José Bacallao stares into a boarded-up restaurant on the edge of a Highway 90 strip mall in Waveland, a tiny town in southwestern Mississippi that was the epicenter of one of the strongest, and deadliest, hurricanes in United States history. Nearly two years ago, Hurricane Katrina destroyed everything inside the building, along with a great stretch of the Mississippi Coast and New Orleans. The only evidence that the bare, gray building was once the site of Las Palmas, the traditional Cuban restaurant Bacallao opened two years before the storm hit, is a poster taped inside the glass door. On it, a dancing Cuban woman in a Tropicana nightclub dress swings her hips and shakes a pair of maracas, a bright flower perched in her hair.
Drops of sweat roll off Bacallao's face as he stares at the woman on the poster and thinks.
"We never thought something like this would happen. Everything was lost," he says in Spanish, laughing with Cuban wryness. "The money it had given us, the family portraits—everything was lost."
He bends down and picks up a plastic tea-urn key out of a pile of shattered glass.
"Una memoria de Katrina," he says.
Three months earlier, I met Bacallao a half-mile up the road, in the new Las Palmas he had opened after the storm, out of the rubble of a flattened gun shop. With the aid of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, insurance companies, the Catholic church and private investors, Bacallao was one of the first to open shop again in Waveland. The restaurant is nearly always full, and its bright walls now bear new photographs—including an upside-down poster of Fidel Castro's Sierra Maestra forces. Minutes after his son introduced us in April, Bacallao shared one more, distinctly Latin American memory: a warped hardcover book of Cuban history through the 1940s.
"The hurricane took everything, but it didn't take my history—my tradition," he said.
Along with 125,000 other Cubans, Bacallao's history changed dramatically when he fled, with Castro's blessings, from the port of Mariel, Cuba, in 1980. He arrived in Miami as a political refugee—a legal immigrant.
'Small House, Big Heart'
Guadalupe Silva opens the door to her humble, second-floor apartment in the back bay of Biloxi, 40 miles east along the coast from Waveland.
"La casa es pequño," she says, "but my heart is big."
Even after Katrina killed the Coast's rental stock, these bare quarters—designed like military barracks—offer some of the cheapest rent in the area: about $420 a month for a one-bedroom unit. Men sit on plastic chairs and drink in the parking lot; others walk in and out of first-floor apartments, strung out on drugs. Silva's second-floor apartment stands out for her collection of potted plants. Inside, her apartment blossoms with trinkets: teddy bears dressed in Peruvian flags and construction hats; a pumpkin Halloween decoration on the wall; a cupboard full of photo albums and blank CDs; a kitchen table overflowing with cereal boxes and non-perishable reserves.
Silva, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, kisses me on the cheek and seats me on a brown couch in her living room. In between smiles, her gently worn face reverts to a distant melancholy. In her mid-50s, she has a slender, 5'3" figure, luminously tan skin and feathery hair. Her shoulders, which she gracefully rolls back in moments of excitement, have borne the weight of both natural disaster and incalculable labor. It does not take long for Silva to begin to describe, in a soft, animated voice, Aug. 29, 2005, the day Katrina hit—merely two months after she had arrived alone to work, illegally, in Biloxi.
It was the third time Silva—an elementary school principal for 30 years in Peru—had visited the U.S. to work, always with a tourist visa. After Katrina hit, she stayed, and has never left. Her husband of 35 years visited to work alongside her for four months in 2006, but returned to Peru to help put her two youngest sons through school.
She now lives with her oldest son, an aspiring journalist and chef who works erratic hours with her at a seafood factory, where they clean shrimp whenever there is work—which is not often. Last week, they each made $70. Still, the possibility of more money to send home keeps Silva in the U.S. The World Bank reported in 2001 that the average professional teacher's salary outside Lima was about $2.50 an hour. In her first week of cleaning shrimp, Silva made $500—five times the weekly teacher's salary in Peru.
At the time of the storm, Silva was living alone in another second-floor apartment, closer to the ocean, with what she believed to be a sturdy brick construction.
"I thought that, since the apartment was made out of brick, Katrina wouldn't affect it, but sadly the bricks were an ornament, nothing more," she says in precise, fast-paced Spanish.
