Gumbo Ya-Ya

I am living in the New Orleans area once again. Sometimes, it feels like nothing has changed in the decade or so that I lived abroad. The Saints are losing, the weather is hot, and the last mayor is in federal prison. The murder rate is horrific, as the rate of black young males killing each other is a daily feature in the headlines.

Yet, things are different. Hurricane Katrina was not our demise, as many predicted. Many blighted areas of the city are better than before the storm. The public school system, once on par with third-world countries, is a stellar example to many poorer cities of educational reform.

Tourism is stronger than ever as the Quarter has stayed clean and vibrant, shedding some of the seedy bars and t-shirt shops that sprang up in the 70s. It’s also cleaner in terms of trash. Why, it even smells decent most days!

Another sign of the changing times is the increased racial diversity of the city. The city lost more black residents than white over the past 10 years since the Big One, Katrina. The city still retains a black majority but it’s a thin one.

Yet, it’s not only white residents moving to the Big Easy. Latinos and Asians have had the biggest impact on the cultural scene, especially in terms of food. In fact, Vietnamese cuisine is one of the hottest fads in the city today. The descendants of Vietnam War refugees have carved out a place for themselves with unique fare, often melding our storied cultural recipes with new vigor. For instance, Shrimp Creole is turning up all over the city in a new form, with lemon grass and Vietnamese spicy tomato paste combined with a white roux and Gulf shrimp. John Besh’s recipe is the most popular.

Hondurans flocked to the city after Hurricane Katrina as roofers, laborers, and yes, cooks. Their food trucks became increasingly popular after the storm, so much so that restaurateurs lobbied to shut them down. As most immigrants do, they were quick to improvise. A large community of Hondurans live near the New Orleans International Airport. Businesses operated by Hondurans are  often multi-service centers: cafes, grocery stores and places to send money home to relatives. Don’t get me started on the wonderful new world of pupusas, platanos, and tamales. They are here to stay, I think.

The city is famous for melding cultural influences into great food. Gumbo, the famous dish of our region, combines French, Spanish and African traditions.  What about jambalaya? I love jambalaya in almost any form as long as the spice doesn’t overpower the celery, green peppers, shrimp, sausage and or whatever other magic is thrown into the rice pot.

Oh, but they are the naysayers who hate to see the city or the nation embrace new immigrants. Immigrants bring crime! Immigrants won’t assimilate! Immigrants want to change the laws! (Can we hear the Trump bandwagon, with echoes of Alabama’s Wallace fear-mongering?)

Well, in New Orleans at least, it’s the people who have been here for generations who are murdering, selling drugs and committing armed robberies. Most immigrants I have encountered in this city acquire English quickly, usually the main language of the second generation. They are usually hard-working, entreprenurials and family-oriented.

Have we learned nothing from the xenophobia of previous generations?

Who built the Irish Canal in the upper Garden District? The abused, hated, and vilified Irish who moved here over 100 yearas ago rarely could find other work than ditch-digging and other menial labor. New Orleanians do not like to face the facts why the Irish left so few descendants here. They died like slaves digging canals that even free black men refused this work.

What about the  Italian Central Grocery who gave us the fabulous muffaletta? The immigrants ate those olive loaves on the wharves of the Mississippi River because carrying cargo on their backs was often the only work they were allowed to take. Little by little, Italians purchased cargo from ships and sold it on the streets of the city. Then, they opened restaurants all over the city, but it started with carting it on their backs over a century ago.

Yes, we need immigration reform. No doubt it’s needed. But let’s not kid ourselves. Our city, our nation and our world profits greatly when we accept each other, learn from one another, and yes, eat at each other’s tables.

I have no doubt that the presidential cycle will produce no end to what we call “gumbo ya-ya,” which means everyone talking at once. I hope that some of the ya-ya will be intelligent, cogent and helpful. We need to find a way to welcome immigrants and refugees as we seek a path of immigration reform.

