When Dr. Charles Chamberlain III, a historian, thinks about immigration trends in the city of New Orleans, his mind turns to mouthwatering Louisiana dishes like gumbo and jambalaya.

According to Chamberlain, gumbo developed as early New Orleans residents from France, Africa, and Spain combined their cooking techniques to create the hearty stew. Jambalaya, a rice-based dish with chicken and sausage, recalls both Spanish paella and West African Jollof rice.

“I think food is the ultimate metaphor for describing how these cultures blended,” says Chamberlain, of the Louisiana State Museum.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, a new wave of immigrants flooded Louisiana’s largest city. Chamberlain says the city’s reconstruction efforts after Katrina relied on Latino laborers from Mexico and Central America. According to 2008 Census Bureau figures, the Latino population in New Orleans has grown from 3.1 percent to 4.5 percent since 2000.

As Chamberlain ponders the latest wave of immigration, his thoughts once again turn to his stomach. “I grew up [in California] eating Mexican food, and when I moved here 20 years ago, I was pretty disappointed,” he says. “After the storm, I was like ‘thank god’ to the first taqueria truck I came to. Sure enough, taqueria trucks popped up all over the place with awesome, authentic Mexican food. So that was the symbol of the new post-Katrina population.”

History of Immigration

Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane University who writes about the physical and human geography of New Orleans, says he, too, has noticed the growing influence of Latinos in the city since Hurricane Katrina.

It’s an assumption supported by the fact that the New Orleans Police Department recently made one of its officers an official Spanish translator and liaison to the city’s growing Latino populace.

“The streetscape is replete with evidence” of a growing Latino population, Campanella says. “That is to say, there are mom-and-pop Latino grocery stores appearing throughout the city and the suburbs, because many of these folks are settling in suburban areas. You are also more likely to see bilingual signage.”

Since New Orleans was founded in 1718 (by the French, who initially claimed the region), there have been several waves of immigrants to the city. Early in its history, the French colony became a mix of French, Spanish, and African settlers.

Campanella says the current Latino influence recalls the region’s Spanish colonial period, from 1762 to 1800, when Spain was in possession of Louisiana. During that time, Spaniards constructed the Cabildo, a building of distinctly Spanish architecture that housed the municipal government. The Cabildo, surrounded by the wrought-iron porches of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is now home to the Louisiana State Museum.
The current influx of Latino immigrants “is replicating some of the patterns we saw two centuries ago,” Campanella says. “This was once a part of the Spanish colonial empire.”

Following Spanish rule, the French again took over Louisiana before selling the region to the United States as part of the massive Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Before the Louisiana Purchase, French-speaking Catholics known as Creoles dominated the region’s culture, though African and Spanish influences were also quite prominent. Later, French-speaking immigrants from the Acadia region of eastern Canada moved to the rural areas outside of New Orleans. This group became known as the Cajuns.

When the United States took over Louisiana, Anglo-Americans, U.S. citizens of English heritage, poured into New Orleans and intermingled with the Creoles.

“The two groups had very different views in just about everything that relates to the notion of culture—from law, to language, to religion, to architecture, to surveying, to views on race and slavery,” Campanella says. “Much of the 19th century is the history of these two groups kind of coming to terms with each other, oftentimes uncomfortably, and eventually hybridizing.”

In 1809, as New Orleans was becoming more Americanized, about 9,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue, a French colony that eventually became the nation of Haiti, moved to the city and virtually doubled its population overnight.

“Anglo-Americans are starting to come down and you are starting to hear English more and more on the streets, and then here comes this fresh new dose of French Caribbean culture,” Campanella says. “This implants more linguistic and cultural diversity in the city.”

Though one rarely thinks of their influence on New Orleans, German and Irish laborers were lured to New Orleans between 1837 and the Civil War. New Orleans was one of the largest, busiest ports in the United States, and immigrants were drawn by the promise of good jobs.

Chamberlain says most of the Irish residents wanted to blend in with the prevailing culture, while the German immigrants stuck to their traditions and made their own imprint on the city. “New Orleans was the beer capital of the South . . . and one of the beer capitals of America, rivaling Milwaukee before Prohibition,” he says. “That comes from our German heritage.”

Another important event that increased immigration to New Orleans was the emancipation of slaves from nearby plantations after the Civil War. According to Campanella, sugar cane and cotton plantations recruited Sicilians and Chinese to replace their work force of slaves.

“Emancipation had this curious effect of increasing the diversity of New Orleans by encouraging many African Americans to move to the city as well as these two other groups,” he says.

Legacy of Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina hit the low-lying city in 2005, the resulting flooding of neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward caused some of New Orleans’ residents to flee the city. Chamberlain says two groups have been unable to return.

