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Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2005

Doing the dirty work: Hispanic laborers clean up after Katrina

Dec. 5, 2005

Milton Cuero and Rafael Vasquez gut the living room of an apartment in Chalmette, La., a New Orleans suburb devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Ashley P. Wilkerson

Print-Quality Photo

Editors: Katrina recovery stories and photographs by IU School of Journalism students also are being distirbuted today and are available for one-time use in newspapers and at media Web sites without charge. Photographs for these stories, along with a general file of other pictures, are available at

The students retain their copyright to the stories and photos. Before publication, please e-mail Professor Carol Polsgrove at to express your understanding that the writers and photographers retain their copyright. The writers and photographers would appreciate having clips of their published work, which can be sent to Carol Polsgrove, School of Journalism, Indiana University, Ernie Pyle Hall, Bloomington, IN 47405. All of the stories can be found at


By Ashley Wilkerson

CHALMETTE, La. -- Seven workers in tall rubber boots tear down moldy drywall from an apartment living room and haul it out to the debris pile in the street.

They don only latex surgical gloves and the occasional facemask while working in buildings that were flooded with raw sewage and oil when Hurricane Katrina struck the New Orleans area.

The Hispanic crew, wearing T-shirts and jeans splattered with sewage and mud, have been gutting mold-infested apartment buildings in Chalmette, a suburb of New Orleans, for one week. Their short latex gloves provide little protection, and some of the crewmembers fear getting sick from mold and polluted mud.

"Many Hispanic workers don't have their immunizations," says Victoria Varrientos, the lone female in the crew. "I do have my shots up to date, so I am not as afraid of getting sick. But most of the others have not had shots recently. We need more protection from the elements."

Despite the risks, workers have flocked to the Gulf Coast to embark on the cleanup and rebuilding process. Many of these laborers are Hispanics seeking better wages and hours than they can find elsewhere. Javier Gonzalez, the crew's leader, shouts instructions in Spanish to the workers in the next room.

"I've been working in Louisiana for one month now," says Gonzalez as he tears down the drywall in the stairwell with a hammer. "I hope to be here for a year, maybe two, and make some money. This area will take at least two to three years to rebuild."

Gonzalez's crew, with workers from Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, worked in Slidell, La., for two weeks before coming to Chalmette.

"Here I only work nine to ten hours a day and make $10-15 per hour, rather than cleaning houses 12 hours a day for $7 an hour," says Varrientos, who works alongside her husband, Hugo Soto. "It is better making more money and working less hours." The other workers appreciate the better wages and shorter hours as well, but working Katrina cleanup does have its costs.

Varrientos is the mother of three children back in Guatemala. Ranging from three to seven years old, her children live with their grandmother, supported by the money that Varrientos and her husband earn in the United States. "I have lived in the United States for three years and can only see my babies every other year," says Varrientos with glistening eyes. "I get to see them next year, but it's hard being far away."

Her story is like that of the rest in the crew. Leaving their home countries, these crew members seek to make life better for their loved ones back home by working in the United States.

Rafael Vasquez, who has lived in the United States for one year, sends money to his brother, Avel, in Chiapas, Mexico, to support Avel's wife and five children. Speaking in Spanish, he tells a reporter he wants to return home someday, to a land and people that are familiar, but knows that he must work several more years in the United States.

Five years ago, crew leader Gonzalez came to the United States to start a new life and send money back to his daughters, who are now 18 and 24 years old. "It's been so difficult to be away from my family. My girls are grown up now, and I haven't been there," says Gonzalez sadly. "But there is work here and we are needed. It's really hard to imagine what New Orleans and the area will be like in the future. It's going to be hard to rebuild, but I want to take advantage of the opportunity."

Ashley Wilkerson is a graduate student in journalism from La Plata, Md.