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Katrina Cleanup Puts Focus on Latino Workers

Jose Gandara and his partner haul discarded refrigerators to the Jefferson Parrish landfill for $200 a day. "Yeah, it stinks," the driver says.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR
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Jose Gandara and his partner haul discarded refrigerators to the Jefferson Parrish landfill for $200 a day. "Yeah, it stinks," the driver says.

Two months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf area, crews of Latino workers are helping to rebuild the region. In New Orleans, they're tearing down moldy sheetrock, clearing out festering carpets, patching up roofs. At area landfills, they do some of the dirtiest, nastiest work around: hauling, then cleaning out moldy refrigerators discarded after the storms.

"Yeah, it stinks," says Jose Gandara, who was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. He's been earning $200 a day -- sometimes working 12 hours -- hauling refrigerators to the dump.

Texan Luis Espino wears a hardhat shaped like a cowboy hat -- but no facemask -- to unload refrigerators. "I guess nobody else wants to do the job," he says. "There's all kinds of work over here."

Latino workers who are U.S. citizens, legal residents and undocumented immigrants have traveled from Texas, Florida and Mexico to do the job. But some local residents who want to return home to work say they've been replaced by lower-wage, Spanish-speaking workers. They say it's hard to come back without a decent place to live.

But many of the Latino workers have been sleeping in tent cities, hurricane-damaged hotel rooms, or even the campers of their big rigs. They say they often get underpaid, and they worry about working in a possibly toxic environment.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.