13 thoughts on “Gumbo Ya-Ya

  1. As a man who just loves policy, how it works, why it works, how its formed, where it came from and so on and so forth; I think immigration is good policy. People voting with their feet. How on earth can we as a nation get better citizens than those that are willing to pull up stakes and move here? It is not a zero sum game, the more folks that live here and work here, the bigger the pie and we all like pie. Immigration is good policy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norm, I like your thinking. Of course, I understand those who feel we must limit illegal immigration. To do this, I think we need to re-think compassionate and humanitarian response to those in miserable poverty and dying of violence in other parts of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It distresses me to see that, once again, tsk, tsk, you are blurring the all-important line between legal and illegal immigration, a common hammer in the toolbox of the left. The blurring, that is. Even The Donald, of whom I am hardly a fan, makes that distinction. Most conservatives oppose people sneaking into the country illegally, not immigration as such, which is, as you point out, a positive thing for the most part.

    If you want to move to the United States, or any country, get permission, get a visa, and then move in broad daylight. Do not tunnel in. Do not hunker down in the trunk of a car. Do not come with a visitor visa and overstay. Do not do any of those things. It is against the law, and it’s no way to start a life in a new country. That is not “immigration.” It is law-breaking.

    Big difference in the two routines. They are not the same by a long shot.


    1. What makes you think she’s talking about illegals? The only examples of the word “illegal” are in your post and mine.

      I think she’s making a case about the positives of immigration, not creating a polemic about legal vs. illegal.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. How do I get here legally these days? It’s a bizarre labyrinth process, even for the most worthy such as researchers, scientists, military translators in war zones, etc. From poor countries such as Honduras, it’s next to impossible. The rich and corrupt somehow find haven here legally, but for the average guy it’s not possible. I know that the a recent Prez of Honduras has his brother and a few of his girlfriends and their progeny set up in the New Orleans area. No one is helping the worker who can’t find work to come here on a visa – whether it’s temporary to work, or to study, or to live. I don’t support breaking the law, but it’s hard to judge someone who comes here to send money home to the family. The largest source of income in Honduras today is remittances.


      1. You have articulated the problem: a regular person can not get here from there so they just go because staying is not a good option for those who want to get ahead. I’m a big fan of the rule of law, not so much a fan of bad laws. When we make normal behavior a crime, wanting to get ahead in life is normal behavior, the law takes a beating and that is not healthy for our society. Bad law is a pox on the rule of law.

        I’m with you on liberalizing our immigration laws, Miss Laurie.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Indeed this country would be a dull place if the only people here were the descendants of the English who came 400 years ago, and the native Americans. The fact that we have people from all over the world, all mostly living in peace together is to me what makes America special.

    Until I spent a lot of time in Mexico, I took for granted the wide variety of cuisines available here, the fantastic cultural fusion, and the wide variety of viewpoints we enjoy here.

    Viva la immigration!!!


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where our parents are immigrants, both hard-working, and English-speaking.


    1. Your parents were immigrants? I never knew that. My parents had ancestors here for centuries. My grandparents were a bit racist, too, and distrusted even Anglos! They only liked fellow Cajuns and the occasional New Orleanian. I am very happy that the tribal mentality of my family was broken by World War 1 and 2, especially World War 2. If not we would all be still be marrying cousins.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Marrying cousins, LOL…

        Indeed. My first language was Danish, not English. Though I’ve long forgotten it, I am still first generation. Saludos!


      2. I went to a meditative prayer session last night. I was very tired. As I sat in silence for short sessions between readings, I THOUGHT stuff in French, which the first language of my parents. When I am tired, I switch to French sometimes. Mostly though my thoughts are in dull, old English, and occasionally Spanish.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. When in Mexico, I think in Spanish (not exclusively, but mostly), and I occasionally dream in Spanish. Danish, however, is a distant memory.


  4. Hey remember Unknown Mami (Claudya) – she recently wrote a post about this issue. The comment exchange is as good (better?) than the post. Here’s the link

    The immigration process is screwed up. Even George W. Bush knew that. Unfortunately there are many vocal (certainly internet activated) right wing cons that don’t want to have immigration. Xenophobia at it’s best. I agree with you. I wish congress could do some work and compromise on some improvements. Interesting stuff about the New Orleans changes.


    1. Thanks for the reminder to check out Claudya’s blog post. I left a comment, too. I know of someone who actually was a missionary working in Mexico who is now a state representative in Louisiana trying to scare our residents that Hondurans in the public schools here are a threat. She’s not ignorant of what’s going in Central America, she’s just enjoying the power play she’s creating by playing the race card. SAD.


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