Our merry Mardi-Gras town looks beyond its wrought iron facade.
In the musical chair struggle for the New World, Spain held but never kept New Orleans. A Spaniard discovered the land, a Spanish millionaire financed its colonial public buildings, a Spanish ruler laid down the city's first tax, and a Spaniard built the famous French Market. Yet France seemed to leave a greater imprint. In the eyes of the world, New Orleans always has been a bit of France, an outpost of the French language in a barbarian land. Lately the eyes have not seen clearly, for quietly and calmly New Orleans has been recaptured by the descendants of the people who lost it.
Since World War II, Latin Americans have moved leisurely into New Orleans. You can not walk past the shops of Canal Street without hearing Spanish. The night clubs of the French Quarter fill up with Latin American businessmen vying with Texas oilmen in a race to spend money. The city's universities are enriched by Latin scholars and doctors studying cures for the medical, economic and engineering ills of their countries.
But the Latin American population of New Orleans comprises more than visitors. For every tourist, businessman and student in the city there are at least two others who have decided that New Orleans is home, easily finding work in consulates, export firms, shipping companies, airline offices, stores, homes and factories. The Latins stay but do not feel like immigrants, expatriates or strangers. They are not the braceros of the Southwest, the Puerto Ricans of New York, the political exiles in Miami. The Latins of New Orleans are an integral part of the community, fully accepted by both their adopted city and the lands from which they came.
Many Latins come here to do their seasonal shopping. The initial attraction of New Orleans is practical - six major stores have permanent, fully-staffed Latin American divisions, with a promotion manager, interpreters and sales clerks. This personnel must know that while slacks and shorts may be shown to women from the north coast of Honduras it is useless to attempt interesting residents of Tegucigalpa in them. Sales clerks must know woolens are valueless in Cartagena, Colombia but vital in Bogota. The stores make sure they do not sell goods that will be resented after the trip home. Latin shoppers, appreciative of the service, come back.
A more natural attraction to Latins is the similarity between the city and their homes. Banana trees erupt in the backyards of the garden district, while palm trees line many of the boulevards. Streets sport Spanish names like Galvez, Carondolet and Miro. The misnamed French Quarter features the outer balconies and inner patios of Spanish America. And, like Latin America, New Orleans, one of the few Roman Catholic cities in the United States, takes its Carnival and Lenten seasons seriously. A Latin finds it easy to fit his mood into New Orleans.
Another useful New Orleans magnet is Ochsner Clinic and Hospital, run by Dr. Alton Ochsner, a cancer and heart surgeon. Latin doctors, who once rushed patients off to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, now have decided the much closer New Orleans clinic is up to the same medical standards. Cognizant of his growing reputation in Latin America, Dr. Ochsner has staffed his clinic with interpreters representing almost every nation from which patients come.
New Orleans receives a steady trek of Latin businessmen, lured by International House, the International Trade Mart and the port's board of commissioners. Slowly, the port has taken on a hue from the south. In 1956, for example, 2,872,885 tons of cargo or more than 72 per cent of the total imports came from Latin America. The port sent to Latin America 1,475,436 tons of cargo or almost 25 per cent of New Orleans' total exports. Of the six nations that shipped at least 100,000 tons of cargo to New Orleans, only one, Canada, was not Latin American. Cuba itself shipped more than 1,500,000 tons. But, most important, every Latin American nation increased shipments to New Orleans during that year and all except Colombia and Brazil increased receipt of the port's exports. In some cases the boosts were phenomenal. Guatemala's shipments jumped 59 per cent, and Venezualan cargo taken by the port showed a leap of 664 per cent.
This bustling activity first became as a major factor in New Orleans' economy during World War II, when the Louisiana port supplanted inaccessible New York as the nation's leader in commercial shipping. The vitality has continued because a group of New Orleans businessmen decided to make a try at keeping some of the business after New York reopened. They formed International House, which supplies visitors with office
space, secretaries, business leads, contacts, anything, in fact, they need to do business in New Orleans, including, on occasion, schooling for their children, polio shots and baby sitters. And they built the Trade Mart, which provides five floors for more than 100 exhibitors to show off their nations' wares. Within six years after the war, port business not only failed to decline; it tripled.
Mayor deLesseps Morrison, who has made more than 25 trade-hunting trips to Latin America during his four terms, painted the picture most appealing to Latins when he addressed the first Inter-American Investment Conference, fittingly held in New Orleans during 1955. "To those of you from South and Central America," the mayor told the opening session, "we say boastfully that this is one place in this entire nation where you can really and truly feel completely at home. You have here a beachhead for your culture, your customs and your traditions. And when we say . . . ‘esta es su casa,' we sincerely mean it and we know that you can be at home in each and every part of our city of New Orleans."
This picture is not completely accurate. The mayor omitted some muddiness in his description. New Orleans, while accepting thousands of Latin visitors and immigrants, has not fully accepted the idea of being a city that looks toward Latin America. That New Orleanians look there for business is evident.
There is less evidence of any cultural kinship. The same businessmen who dug deep in their coffers to keep Latin trade, failed to come up with enough money and leadership in 1957 to hold a scheduled inter-American music and art festival. The Inter-American Music Center of the Pan-American Union rescheduled the event for the spring of 1958 in Washington. Embarrassed International House, which had commissioned the works, announced that it was awaiting construction of an exotic outdoor concert stage. The truth is Latin culture did not seem like a worthwhile investment to New Orleanians.
The city’s newspapers apparently share the apathy. They are one of the chief complaints of Latins living in New Orleans. Only one of the three newspapers makes any attempt to offer more Latin American news than papers in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Middletown, Ohio or Jackson, Mississippi. That attempt is rather woeful. It consists of one extra page a week, crammed with some dribblings of Latin news, most of which has been covered in Time or letters from home. Not one of the newspapers keeps a correspondent in Latin America.
But the cultural area has not been altogether barren. No one can doubt the city's pride two years ago when the New Orleans Symphony became the first United States orchestra to tour Latin America.
Whether New Orleanians understand the trend or not, their city is moving toward the day when it and Latin America will be joined both economically and culturally in the eyes of the world. The actual juncture, almost here today, will arrive before men notice it. They will have to lift the cloak of weakening French tradition to see the solid Latin influence.
For some observers, that cloak already has been lifted. Venezuela, for example, linked to the city through oil interests, has become one of the first nations to officially recognize the status of New Orleans. The South American nation donated Simon Bolivar monuments to three cities in the United States. Washington, capital of the nation, displays one. New York, host to the world, has another. The third stands in New Orleans, perhaps the future hub of the Americas...