White “finds.” Black “loots.” Brown hides beneath church pews. Too bad the press isn’t looking.

By Marissa Kantor

Mainstream media and most liberal-minded Americans are blaming the Bush administration’s failure to manage Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath on racism, that word that has been itching under our skin for decades. The focus is on “racism,” though, with a very specific, definition: white versus black. This analysis is good as far as it goes — unless, of course, your skin is brown.

Approximately 150,000 Hondurans live in Lousiana, most in New Orleans. Estimates of Mexicans living in or around New Orleans range from 40,000 to 100,000. And other groups, including Salvadorans and Brazilians, also number in the tens of thousands. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates (conservatively) that 20,000 to 35,000 of these Latinos are illegal immigrants or undocumented workers.

While blacks are busy “looting” and whites are “finding,” (to drudge up the most over-played image-war thus far), what no one is mentioning is that Latinos are “hiding,” mostly in churches where they at least feel protected. La Iglesia Lugar de Sanidad (The Church of the Place of Healing), in Gonzales, Louisiana, is now home to more than 100 immigrants from several Latin American countries. The reverent are turning to God for help, since no one else seems to care all that much. Or so the lack of media coverage leads us to believe…

In the September 19 issue of Newsweek, the cover story went like this: “An Enduring Shame: Katrina reminded us, but the problem is not new. Why a rising tide of people live in poverty, who they are—and what we can do about it.” The article mentions that 22 percent of Hispanics are poor, compared with 8 percent of white Americans and nearly 25 percent of black Americans. But there the discussion ends, before it even begins. The remainder of the piece outlines the same explanations we have heard for decades — low wages, the need for welfare reform, “voluntary” segregation. The kicker notes the discussion on racism that was, according to the article, “clearly present in the aftermath of Katrina.” Part of the problem, apparently, is that African-Americans are trapped in a “destructive cycle of ‘selp-reinforcing stereotypes'” which explains their poverty — not racism. That’s what conservative commentator Glenn Loury says, anyway, and Newsweek appears to take the charge at face value, perhaps because Loury is African American himself — and thus serves in the old media construct of “spokesman for the race.” Do such self-imposed difficulties explain Latino poverty, as well? Perhaps not — Katrina coverage hasn’t even dignified them with a place at the racism-discussion table.

By ignoring the hundreds of thousands of displaced and non-English-speaking Latinos who are huddling under church pews, sneaking out at night to look for food and water, and not understanding FEMA’s {English-language) public service announcements, a different sort of racial stigma is being created, one that might be more insidious even than the black/white one that we are all too familiar with: the stigma of silence. I have to scour the Spanish-language press (or catch stories from the one Latino AP writer, E. Eduardo Castillo — here and here — who seems to be reporting from several states simultaneously) to find out how the Latin American immigrant community — legal and illegal — is faring.

Get this: The Department of Homeland Security announced a 45-day moratorium on fining employers who hire undocumented workers. FEMA spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez, answering questions from Presidents Fox of Mexico and Maduro of Honduras, has announced that “we want to provide food, water, shelter and medical supplies to everyone. No one should be afraid to accept our offers to provide safety.” When asked directly, and repeatedly, if this means that illegals will not be reported and prosecuted, Gonzalez simply regurgitated her original form-letter statement.

So undocumented Latinos, if you speak English and can read this, here’s the deal: You can go along on the underpaid, exploitation-filled work gangs to clean up our American city of New Orleans, and your employer won’t be in danger of being prosecuted (for 45 days, anyway). But tengan cuidado: if someone decides to report you, you may have to turn in your rags and dust masks, and stop cleaning our country and head back to yours. Que Dios os bendiga.

Marissa Kantor is a writer in New York City.