The men sit around the dinner table and joke with each other the way a family would. Fernando Gonzales, a former law-enforcement officer from New Mexico, tells housemate Otis Bates, nicknamed Willy for his uncanny resemblance to Willie Nelson, to put his socks back on. It's a violation of house rules for everyone else to have to smell his feet.
Tim Watwood, who came to New Orleans with Willy from Cullman, Ala., sits at the table and talks on the phone with his wife Peggy Sue back home as he slurps his posole and laughs at Gonzalez and Willy's banter. A total of eight men from various parts of the U.S. and Mexico live in this small three-bedroom apartment in Harvey. Several of them crossed the border illegally to get here.
As the national debate over immigration rages in Washington and on the streets of major U.S. cities, thousands of Mexican workers have poured into New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, including some of the men in this house. They seek better lives for themselves and the families they left behind while they help rebuild New Orleans. Living conditions are tough, but there is plenty of work.
Juvencio "Taco" Palacio was watching television at his home in Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico, when he heard about the promise of high-paying jobs in New Orleans after the storm. He owns a family restaurant back home, but he often comes to the states for months at a time to supplement his income.
When he heard stories about $20-an-hour construction jobs, he gathered enough money to hire a pollero -- a person who leads people across the border for a fee -- and left his wife and children for an eight-day journey to New Orleans. He crossed the Rio Grande in Texas and traversed the rugged border terrain unscathed. When he was passing through Amarillo, Texas, he found a construction company that was recruiting people to work in New Orleans. "Once I got here, it was very easy finding work," Taco says in Spanish.
Three others who came from Mexico tell similar stories: they came in search of work in America.
Francisco Santiago, at 20 the youngest of the group, left the southern state of Guerrero, near Acapulco, a year ago to work in North Carolina before coming to New Orleans. While crossing the border, his group heard the motorcycle of a border patrolman and rushed to hide. That's when he saw the dead body of someone who apparently couldn't withstand the heat several days earlier. He managed to evade the border police and make it across, but he still carries the memory of stumbling upon someone who died trying to enter the United States.
None of the men who crossed the border illegally speaks English, but Taco says he wants to learn. "When you don't know the language, there is a lot of discrimination," he says of his encounters with people here. He believes learning English will be difficult because he doesn't know how long he will be in one place -- and because he works so much. That's why he was unable to cook dinner this night for his roommates. They joke that while they missed out on Taco's cooking -- the best in the house -- they are thankful it was Mario who was cooking instead of Fernando, whom they unanimously regard as the worst the cook among them.
Fernando Gonzales, whose father first came to the United States to pick cotton in Georgia, was born in the southern tip of Texas near Brownsville. He is the older brother-figure of the house and the common link among most of those who came here in search of work. Gonzales now is employed as a firearms instructor and an officer for security teams at Chase Bank. He drove 16 hours from Albuquerque to help with security two weeks after the storm.
"They wanted people with guns," says Gonzales. After sleeping in his car for six weeks, he found the apartment the eight men now share. While on his new job, he met several men who were doing construction work near the bank. He offered them a place to stay when he learned they would soon be kicked out of their shared hotel room because they could no longer afford it.
Gonzales is a walking encyclopedia of Mexican immigration history going all the way back to the days before Pancho Villa, the Mexican folk hero from the Revolution of 1911. His personal experience as the son of an immigrant, his travels around the world during his stint in the United States Marine Corps and his experience in law enforcement give him a unique perspective on how Mexicans have fared in this country. Education is the key to understanding the current situation, he says, and he practices what he preaches.
"I study at a continuous pace, because every time I come into any environment I'm going against ignorance, and I call ignorance discrimination," he says, noting that he got his early history lessons from his father. "I have studied history since I was a little boy, and my favorite part was seeing that the same human characteristics are going to happen every time."
Speaking both English and Spanish, he relishes his ability to share his knowledge with both the Spanish-only and English-only members of the house. During dinner he talks about attending an all-Mexican school as a child during the days of segregation in Texas. "I didn't see a white kid in my school until 1966," he recalls. "We were never allowed to speak Spanish."
