Blog Editor’s note: This is the first installment in FoodAnthropology’s new series on Latinx foodways in North America. We welcome contributions from researchers in this area. More details about the series are here.
Within the current context of post-disaster response comes the prolonged challenge of recovery and rebuilding. As families return to devastated homes and businesses after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, multiple links passed around on social media recommend where (and where not) to donate funds. Headlines ask who will rebuild each region and warn against the exploitation of past recovery workers. Photos of Beyonce feeding lines of Hurricane victims offer a scintilla of silver lining in a world of increasing human-exacerbated disasters. Little attention, though, is given to the question of how the reconstruction workers that arrive to these devastated regions to help rebuild will sustain themselves—quite literally, who will feed them.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, Latinx food vendors equipped with mobile food vending systems emerged on the scene, playing a key, yet unnoticed role, in recovery efforts. These enterprises paved the way for growth in Latinx-owned economies in New Orleans over a decade later. My research commenced on this subject in 2011—six years after the storm—working with food vendors and observing the development of these informal food businesses in the New Orleans Metro area as part of my dissertation (and now book) project.
Immediately after Katrina in 2005, with eighty percent of the city underwater, housing options were limited, and places to eat were even harder to come by. Workers were often forced to live onsite in putrid conditions in the homes they gutted. Grocery stores and restaurants remained closed due to water and power outages. For most people, FEMA-issued Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were the most available option. But beyond just being unsavory, these MREs had limitations—they were served predominantly to the victims of the disaster, leaving many of the one hundred thousand recently arrived Latinx reconstruction workers to fend for themselves.
Responding to this dearth of food options, itinerant Latinx food vendors arrived soon after the storm, from places like New York and Texas, to feed these workers. Fleets of taco trucks came from Houston, strategically setting up at day laborer corners to serve workers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In some instances, construction workers moonlighted as tamale vendors, maximizing on connections through co-workers to satisfy alimentary demands.
In other cases, Latinx contractors and clean up crew leaders called in pedidos (orders) from food vendors who prepared foods in kitchens in the few parts of New Orleans undamaged by the storm. The cooks spent the mornings preparing foods—often carne asada or chuletas with a side of rice, cabbage salad, and tortillas served in foam hinged take-out containers—for lunchtime deliveries, providing outreach to hard hit areas.
In more complex systems, vendors arrived onsite to sell food to workers using makeshift kitchens built into the backs of minivans or hatchback cars. Stainless steel counters mounted in the backs of these vehicles provided versatile prep spaces with cutting boards, griddles, and crockpots to serve up plates of tacos to hungry day laborers in front of hardware stores and at worksites.
For Mateo, who arrived to New Orleans from Mexico after Katrina, leaving the construction industry to join his family in their burgeoning tamale business was a clear choice. After observing the successes of his wife and sister, Mateo signed on to their venture, delivering hundreds of tamales to the sites where he previously worked. He made more profit selling food than he had in the construction industry. Having settled in New Orleans since Katrina, Mateo and his family converted their tamale business into a larger enterprise, which now consists of two taco trucks and a brick and mortar restaurant.
Likewise, Mirta, originally from Honduras, arrived to New Orleans from Houston to help with clean up, initially gutting schools and businesses. She, too, saw the need for food vendors to feed the predominantly Latinx workers and sent for her three daughters to come to New Orleans. Together, they created an ad hoc restaurant in the back of their rented house, handing out business cards with their address and advertising typical Honduran dishes like pollo con tajadas, baleadas, and sopa de caracol. After a long day at the job site, workers showed up at their residence to pick up food or eat at picnic tables set up in the small patio. But, as their business grew, so did attention from law enforcement. After threats of citations, Mirta and her family used money they had saved to open up a brick and mortar restaurant. Since Katrina, the restaurant has faced some challenges—having moved locations three times—yet it still provides typical Honduran fare for Latinx workers and, increasingly, to non-Latinx clientele.
Similarly, individuals like Leticia formalized their enterprises by setting up shop in local markets like the Algiers Pulga and the Westbank Flea Market, two open-air establishments located just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter and New Orleans Central Business District. Capitalizing on the low overhead and high popularity of the market, Leticia shifted her venture from the streets to the stall, selling Honduran foods in the flea market alongside a booth specializing in Oaxacan foods and a Vietnamese farm stand. The flea markets serve as a sort of incubator space for these small-business ventures, assuming little risk, offering steady clientele, and providing basic infrastructure for these budding economies.
After Katrina, the Latinx population in the New Orleans metropolitan area doubled from around 4% to almost 9%. The Guardian reports that in New Orleans, Latinx businesses grew by 47%, compared to 14.5% by non-Latinx businesses. For places like Houston and South Florida, where the Latinx populations were already high, it is hard to predict whether disaster recovery efforts will catalyze a surge in Latinx entrepreneurship the way it did in New Orleans. Nevertheless, anthropologists interested in foodways can use New Orleans as an example to understand how rebuilding work begets these spin-off economies, drawing attention to the ways people forge new businesses by building on old traditions—outdoor markets and street vendors—as well as introducing new methods of selling foods in order to satisfy demands and make ends meet.