As water rose to the second floor, Silva and a neighbor tried to leave, but the front stairs were completely submerged. Instead, they exited the building through the rear staircase. Outside, the wind and rain were so strong that they had to crawl on their hands and knees to reach the next apartment building, which was only a few feet away. They knocked on a door, but it was locked, so they yelled until someone upstairs heard them and let them into their unit. They stayed there as the hurricane bore down on the Gulf Coast.
"It was terribly strong … all the crystal in the apartment broke, and all we could do was pray and cry, nothing else," she says, crying now.
When the storm finally subsided, Silva's small group assessed the damage. The first thing they noticed was that women were bleeding from their legs, which had been scratched during the storm. Outside, they saw dead dogs who had tried to escape the flood.
"Nature died," Silva says. "There weren't trees, there weren't animals, there wasn't anything. It was all dead. … Even though the buildings remained, everything was destroyed. There were so many people who died."
'You Couldn't Talk'
"Ven, mi amor! Come to Papi. Póntelo!"
José Bacallao, seated outside his restaurant at a patio table, cloaks his potbelly in a loose, red T-shirt with the words "2002 World Series of Beep Baseball" inscribed over the state of Illinois. Dark soccer shorts, an Under-Armor baseball hat and sandals complete his casual uniform as charismatic family patriarch. His beaming, high-pitched invitation gets his grandson, Javier, to run and leap into his lap.
"This one—he's a firecracker," the 53-year-old Cuban émigré says, taking a break to place his baseball hat on his grandson's head.
"I like journalism. I really like politics," he says, between telling Javier how handsome he looks in the oversized hat.
"I read the newspaper in prison," he adds, as Javier looks up at him and smiles.
At 17, one semester away from graduating high school, Bacallao was conscripted to fight in Africa. Throughout much of the 1970s and '80s, Cuba launched military aid missions to the countries throughout the continent—most notably contributing 36,000 troops to revolutionary forces in Angola. Bacallao escaped military service for 10 months, hiding in his relatives' homes in Camagüey, in the Eastern foothills of Cuba.
"Almost every Cuban from this period who didn't want to serve in the military went to jail. They accused us of treason. I'm a traitor for not wanting to kill anybody? No way," he says—this final, American phrase in English. "I don't want to kill anybody."
After he was caught, Bacallao spent several years in military prisons throughout Cuba, cutting sugar cane and performing construction. When Fidel Castro announced in 1980 that anyone who wanted—including prisoners—could leave for the U.S. from the port of Mariel, Bacallao (who was now free) did not hesitate. He left two children behind—one who has since emigrated to the U.S.—and joined the mass exodus to Miami.
"It was sad, because we had to leave our country," he says later. "We were going somewhere where we didn't know anyone. We didn't know the language; we didn't know anything. But we wanted to leave, because in Cuba, there was nothing—no liberty, no free press. You couldn't talk. The government held all of the rights."
He arrived in Miami and, with the aid of a Catholic charity group, secured a flight to New Orleans, where he began working in bodegas and hotel kitchens. He had never really cooked in Cuba, but he learned quickly. While taking English classes in the city, he met Nolvia, who had immigrated from Honduras. In 1980 they married.
"Nolvia, mi novia," he calls her—meaning, "Nolvia, my girlfriend."
In 1986, after saving up enough money, the two bought a small house in Waveland and, along with much of Bacallao's family who had moved to New Orleans, started a new life in Mississippi.
"We came here, and lived here. My children were born here," Bacallao says. "Everyone came here, and we worked in various places. Until Katrina, when everything fell apart, and everything was destroyed."
'The Work Hands of the Country'
Before the storm, Silva had eaten most of her meals at the hotel where she cleaned up after guests for $15 a room. After the storm, she had little to eat at her apartment, where she lived alone. Aid had not arrived—not even water. Electricity went out every night at 2 a.m. After two days, she says Army vehicles swept through the area, but didn't stop to offer help. Instead, she and her surviving neighbors formed their own nexus of support.
"We worked together to collect wood and build a fireplace, and we started cooking outside. It was like a commune for everyone. … One lady from the neighborhood came over every day to bring breakfast and lunch, and we named her 'guardian angel,' because we had been so worried about whether we could eat. More and more people came, and brought one thing or another," she says in Spanish.
