About a month after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, José Torres-Tama was sitting at a bar in the French Quarter when a young Puerto Rican man told him a story he would never forget.
The man, who he guessed was barely 20, told Torres-Tama of how he and 300 other immigrant laborers had just finished three weeks of 12-hour workdays, had been housed in a makeshift encampment amid squalid living conditions and had been promised compensation of $1,200 a week. Then, on the day before the workers were to be paid, the New Orleans Police Department raided the encampment. The man was never paid.
“He was homeless because he had been working for three weeks, and this is just a drop in the bucket of the labor and wage theft exploitation that occurred,” Torres-Tama said recently during an interview at his St. Roch studio.
It wasn’t the first time Torres-Tama heard a story like that, and it wouldn’t be the last.
After fleeing the city on a stolen school bus in the wake of the storm, Torres-Tama — a poet, performance artist and social commentator — returned home to New Orleans to document and write about the city’s recovery process. By 2006, he was writing and doing commentaries for NPR’s Latino USA Program, recorded locally at WWNO, about the challenges immigrant workers faced — including increasing rents, wage thefts and brutal deportations led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Thirteen years later, Torres-Tama says the sacrifices and hardships immigrant laborers faced during and after the initial recovery and reconstruction effort have been largely ignored and forgotten amid the city's tricentennial celebrations.
“Here we are 13 years later,” Torres-Tama said. “And I think one of the most dramatic stories (is) being left out of the program.”
The topic serves as the backdrop for much of the artist’s work, including several theatrical performances that look at immigration and the treatment of Latino laborers. It’s also the focus of a new show Torres-Tama is presenting this month at the UNO St. Claude Gallery. "Hard Living in the Big Easy: Immigrants & The Rebirth of New Orleans" debuts Sept. 8 and honors the contributions of the Latin American immigrant community in the 13 years since the storm.
The new mixed-media show, a collection of photographs and large figurative expressionistic drawings, is largely inspired by demonstrations held by the Congress of Day Laborers, which Torres-Tama has been documenting since 2010. The photographs are framed in shadow boxes, and many serve as inspiration for the drawings that make up the bulk of the exhibition.
Though Torres-Tama began working on the series in 2012, the full exposition came to fruition through a series of grants and after Cheryl Hayes, chairwoman of UNO’s Department of Fine Arts, invited the artist to present the full body of work at the university’s St. Claude Avenue gallery.
The images are inspired by stories like that of Jose Nelson Reyes-Zelaya, a Salvadoran man who reportedly died by suicide while in immigration detention at the Orleans Parish Prison.
One drawing shows a man holding a young child in his arms at a protest in 2012. Another depicts a woman identified only as Ilda, as she is being led away by deportation agents.
The drawings, made with a combination of charcoal, pastel and Conte chalk, are presented on heavy-duty pressed paper, then mounted on wooden boards and planks to symbolize the materials used by the construction workers. Multicolored letter magnets spell out phrases like “Sin Papeles, Sin Miedo” — without papers, without fear — and "Immigration Reform Now."
Among the symbolism in the drawings, a reoccurring triangle references the varied ethnic makeup of his subjects while clocks mounted to the back of the works feature a ticking second-hand, which Torres-Tama says represents the “tenuous status of the immigrant people.”
Largely inspired by the dramatic styles of German and Latin American expressionist artists like Max Beckman and Diego Rivera, Torres-Tama says the images reveal the dramatic experience at the demonstrations.
“That’s what I try to evoke in these works — the drama,” Torres-Tama says. “But I’m really interested in trying to portray the humanity of a people who have been dehumanized. Because we all know, the Big Easy has become a bit hard.”
For the show’s opening on Saturday, parts of the exhibition will be accompanied by live Andean instrumental music from Robert Carrillo. "Hard Living in the Big Easy" will run through Oct. 6 at the UNO St. Claude Gallery, 2429 St. Claude Avenue.