleans is a Blue City in a deep Red State.
Drinking is a civil duty in the Big Easy, and we have to choose our poison. Nancy and I exchanged niceties in Spanish during that parade, and she gifted me with a one of her home-made "Tit Rex" throws of a petite brown King Cake baby sitting on a colorful drink umbrella. Had it been a brown reconstruction baby, this expository narrative would be even more complicated.
I have her personal cell number, and called to honestly inquire about the LEH book and the egregious omission of our immigrant community. She told me, “the book was rushed, José.” I responded, “So, Nancy, we were rushed out of this history book?”
I knew she was the Executive Editor, but I wanted to hear from her directly. It’s truly heartbreaking and traumatic when someone you believed to be an ally abuses their power as Executive Editor in such a publication to disappear an immigrant community and perpetuate lies that are sold as history.
Is this ignorance, indifference, or are we just the brown invisible help?
Are we not worthy of being recognized for thirteen years of doing the dirty and heavy lifting of the recovery? Are we this unworthy and easy to disappear into the oblivion of the forgotten? Are we this undeserving of any memorable mention in your heralded anthology published by one of the most powerful cultural institutions expected to exercise humanity and implied equality as their moniker indicates?
Are we not deserving of any humanity by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities?
Let me speak to you directly, Dr. Dixon, are we such a wretched lot of immigrant miscreants that we merit such little recognition? Are we the criminals that this current hater-in-chief makes us out to be?
Dr. Dixon, did I not sit in your living room last summer and drink wine with your husband, Bill Lavender? I was there to pick up more poetry books because Bill's Dialogos Press has published my debut collection covering twenty-five years of bilingual verse from 1984 to 2014? That book is titled Immigrant Dreams & Alien Nightmares, and one California Chicano scholar is teaching from it in a poetry and contemporary Latinx literature class because my works in verse are heavily influenced by Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda, as well as by Gloria Anzaldua and Ntozake Shange, who just transitioned.
Now, you are part of that nightmare that I speak to in this book, and our people have been disappeared with your hand exacting that brutal act as the Executive Editor.
We talked about the poet's duty to speak truth, and discussed inspirational writers such as Eduardo Galeano. As you know, his iconic Open Veins of Latin America addresses the brutal dictatorships that the U.S. has supported to disappear our Latin American people in Chile, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the list goes on! Did you not share with me that your father was a U.S. diplomat in the Dominican Republic during the brutal dictatorship of Trujillo?
Who else is to blame, Dr. Dixon? Please let me and our Latin American immigrant community understand who else was in on this heartless practice that mirrors the disappearance of our people during such dictatorships.
While you and the LEH have not ordered us killed, you both have disappeared us into non-existence.
Do you not see the trauma of my having to bear witness to your disappearance of my immigrant people in this history book? You wielded the power as its Executive Editor, and you have traumatized me and my immigrant people further by rendering us invisible.
Latin America immigrants are facing unspeakable challenges right now, and many families are struggling with deportations of their beloved to remain in a city they have helped to rebuild?
Here in New Orleans, my immigrant people live in fear of a deportation apparatus that is wielding its unfettered might to break up families, and deport mothers, fathers, and children. Does this not sound like the trauma of immigrants at the border being exacted by an administration that has rendered us criminals and dehumanized us as “illegal aliens” to pimp collective fear and make American hate us again?
Do you fail to see that you are part of the same problem, and that you have now deported us from history? I’ve wanted to burn your book for the past year since I called you in late February. Of course, I can't set it on fire because its my local Alvar Library's copy, and the burning of books is an act against every grain in my being as a poet and writer--even an odious book as yours that has burned out my people from our rightful place in New Orleans history.
Are we that insignificant a people that we merit such easy disappearance in a book that will live for the next three hundred years as the official chronicle of New Orleans history from 1718 to 2018?
Are we? Was there not one scholar in your LEH cabal that questioned why Latin American immigrants were missing in action from your anthology? Back in 2010, you sat in a sold-out theater bearing witness to a performance I'm still touring nationally, and has received critical acclaim because it's the only work on stages across the country that tells the story of immigrants and the post-Katrina reconstruction.
The full script of that show titled Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers will be published this May by Northwestern University Press in an anthology titled Encuentro: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater.
In a variety of genres, I've been telling my immigrant people's story for the past thirteen years, and the solo show you saw was inspired by a docu-theater process of interviews with members of the Congress of Day Laborers. On tour, it has sold out a two hundred-seat theater at Vanderbilt University; three nights at a hundred plus performance venue in Minneapolis presented by Pangea World Theater; and the two nights at the Los Angles Theater Center.