Silva says that, very late, the U.S. government began to help. The Army and Red Cross were especially helpful, she says, though not until two or three days after the storm.
"The United States is the world's leading power, and when there is a disaster in another country, the U.S. is the first to help. But when a disaster happens in its own country, there is no response. There is nothing. Later, help came. But not in the moment when it was crucial."
She says the response time was slow "for everyone"—not just immigrants. "We were waiting in line for food along with citizens," she says.
However, Gulf Coast Latin-American Association President Andy Guerra says his organization has monitored cases of Latinos specifically being denied access to living shelters and FEMA's disaster recovery centers.
"Many (Latinos) tried (to enter the centers), but they were greeted by either INS or custom workers. There was an intimidation factor, and many of them did not venture off to receive the benefits that everybody else did with hurricane recovery—whether it be monetary funding or materials for their recovery. … (Now) when they hear FEMA or Red Cross, because of what happened, they're very hesitant to come out to public meetings, because they feel that INS, the police, border patrol are going to be there, and if they're undocumented, they'll be deported," he says.
Mayra Lopez-de-Victoria, FEMA's multilingual services representative, says agents from many different federal agencies—including INS and ICE—were deployed to the disaster area in the Gulf Coast, but that none had any intentions of deporting illegal immigrants. She says she could understand why some Latinos might have felt intimidated, but places the blame for this intimidation on the victims.
"I can put myself in the shoes of disaster victims. Let's say you're coming over to the Disaster Recovery Center, and you see many people wearing blue jackets. … and letters in white saying "IRS," "ICE," and in reality, you can feel intimidated yourself, but that is something you are feeling. Maybe by yourself, you make other decisions without first finding out what someone else will tell you," she says.
After the emergency response, life became increasingly stratified for immigrants with legal and illegal status. Illegal immigrants were ineligible for the two largest sources of post-Katrina aid in Mississippi: FEMA grants and, because they had no way of signing leases on houses, Mississippi's Hurricane Katrina Homeowner Grants. Silva applied for FEMA aid five times, she says, and was rejected each time. She gave up trying to receive aid in 2006.
Guerra says language formed a barrier that even qualified legal immigrants could not hurdle.
"[T]here was no one to assist with translating services. (Latinos) were informed, 'Don't come back until you find a translator.' They were denied because of language, or just flat out did not qualify because they didn't speak English," he says.
Lopez-de-Victoria insists that FEMA has been "very aggressive" in assisting non-English speakers, pointing to call centers in Texas and Puerto Rico, a bilingual Web site and pamphlets printed in Spanish. FEMA's role in assisting illegal immigrants ended after the disaster period, however, which Lopez-de-Victoria identified as "four to six weeks."
James McIntyre, media relations coordinator for FEMA, says the organization was allowed to help illegal immigrants with "only the sheltering part."
"Once people register for assistance, if they are ineligible, the Stafford Act doesn't allow us to do any more. We turn those residents over to state volunteer agencies, and things of that nature. As far as those who come in and assist with the rebuilding effort who are found to be … undocumented, we don't have the legal authority to do anything about that," he says.
Sam Buchanan, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, told me at a Mississippi Access to Justice Commission meeting in February that Legal Services is "bound to only serve U.S. citizens and legal aliens." He says he is unaware of any services available for illegal immigrants.
Despite this, thousands of Latino immigrants began the grunt work of rebuilding the Mississippi Coast. By the end of 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nearly 100,000 Latinos arrived to work in the Gulf Coast hurricane strike zone.
Silva says that she worked at more than 20 work sites after Katrina—doing construction, painting, cleaning and other types of manual labor at schools, hospitals, banks and hotels. She keeps a photo album dedicated to many of her different work crews. In some, she is wearing a hard hat; in others, she is dressed in all white, painting green apples on the walls of schools and climbing ladders to reach every corner of a hotel lobby.
During this period, Silva says the workload became daunting. As she began working longer shifts, she often was not paid for overtime. When she or other undocumented workers she knew asked to be compensated, they were told to speak with immigration officials.
