After Katrina, Where Have All the Hondurans Gone?
Daffodil Altan Pacific News Service, September 13th 2005
HOUSTON–For several weeks now, consulates and relief organizations have been stumped. They don’t know where, exactly, the thousands of Honduran and Mexican people living in New Orleans went before and after the hurricane. “It’s very hard for us to say where people are,” says Alexandra Jost, with the National Council of La Raza. “Part of the difficulty for this community is that a lot of the traditional services, even the consulates, are not reaching them.” Here in Houston, when the first of Katrina’s Honduran evacuees trickled into town, most didn’t go to the city’s public shelters, the Honduran consulate or to the Astrodome. Instead, through a network consisting mostly of word-of-mouth tips, many found their way to El Coquito, a Honduran restaurant in Houston’s southwestern, mostly Latino neighborhood that transformed itself into a makeshift consulate nearly overnight. “People are going through the networks that they can trust,” says Francisco Celaya, a full-time Honduran college student who worked with the restaurant’s owners to build a small office and warehouse just after the storm hit. According to Honduran consulates, anywhere from 120,000 to 150,000 Hondurans were living in the New Orleans metropolitan area before Katrina struck. Estimates vary because so many of the thousands of Hondurans who were living in New Orleans were largely undocumented, working in the backs of restaurants, in people’s homes or in Mississippi’s unincorporated agricultural areas. And their faces have been largely absent from post-hurricane images of evacuees gathered at the Superdome or in shelters. “A lot of people have gathered here, a lot of people,” says Christina Flores, owner of El Coquito. So many people were cycling through the restaurant looking for help, information, or places to stay that Flores and co-owner Tino Berrillo kept their doors open until midnight nightly for about two weeks following the hurricane. “Generally, people who are undocumented tend to go to restaurants,” says Marco Caceres, founder of Project Honduras, a Washington, D.C.-based organization originally formed to aid Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the country in October 1998. “It’s where they get their information, exchange stories, and get support … It’s the place that becomes a joining point.” Caceres estimates that roughly half of the Honduran population in the United States is undocumented. Flores, Berillo and Celayo, along with other members of their small eight-person group, the United Honduran Committee, have worked round the clock to provide food, information and to find temporary homes for the storm survivors. Some have come to the restaurant in tears after trying their luck at the Honduran consulate in Houston, says co-owner Berillo. “People continue to tell us that all they get is $20 from the consulate and then they are sent on their way,” says Berillo in Spanish. PNS made repeated attempts by phone to reach the Honduran consulate in Houston. “We are the source of information for the Hondurans,” says Celaya who said that efforts to partner with the Houston Honduran consulate were turned down. Oddly, Celaya says, the former New Orleans consulate, which has now set up temporary headquarters in Baton Rouge, has been receptive to the group’s work and is coordinating relief efforts with them. The group has now partnered with the Houston’s Benito Juarez, community involvement coordinator with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, to physically seek people out, many of whom are in hiding. “It’s difficult to find people,” Berillo says. “We have to go out and look for them.” Through tips that he gets at El Coquito, Berillo and Juarez make their way to homes and hotels where dozens of Hondurans who have not sought refuge elsewhere are often living. Equipped with beans, tortillas and phone numbers for the Red Cross and FEMA, Berillo and Juarez let people know that it is safe for them to seek help, and that there will be no consequences if they are undocumented. “It’s interesting how some of these groups, because of their experiences, reach out better than some of the more established groups like the Red Cross,” says the National Council of La Raza’s, Jost. “Different communities rely on different communication networks.” According to Caceres, a smaller, multigenerational Honduran community had resided in New Orleans for decades. But after Hurricane Mitch, a massive influx of Hondurans increased the Honduran population in the United States from roughly 400,000 to nearly 800,000. Last year, nearly $1.3 billion was sent back to Honduras from the United States in remittances. Berillo says more than 300 Hondurans have come through his restaurant so far. But he’s lost count, and is focused instead on providing people with a warm meal and a link to necessary resources.
Daffodil Altan is a writer and editor for New California Media, an association of over 700 print, broadcast and online ethnic media organizations founded in 1996 by Pacific News Service and members of ethnic media.