“The people who have left and have a hard time coming back are the people who lived in neighborhoods that got flooded and generally lacked the resources to rebuild or return,” he says. “So that could be old people or poor people.”

But throughout its nearly 300-year history, New Orleans has always been refreshed by waves of immigrants. The recent influx of Latinos is sure to contribute to the city’s rich cultural legacy—including its unique cuisine.

“We haven’t had crawfish tacos yet,” Chamberlain says. “It’s inevitably coming.”

Multicultural Stew
Beignets are usually served with powdered sugar.

Spanish Speaker
New Orleans police officer Janssen Valencia was officially installed as the New Orleans Police Department's liaison to the city's Latino community in 2009. Valencia is the first person to hold the position.

Acadia
Noun

(1604-1713) French colony in northeastern North America.

Anglo-American
Noun

American citizen with English ancestry.

architecture
Noun

style and design of buildings or open spaces.

authentic
Adjective

real or genuine.

beer
Noun

alcoholic beverage made from grain.

bilingual
Adjective

able to communicate in two languages.

Cajun
Noun

people of French-speaking ancestry native to the Gulf Coast region of the United States, mostly the coast of Louisiana.

Census Bureau
Noun

government organization responsible for demographic information about the U.S. population, as well as the analyzing of that data.

Civil War
Noun

(1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

colony
Noun

people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.

crawfish
Noun

crustacean resembling a small lobster. Also called a crawdad or crayfish.

Creole
Noun

people and culture of the Native American, French, Caribbean, African, and Spanish settlers of the American Gulf Coast, especially the state of Louisiana.

cuisine
Noun

a style of cooking.

emancipation
Noun

freedom.

evidence
Noun

data that can be measured, observed, examined, and analyzed to support a conclusion.

flee
Verb

to run away.

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

grocery
Noun

food or other goods sold at a general store.

gumbo
Noun

stew made with seafood or meat, thickeners such as flour, and vegetables.

heritage
Noun

cultural or family background.

historian
Noun

person who studies events and ideas of the past.

Hurricane Katrina
Noun

2005 storm that was one of the deadliest in U.S. history.

hybrid
Noun

the end result of two different sources of input.

immigration
Noun

process of moving to a new country or region with the intention of staying and living there.

influx
Noun

entry or inflow.

initially
Adverb

at first.

intermingle
Verb

to mix.

jambalaya
Noun

Creole dish made with rice, vegetables, and meat.

Jollof rice
Noun

West African dish made with rice, tomatoes, vegetables, and peppers.

labor
Noun

work or employment.

Latino
Noun

having to do with people and culture who trace their ancestry to Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations of Latin America.

legacy
Noun

material, ideas, or history passed down or communicated by a person or community from the past.

linguistic
Adjective

having to do with language or speech.

Louisiana Purchase
Noun

(1803) land bought by the United States from France, extending from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

metaphor
Noun

word or phrase used to represent something else, or an understanding of one concept in terms of another concept. 

mom-and-pop
Adjective

small business with very few locations, often established and run by a family.

municipal
Adjective

having to do with local government.

Noun

an area within a larger city or town where people live and interact with one another.

paella
Noun

Spanish dish made with rice, chicken, seafood, vegetables, and the spice saffron.

plantation
Noun

large estate or farm involving large landholdings and many workers.

populace
Noun

population, community, or group of people.

prevailing
Adjective

strongest or most dominant.

Prohibition
Noun

(1920-1933) time in the U.S. when the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal.

prominent
Adjective

important or standing out.

reconstruct
Verb

to build again or re-create from an original plan.

recruit
Verb

to work to supply a group with new members.

religion
Noun

a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.

replete
Adjective

full or complete.

replicate
Verb

to duplicate or reproduce.

Saint-Domingue
Noun

(1659-1804) French colony on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola that eventually declared independence and became the nation of Haiti.

slave
Noun

person who is owned by another person or group of people.

stew
Noun

soup with thick chunks of vegetables and meat.

streetscape
Noun

whole view of a street or road, including people, businesses, homes, vegetation, and machinery such as cars or bicycles.

suburb
Noun

geographic area, mostly residential, just outside the borders of an urban area.

sugar cane
Noun

tall grass that is harvested to extract sugar from its sap or juice.

survey
Noun

a study or analysis of characteristics of an area or a population.

taqueria
Noun

stand selling Mexican food, such as tacos.

translator
Noun

someone who interprets, usually from one language to another.

virtually
Adverb

almost or nearly.

ward
Noun

neighborhood or political district in some large cities.

work force
Noun

number of people who are employed or available for employment.