It's tragic that there was not one person within this LEH group of writers and scholars that spoke for us, but it's not surprising because, most likely, there was not one Latinx person at that table of decision makers. It's tragic that your hand played such a role in disappearing us, and tragic that you have been so negligent and silent since I last spoke to you back in February. I spoke to Mr. Bryan Boyles in March of 2018, and neither one of you did a thing to consider remedying your tragic wrong.
It was brutally telling when you actually muted me without my knowing during that call, and I clearly expressed that I was intent on holding you and the LEH accountable for this egregious act with all of my cultural activist strength and national outreach. What did you say, “go ahead and write your letter.” Here it is addressing how you and the LEH rushed us out of history.
Quite frankly, I would like to see you, Dr. Dixon, rushed out of your job as a professor at Dillard University, a historically Black College, because your brutal deportation of our immigrant people of color is simply unacceptable and unforgivable. Where is the scholarly depth and research for some one that even boasts about being bilingual with your fluency in Spanish? This makes it even more unforgivable.
Dr. Dixon and Mr. Bryan Boyles, you are two of the main culprits of this cultural disappearance of our people. Yes, there is one page titled “Little Honduras” on page 33 of the 207 pages in your LEH book, and two other sentences that mention that Latin American workers aided the rebuilding post-Katrina. From a Facebook post this past fall, that you, Dr. Dixon, immediately disappeared, you boasted that one page of inclusion, and noted that I was looking to malign you.
It never ceases to amaze me how white privilege refuses to ignore the reality you have created, and how unaccountable you all see yourselves—especially so-called white liberals who construct borders around yourselves as untouchables for your sins against us. This is not a matter of maligning you for some benign oversight, as one writer put it who is included in your book.
This is about holding you and the LEH accountable on a national and international level for a historical crime against our people. But your actions have inspired me to go beyond your brutality towards us and put together a site that will inform the entire world that we, Latin American immigrants, are a big part of New Orleans' epic rise from the great flood.
During an era of raging anti-immigrant hysteria, it’s beyond disgraceful when an organization with “humanities” in their moniker becomes a privileged gatekeeper—deciding who shall be remembered and who shall be forgotten—and practically exterminates us.
I reference Dr. King’s quote at the beginning because I am sure that you, Dr. Dixon, Mr. Boyles, the LEH staff and it's ED, consider yourselves the “good people”, but your silence, since I’ve been holding all of you accountable for the near year from February 2018, is as brutal as the act of deportation exacted in an anthology that has been celebrated to no end locally by a local media press that appears clueless to the egregious omission of our immigrant community.
The current administration jails immigrant children in cages and their mothers are flown to detention centers hundreds of miles away. Our immigrant people have become invisible in this historical chronicle by so-called scholars, who most likely had their own homes rebuilt by brown immigrant hands. The people of New Orleans know that thousands of Latin Americans have contributed to our rebirth, and currently, the immigrant community faces real life-threatening deportations. They have the right to remain in a city they have helped to rebuild.
This LEH Tricentennial anthology is exemplary of how people of color are wiped out of history by elitist organizations that perpetuate and pimp white supremacist narratives of power and a Eurocenric plantation paradigm. Our immigrant people have been brutally deported from recent history by an organization that dares to call itself the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Deporting our immigrant community from the history of New Orleans is simply inhumane, and the LEH needs to re-brand itself the Louisiana Endowment for the Inhumanities.
But when will you and the LEH own up to your brutal cultural crime against our immigrant people? When will you actually all dare to take ownership?
When I first expressed this cultural atrocity to my mentor, Carol Bebelle, the Executive Director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, she too could not believe that the LEH had committed such an inhumane act of disappearing our Latin American immigrants from this three hundred-year anthology of New Orleans. I've worked with Ms. Bebelle and the Ashé since 2004, and she has offered me guidance for the past ten months of this process. Ashé has been my cultural home for 19 years now, and I have launched numerous performance projects and community-driven cultural events there.
Mama Carol knows that I am a cultural warrior for my people's rights, and she encouraged me to develop a cultural project to empower our forgotten and neglected immigrant people, and address this cultural deportation. With the support of the Foundation For Louisiana and their Social Justice Department, we are launching VIDA.
VIDA IN NEW ORLEANS is part of this solution and a cultural platform for Latin American poets, writers, scholars, and activists to drive our own narratives. We will shape our own history. We will write our own stories.
We will secure our Latin legacy, and our prime directive is to honor our heroic immigrant community and their commitment to the resurrection of a city once on its post-Katrina deathbed.
Ashé y Adelante! Si Se Puede!
Below is a link to our YouTube Film Short that addresses the LEH's inhumane deportation of our Latin American immigrant community in their anthology. Filmed and edited by Thsombe Tshanti.
HARD LIVING IN THE BIG EASY: IMMIGRANTS & THE REBIRTH OF NEW ORLEANS