Amtrak Stories: Hola, Nola!
The first time I visited New Orleans, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. It was Mardi Gras time, and it was even wilder than my friend and I, two sheltered girls raised in conservative families, expected. We turned a corner in the French Quarter and almost tripped over an older man, passed out on the street, wearing nothing but a hot pink thong in the shape of a flamingo. While standing on Canal Street waiting for a parade to come through, we looked up at a hotel and saw a couple engaging in, well, the ultimate form of PDA — right against their 10th floor window. And that was just on the first night. It was all eye-opening and often a riot, but it seemed like the kind of trip you only need to make once.
Years later, I did return to New Orleans, on a week-long business trip, and fell in love. I was there on assignment for a magazine, and my job was to find and interview Latinos who had flocked to the city for post-Katrina construction work, thereby “Latinizing” the city. What I found was a much deeper and longer Latin history that had a profound impact on the city — and as I learned about it, on me.
My curiosity for that history started when I took a stroll in the historic neighborhood of Faubourg Marigny. Simply put, I was transported to my native Cuba, which I had not visited since leaving at age eight. Clapboard row houses painted in bright tropical colors, palm trees swaying in the breeze, plantation shutters keeping the sun out of living rooms — it was all so familiar that it sent me reeling. This felt like home beyond anything I’d felt in Miami, where I was raised — and that was a shock. Growing up in South Florida, Cuban culture, and indeed Latin culture, was all around me, from eating moros and drinking cafecito at Cuban restaurants that dot the city, to listening to salsa oozing out of the radio, to constantly speaking Spanish, the all-but-official language of the city. It was a full-immersion, in-your-face experience. I didn’t think that there could be a more Latin city in the country.
But New Orleans’ very essence — its laid-back vibe, the way it celebrates life with a party for seemingly every occasion, the way everyone I met there went out of their way to show me a good time, and even the humidity and heat, all seemed more subtly Caribbean to me. Part of New Orleans’ soul, it turned out, was Latin.
Then I started digging into New Orleans history. Though it’s the French influence that gets the most attention, the Spanish also colonized New Orleans and left their mark (as they did throughout Latin America) on things like the food (jambalaya is the New World version of paella concocted by homesick Spanish settlers) and places like the scenic St. Bernard Parish, where many descendants of immigrants from the Canary Islands still bear Spanish names. In the 50s and 60s, waves of Cuban, Dominican and Honduran and other Latino immigrants started arriving to work at the port, oil refineries and other industries, so it’s no wonder that the city is home to some outstanding Latin food at places like Liborio’s (Cuban), La Macarena (Salvadorean) and El Gato Negro (Mexican).
But it was an earlier era that really captured my imagination. You see, I loved New Orleans music from the instant I first heard it. Dancing to New Orleans brass bands like Rebirth at the venerable Maple Leaf in the Carrolton neighborhood, and listening to acclaimed, homegrown jazz musicians, like Kermit Ruffins at the tiny and little-known Bullet’s in the 7th Ward, I felt as if the music had been coursing through my veins all my life, it was so satisfying.
There turned out to be a really good reason for that as I learned more about the city’s music,. As far back the 1700s, New Orleans and Havana were on the same trade routes. Musicians from the Caribbean capital would hop on and travel to New Orleans, where they jammed with locals in Congo Square (which still stands today). Cuban beats, tempos and styles seeped into ragtime, blues and jazz, making Latin sound an inextricable part of the city’s famous music. Nowadays, concerts and events put on by organizations like CubaNola underline and expound on that tradition by bringing amazing musicians from Cuba and Latin America to New Orleans. At one Latin street dance party I attended with newfound friends, I was touched to see how a diverse local crowd soaked up Latin music as easily as I had taken to brass bands and jazz.
Driving me back to my hotel, one of my new friends told me she had a surprise for me. She veered into Jefferson Davis Parkway and parked near a statue. Walking over to it, my eyes started to water — it was a statue of José Marti, the Cuban poet and hero of the war for independence from Spain. I knew he’d been exiled from Cuba in the 1800s for speaking out against Spanish rule and had lived in New York and parts of Latin America to raise awareness and support for the Cuban cause, but until that moment, I hadn’t known that he’d once lived in New Orleans. There, my friend told me, he and Cuban Lt. General Antonio Maceo of the Cuban Independence Army had planned action against Spain. It was also in New Orleans where the new Cuban flag first flew.
For me, the statue and its back story were the ultimate expression of the link between my home country and the American city I had grown to love in just a few days. I gazed up at the statue, hoping that one day, New Orleans flies the flag of a free Cuba once more.
-Darmarys Ocaña Perez
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