"El Brujo Speaks"

"El Brujo Speaks"
José Torres-Tama is an award-winning interdisciplinary artist. He explores the Latino immigrant experience, the underbelly of the "American Dream" mythology, and New Orleans Creole history through spoken word poetry, critical writings, visual arts, short films, and performance art. He is the recipient of a Creation Fund Award by the National Performance Network for the commissioning of “ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS,” a sci-fi Latino noir and genre-bending solo that explores the persecution of immigrants in the land of the free. “ALIENS” has toured extensively across the country with sold out houses at Pangea World Theatre in Minneapolis and Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Critics have praised it for putting a human face and heart on a demonized people and exposing the hypocrisy of a country that vilifies the same people whose labor it exploits. Torres-Tama is an NEA award recipient for his multidisciplinary performance work and a Louisiana Theater Fellow. In 2008, he was awarded a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant for the publication of his first art book. Published by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the book is titled “New Orleans Free People of Color & Their Legacy,” and it documents his expressionistic portraits of 19th Century Creoles. Since 2006, he is a contributor to NPR’s “Latino USA,” a weekly news program. His radio commentaries explore the Latino immigrants who have aided the reconstruction of post-Katrina New Orleans. Currently, he is working on a creative non-fiction book titled “FROM CHOCOLATE CITY TO AN ENCHILADA VILLAGE: Latino Immigrants & the Post-Katrina Reconstruction of New Orleans,” which chronicles his dramatic escape on a stolen school bus three days after the levees breached, and seven years of documenting the neglected stories of immigrants who have contributed tremendously to the recovery of the Big Easy. (Top blog photo from “ALIENS” by Jonathan Traviesa, and bottom image by Ben Thompson.) www.torrestama.com

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Bearer of Difficult Truths: Because I Dare to Remember Against a Culture of Amnesia

My memory will retain what is worthwhile. My memory knows more about me than I do; it doesn’t lose what deserves to be saved. ---Eduardo Galeano 

I believe in remembering a people’s truth. 

I believe that writers and artists can be instrumental in creating work that serves as the conscience of our times.  I believe in chronicling the personal experience to counter the “official accounts” that inevitably cultivate historical lies to silence and control, and render some people invisible, los invisibles, by disappearing them through the controlled mainstream media tentacles of misinformation.

In the Latin American tradition, I believe the poet, writer, and artist has a social responsibility, a mythic duty, to document and articulate the people’s struggle, la lucha de la gente, when they are denied effective means to have their voices heard in their fight against oppression and their many oppressors.

Since the storm, I have been reminding the citizenry of New Orleans and informing folks nationally and internationally that the post-Hurricane Katrina Big Easy, the romantic birthplace of Jazz, was rebuilt by thousands of hard working Latino immigrant workers, and most were cheated of their promised pay by ruthless local and national contractors.

They were brutalized by local police officers; languished in New Orleans Police Dept. jails without due legal process; subjected to the most abhorrent working and living conditions imaginable; some became indentured servants within hotels in the French Quarter; others were conveniently deported by Immigrations and Customs Enforcements Agents after they finished many a construction job.

In June of 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center released its research data that up to 80% of Latino laborers who aided the reconstruction of New Orleans were victims of wage theft, and the “undocumented” status of many was exploited in a city that has a long legacy of labor exploitation.

Immigrant men and women gave of their sweat, blood, and some of their lives to rebuild an ungrateful city that abused their labor—as easily and effectively as it exploited enslaved Africans when “cotton was king.”

It should come as no surprise.

My brown people, my Mestizo brothers and sisters, who are descendants of a mythic and painful oppression exacted from one century to another by the cross and sword of Spanish Colonizers, other European plunderers, and the unfettered capitalism the U.S exports, became, and still are, the new people of color to exploit to no end in this post-hurricane reconstruction epoch.

Brown became the new black in the dirty South, a soil soaked with the blood of the systematic oppression of the “colored others.”  Today, in New Orleans and in many parts of the South, many African Americans still struggle to gain a very elusive state of equality in the same terrain they raised with their arduous labor from one generation to another, and I write this introduction in the wake of a series by the Times-Picayune New Orleans daily which exposes the state of Louisiana as the biggest incarcerator of people in the United States, with rates of imprisonment that overshadow China. It is astounding, and many behind bars are disproportionately African American.

The jailed people of color now include many incarcerated immigrants as well because making more prisons has become a huge industry in the world’s prison capital, and immigrants have been easily snared as new occupants for the big business of jails and their jailers.

Fear of incarceration has been a big factor in keeping the immigrant labor force under control for a perfect storm of labor abuse.  Since most immigrants could not speak English and were fearful of reprisals by their bosses if they complained about being cheated and their inhumane housing conditions, they were the ideal workforce to brutalize in this Deep South port city that has built its wealth on slave labor—just like its fatherland.

The vicious cycle continues: Welcome to the “Slave Labor Fiesta” of Twenty-first century USA.


This is an excerpt of the introduction for the creative non-fiction book I have been working on titled Hard Living in the Big Easy: Latino Immigrants and the Post-Katrina Reconstruction of New OrleansThe sardonic title is from a seminal piece that was recorded as a radio commentary for National Public Radio’s Latino USA, a weekly news journal.  The renowned Latina journalist Maria Hinojosa introduced the commentary, and the piece aired nationally for the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in August 2006.   

It was one of the first radio commentaries that explored the labor abuse many immigrant workers were experiencing as they toiled in the rebuilding efforts.  This book is dedicated to the thousands of Latino immigrants who gave of their blood, sweat, and some of their lives to rebuild the flooded pueblo of New Orleans after the epic devastation caused by the failure of the federal levee system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that was a Pandora of water and winds that revealed a country mired in lies and the incompetence of the Bush regime.  "Dubya" and his criminal cronies abandoned the people and city of New Orleans at its most desperate hour, and this should not be forgotten.

“The city that care forgot” has never officially cared to thank the immigrants in any way, but I remember what they have contributed.  They, the invisible, los invisibles, are a big part of the reason why the pace of the recovery has been so strong after such unimaginable wreckage the Big Easy was post-Katrina.

I remember them.  I have not forgotten.  I honor their memory.

It is the dirtiest little secret of the reconstruction of New Orleans.  

It remains the untold and most neglected story of the Big Easy recovery, but as an immigrant myself, it is my duty to speak the unspoken and chronicle the many challenges my immigrant brothers and sisters have faced in rebuilding this historic port city.  Many fight to remain, but many are courageous enough to stand up and fight for their human rights!  ADELANTE!
Make art that matters!

José Torres-Tama
ArteFuturo Productions
1329 Saint Roch Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70117


  1. "In June of 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center released its research data that up to 80% of Latino laborers who aided the reconstruction of New Orleans were victims of wage theft...

    For what it's worth, if you actually read the SPLC's "report," something no one in the media bothered to do, you find that the SPLC claims that 80% of the people THEY INTERVIEWED reported wage theft in New Orleans.

    The group of people they interviewed consisted of several people who had already complained to the SPLC about wage theft, their friends and family members, a method known as "snowball sampling."

    The Methodology section of the "report" admits:

    “Because the targeted population is difficult to identify and contact, we used the snowball sampling method, in which study subjects refer researchers to additional subjects. Because study subjects were not chosen randomly, estimates from the survey may be biased.”

    There's a huge difference between asking hundreds or thousands of people if they were ever robbed and asking a handful of people who came to you because they already were robbed.


    These are the simple facts behind the SPLC's fundraising propaganda. What you choose to do with the data is up to you.

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