New Orleans, Louisiana (Canal) – For many US Americans, traveling to New Orleans is a way to experience a new culture and taste rare foods without having to get a passport, pay exorbitant costs for a trans-Atlantic flight, or worry about asking for a cup of coffee in a foreign language.
In travel brochures, tourists see images of stucco exteriors, arches and patios — typical features of Spanish colonial architecture — and of French-influenced creole cuisine, symbols of a city founded under a French king named Louis, rather than an English king named James.
For these reasons, New Orleans is often described as the most European city in the United States. It’s an understandable comparison, but an inaccurate one.
New Orleans isn’t the country’s most European city, but the most Latin American city in the United States.
You might ask: “but what about Miami?” And yes, Miami is a vibrant, Latin city filled with first and second-generation immigrants from Cuba, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central or South America. And, yes, Spanish, not English, is often spoken.
But Miami represents the escape from Latin America. It’s the dream destination for the “American Dream.”
New Orleans, on the other hand, not only shares its history with Latin America, it embodies its spirit.
The “Big Easy,” as it’s endearingly called, has more in common with places like Cartagena, Port-Au-Prince, and Havana than with European cities. While ruled under France and Spain during the colonial period, these port cities became major centers of commerce and cosmopolitan melting pots.
Today, if you walk around the Old City of Cartagena or through Old Havana, you’ll find urban design and architecture reminiscent of the French Quarter. Likewise, if you step outside of these tourist districts, you’ll find disparity and despair in equal measure.
New Orleans and Louisiana, in fact, are the US version of a Latin American banana republic. An abundance of natural resources is squandered by crooked politicians who implement failed “petro-populist” policies. As a result, poverty, bad public education, and corruption— among other ills — continue to wreak socioeconomic havoc in many places from Argentina to New Orleans.
In Latin America, a lack of opportunities drives despondent youths to commit robbery, kidnappings, or — what is worse — to join drug cartels or guerrilla groups. Others who are more scrupulous, but equally desperate, migrate to the United States and Europe in search of education and employment.
My friends from home will say: “Those are ‘Third-World problems’; that’s not New Orleans.”
But according to a 2014 UN study, New Orleans ranks 28th on a list of the 50 most violent cities in the world; 44 are Latin American or Caribbean cities. Nowadays in New Orleans, armed robberies are a common occurrence in affluent areas like Uptown.
Just last month, New Orleans police arrested two boys — an 11-year-old and a six-year-old — accused of holding a man up with a gun. Aside from leading the nation in crime, New Orleans also continues to lag in education despite recent improvements; each year, the city’s “best and brightest” move to other US cities in search of better employment opportunities.
Sounds a lot like Latin America to me.
Yet, while New Orleans mourns with Latin America, it also rejoices like Latin America. This is the greatest parallel between the two. These are proud societies that know how to celebrate life no matter how dire it can be.
Perhaps it was yesterday’s slaves and indigenous peoples who ingrained in our cultures this innate ability to express hope and joy in times of sorrow; to sing and dance, for instance, during the desperation of Hurricane Katrina, in a tyrannical Cuba and Venezuela, or in the poverty-stricken areas of Brazil or Central America.
Outsiders see this zest for life, most notably, in our Carnival (or Mardi Gras, as it’s known in New Orleans), but they also recognize it in our daily way of life. They hear it in our music; they imitate it in our dance; and they taste it in our foods.
This is why people come from near and far to visit these regions, not because of some old buildings in a tourist district, although they provide a beautiful, historical backdrop. They come to be a part of the never-ending jubilee.
Since moving to Latin America — first to Colombia, and now Argentina — many of my friends and family from Louisiana have asked me: “What’s it like?” or, ironically, “is it safe there?”
Not to worry. It’s just like New Orleans.