"We've run into cases where the employer will contact border patrol or INS or local law enforcement just so they don't have to pay," Guerra says.
Eventually, Silva developed an allergic reaction from drinking contaminated water on work sites. She had to be rushed to the emergency room, for which she was charged $600. As an illegal immigrant, she does not qualify for medical insurance. For a follow-up visit with a physician, she was charged $450. Her boss said that he would pay for these medical bills, but never did.
"Sadly, my employer said one thing—and the problem is that I don't understand English very well. I can understand it, but I don't speak it very well," she says.
"We don't have any health insurance, so when we get sick, we are charged a mountain of money. We aren't surviving with the help of the government. We are working and paying taxes, and are the work hands of the country," Silva says, noting that illegal immigrants—whom many allege "steal" tax funds—will never have any of their withheld income taxes refunded, or enjoy benefits they help pay for, like Social Security.
"For American citizens, if you don't work, the government pays you," Silva says. "If we don't work, we don't eat, and we can't pay rent. We have nothing."
"But we are still struggling," she adds. "We always continue forward. These are the challenges we face, so that we can help our families. We have to thank the U.S. government for giving us the opportunity to work. And with this opportunity, we helped rebuild after a disaster."
'From Pistols to Forks and Knives'
"I love America," Bacallao says in English, "because of my family and the liberty."
He stands between Roman columns on the porch to his house, which he has rebuilt by raising the foundation nearly three feet with the help of two Mexican laborer friends. Inside, the master bathroom features a Jacuzzi and a high-pressure shower that Bacallao calls "the car wash." French tile—the kind that Bacallao built as a teenager in Camagüey—adorns the cool, spacious living room. In the front yard, where a FEMA trailer is now parked, Bacallao plans to build a guitar-shaped swimming pool in three years, after he emerges from debt. The neck of the guitar will be a baby pool, the body the deep end.
"It's an American dream," I tell him as he walks me through the house.
"It's a dream for my sons and daughters," he corrects me.
"This country opened the door of opportunity for me," he says, extending his arms and taking in a deep breath. "My children can go to school and can wear shoes. It's been tough, but how sweet it is to be free!"
After receiving the trailer—where he, his wife and his two youngest daughters still live—and monetary aid from FEMA, Bacallao began to receive loans from friends and restaurant clients to rebuild Las Palmas. In all, he estimates that he received $25,000 in loans this way. By contrast, insurance companies repaid him less than $10,000 for his destroyed restaurant and house.
One of his largest lenders was a white engineer from Cuba who left the country shortly after the Revolution in 1959. "This señor was … a (man) of letters, a university (type). More than me. I was a farmer. He asked to leave (Cuba). A lot of people left in 1959," he says.
Though from completely different backgrounds in Cuba, Bacallao now considers the engineer, who works for NASA at the nearby Stennis Space Center, a good friend.
"He told us that we couldn't die," Bacallao says.
After receiving enough money, Bacallao purchased a lease on a demolished gun shop half a mile away from the original restaurant on Hwy. 90. He agreed to rebuild the flattened structure and pay rent on it. In all, 10 family members—including Bacallao's four children, aged 18 to 25—work at the restaurant.
"We changed it from pistols to forks and knives," he says. "With the business, we have risen above."
He is sympathetic, though, of undocumented workers like Silva who remain in the trenches.
"It's very tough," he says, after I tell him Silva's story. "They have families. They have children. They are alone. They are poor. They are some of the poorest people, and we have to help them. We have to extend a hand to everybody. I came here like that as well, and I made a family and everything. Everyone came to the country this way. Maybe not you, but your grandparents came from another country. This country is great because of its people—many people. All countries come here, and that's why this is the greatest country of all."
'My Reason to Live'
After the rush of reconstruction work, Silva faced a long period of health complications and unemployment. During this time, she witnessed an increase in deportations and a spike in anti-immigrant sentiment. She was so terrified of being pulled over and sent home that she refused a housekeeping job 30 minutes away in Bay St. Louis that would have paid her $3 more per hour than her current job, with dependable hours, free food and uniforms.
"Now, with whatever kind of pretext, these same police officers that once welcomed us and helped us, have turned to deport us," she says.