Watwood, having just hung up after speaking with his wife, jumps in after a while and chides, "Is he still talking?" Gonzalez gives him a poke and everybody laughs.
Watwood and Willy, the only Anglos in the house, came from Alabama in search of the same high-paying construction jobs that lured thousands of others to New Orleans. Their opinions on the Mexicans working here are straightforward. "I don't have any problem with it," says Watwood, "If they want to work and they do a good job, I don't have a problem with it."
Willy adds with a Southern sensibility, "We all get along just fine." As tight as the living quarters are, they pretty much have to get along -- with eight beds crammed into every conceivable space, dormitory style, in the three-bedroom house. Watwood says their living situation is normal for out-of-town construction workers but admits that whites and Mexicans living together may be unusual. "Most people ain't like me," he adds.
LANGUAGE DIFFERENCES USUALLY DO-n't pose a challenge for the Alabama men or the Mexicans. They share a fondness for spicy Mexican food, which Watwood particularly enjoys, and an occasional beer on their porch after work. Once, on one of their rare days off, they all went to Bourbon Street for the first time. Willy, with a bandana and his long hair, attracted the attention of Bourbon Street patrons who mistook him for Willie Nelson. The Mexicans played along by pretending to be his bodyguards. "One thing about this group, it's always fun," says Watwood.
When their native tongues become a problem at work or at home, they usually call upon Bolaos, a subcontractor who speaks both languages.
Mario Alberto Bolaos lived in Chihuahua for the first 33 years of his life. "Being a Mexican in the United States changed my whole view about life," he says. After earning an engineering degree at the Technological Institute of Chihuahua, he legally moved to the U.S. in 1988 to learn English and find a job in Amarillo.
While the United States offered tremendous opportunities, Bolaos says, they have come at a price. "I never thought of myself as a Mexican," he says. "I always thought I would be me, Mario."
Bolaos was a standout student and very popular when he was in college in Chihuahua, but he encountered a much different culture in Amarillo. "Nobody wanted to look at me, nobody wanted to even talk to me. Nobody wanted to know anything about me," he says.
Bolaos says he has experienced discrimination in the work place in Texas as an engineer and while doing construction work in New Orleans. The other Mexican men of the house say they have had similar experiences here, such as when people tried not to pay them after they completed a job. The men that are here illegally like Taco and Santiago say there is nothing they can do about it. They feel vulnerable because of their status as illegal immigrants.
The men all send most of the money they earn back to their families, which is why Bolaos has no qualms about helping the "illegals" with things like cashing checks or speaking English for them. "We see people in need," he says, referring to his and Gonzalez's efforts to assist their roommates. "They need to cash a check to survive, to send money to their families. If we can do them a favor we'll do it."
They all agree that none of the men in their house can speak for the entire Mexican community, but they are happy to share their personal experiences as part of that community. They share a belief, however, that their experiences are typical of the immigrant workers here.
One question does seem to hover over the Mexican community in New Orleans: Will they stay? For the Mexican men of this house, the answer is easy: They all say they are anxious to get back to their families once there is no more work -- although some may seek employment elsewhere before returning to Mexico. "Why would we stay if there is no work?" Bolaos asks. Ironically, the only roommate planning to stay is Watwood, who hopes to move his family from Alabama when the time is right.
The fact that most of them don't plan to stay makes it all the more intriguing in terms of why they continue to leave their families, risk imprisonment and possibly death, travel great distances on foot and by train or bus, live in a cramped apartment and work 12 to 13 hours a day.
"Sometimes it's worth it and sometimes it's not," says Taco. "All we can do is continue to work."
By this time in the evening, none of them tries to think too much about such questions. It's late. As they finish their posole, one by one they retire to their beds, unfazed by the lights or noise of others staying awake around them.
Tomorrow is another day of work. There is still much to rebuild in New Orleans.