Jorge Rodríguez*, a Honduran day laborer working in New Orleans, was mugged last year, five blocks from his house. His assailant fired several rounds and stole his identification and thousands of dollars, as Jorge had just been paid. He took one bullet in the shoulder, severely damaging the brachial nerve, and one in the upper back, which miraculously lodged in his spine without causing much damage. He was lucky to survive.
Three weeks later, Jorge came to a mobile clinic of the Latino Health Outreach Project (LHOP), where I work. His right arm hung limp at his side, having lost all strength and movement. He told me his story and asked how he could get to a follow-up appointment the next week, and if I thought the doctor might speak Spanish. Then, as now, our buses were operating at 17 percent of the pre-flood capacity. And to my knowledge, there was just one (private) hospital with interpreters on staff. It’s for these reasons that LHOP was created.
After the levees broke, the public health system basically ceased to exist. Eleven days later, a first aid station opened, which, at the time, was the only non-militarized health care in town. I arrived two weeks later and began volunteering there, at what had evolved into the Common Ground Health Clinic.
A few other women and I began scouting areas of New Orleans to assess health care needs, and realized that among the many gaps in the city’s infrastructure was a source of bilingual healthcare for Latino residents and recently-arrived cleanup workers. We met Latinos — both day laborers and guest workers — who lived and worked in prison-like conditions, crowded into hotel rooms, prohibited from leaving the property, working long hours for little (if any) pay. When we offered to bring basic clinical services to them, they asked us to come the next day.
We set up clinics on the hotels’ sidewalks and parking lots. Initially, there were just two of us giving tetanus vaccines and over-the-counter medications. Soon, more providers came, including doctors, nurse practitioners, and herbalists. Eventually we were doing three mobile clinics a week.
We did this within the context of New Orleanians doing self-rescue, and taking care of their neighbors and community. There’s an oft-repeated myth that we who came to volunteer were heroes, but the true heroes are the locals who survived (and continue surviving) the criminal and racist neglect of all levels of government. And out of all of us who came to the city afterward to help out, it’s the day laborers and guest workers who do truly heroic work, under impossibly dangerous and horrific conditions, and often not even getting paid for their labor.
We worked with Jorge for three months — fighting with front desk gatekeepers who tried to deny him entry because he had no identification; arguing with social workers who insisted that the hospital had no obligation to provide interpreters to undocumented people (untrue, according to the federal Civil Rights Act); interpreting while he quizzed a doctor about why they wouldn’t remove the bullet in his spine that prevented him from lying on his back; taking him to the embassy for new identification; and even (at his request) explaining his injury to the beat cop in his neighborhood who suspected him of drug dealing. He charmed a physical therapist who gave him free treatment, and, though in constant pain, he was slowly regaining strength.
Several months ago I went to pick Jorge up for an appointment and he wasn’t home. He didn’t answer his phone, and no one in the neighborhood knew where he was. A few days later his phone was disconnected. We still don’t know if he was arrested or deported, if he moved to another neighborhood, or went back to Honduras, where he said he hoped to find a surgeon to remove the bullet.
Jorge’s situation, sadly, is commonplace; tens of thousands of immigrants who came to rebuild New Orleans still face criminal barriers to health care, as do all uninsured folks. We still lack mental health facilities and a truly functional public hospital, and we rely on audacity, ingenuity, and generosity to find specialty care for the uninsured.
So with health care still so inaccessible for everyone; and with the criminalization of immigrants (who currently comprise nearly half the reconstruction work force); and with more than 200,000 pre-flood residents still unable to return home after two years of displacement, I want to know: Who is going to rebuild New Orleans?
* not his real name
Jennifer Whitney, a former Seattle resident, serves as one of two volunteer coordinators for the Latino Health Outreach Project, an outgrowth of Common Ground Health Clinic.
To support LHOP’s work, please join the struggle to defend immigrant rights, push for a national single payer health plan, and/or make a donation through our website at www.cghc.com