Guerra says that, as a result of this fear, many immigrants—both illegal and legal—have consigned themselves to only four areas: home, work, church and the grocery store.
"There's less than a handful of areas that they'll definitely venture off to without having to feel scared, because there have been some cases of discrimination and harassment by law officials, as well as private individuals, who ask, 'Why are you here? Are you illegal?'" he said. "(Latinos) may actually be here on a worker program, and be here with legal status, but because of the stories that have gotten back to them of harassment and racism, they'll say, 'We'll just stay here. We'll go to church, and go to work and go back home.'"
For now, all Silva can do is continue working, in the shadows, to ensure her sons a brighter future. Now that the bulk of reconstruction has subsided, however, steady work has become almost impossible to find while deportation threats have increased.
"Yes, it's true. Now that we have reconstructed everything, they want to deport us. What ingratitude!" Silva says. "One comes here to work, because in our countries, sadly, there is no work. … (Here) it's almost the same, because you have to pay rent, you have to pay bills and a mountain of other things, but at least we can work and provide for our families and children. … I have three sons, and I work for them. I wake up every day at 5 a.m. to see if there is work, and (now) there is no work. I have responded to help-wanted ads, and they say, 'Yes, we'll call.' And the days pass."
Instead of a lifetime of manual labor jobs, Silva dreams of returning to teaching one day. Without documents, she cannot teach, and she feels insecure about her English skills—which she would give anything to improve. Exhaustion from labor, stress and fear, though, keeps her from learning more than a few basic phrases, which she repeats often to her English-speaking neighbors: "Good morning," "How are you?" "Alright," "Are you working today?" "No work today."
She says that she would like to see an immigration bill that takes into account the relief Latinos provided the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
"Who was working to reconstruct this city? More than anyone—with fear of there being so much bacteria and contaminated water, which nobody revealed to us—who? The Latinos. We removed the debris, everything," she says.
She would have no way of paying the $10,000 the Senate bill proposed for illegal immigrants to qualify for a "Z Visa" and a 7-to-13-year path to citizenship.
"How can I pay $10,000 when I can't even pay for my apartment?" she says.
After the bill failed in the U.S. Senate, Silva says that Latinos continue to live with uncertainty.
"We live in fear. We can't go outside of our apartments," she says.
"As in every country, we are all immigrants. They can't be so drastic. We are humans. How can they say medicine is only for Americans? Where did we all come from?" she says.
"But I have faith," she continues, following the Peruvian aphorism, as she often does, of showing a good face in bad times. "I love this country a lot, because it gave me an opportunity to work. Here they don't look at age or sex, only the responsibility to work. Everyone works (in the U.S.)"
Silva, whose resilience is both heartbreaking and inspiring, does not even have the solace of seeing her husband of 35 years at night. The most she can do is talk to him and her two youngest sons when she calls home to Peru. Her journey, like her flight from a flooded apartment two years ago, is in many ways a solitary one. But, like the neighbors who gathered around a makeshift grill, she is not completely alone. There are thousands like her up and down the Gulf Coast who rebuilt schools and casinos, cleaned shrimp, removed toxic debris, and now live in constant fear that their repayment will one day be deportation or jail.
"There are moments when I can't—" she says, stopping herself from crying. "I have suffered very much. You suffer so much when you're far away from your family. But I don't want anything else, because it's better to be far away and have something to eat, for my sons to be able to study. If we were together (in Peru), we would have nothing. It's frustrating, but it's a struggle for my sons. My reason to live is my sons."
Amnesty For Gang Bangers?
“Yes, it’s true. Now that we have reconstructed everything, they want to deport us. What ingratitude!”
What are you quoting? That's not from the article.
You're not making much sense, Clerk.
OK, I apologize. She did say it.
So I'll rephrase my question: Why does that comment deserve an "oh jeez"?
"Why does that comment deserve an "oh jeez"?"
I'll answer that one. These people are illegal aliens. They have no right to be here. They broke the law. They are criminals. I, along with a lot of other American citizens, am sick of hearing these illegal aliens complain. They act as if we owe them something. We owe them nothing, other than a Fedex ride back to Mexico.
I would take your comment seriously, Anchor Baby, if I thought you knew the difference between Mexico and Peru.