Tuesday, July 3, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For proof that Hurricane Katrina is transforming the ethnic flavor of New Orleans — and creating altogether new tensions — look no further than the taco trucks.

Lunch trucks serving Latin American fare are appearing around New Orleans, catering to the immigrant laborers who streamed into the city in search of work after Katrina turned much of the place into a construction zone.

The trucks are a common sight in barrios from Los Angeles to New York, but controversial in a city still adapting to a threefold increase in Hispanics since Katrina.

Officials in suburban Jefferson Parish recently banned the trucks as eyesores and health hazards. New Orleans officials said they welcome the new business, but promised to make sure the number of vehicles does not exceed the municipal limit.

The mobile luncheonettes are operated mostly by Mexican and Central American families.

“I’m looking for an opportunity. That’s why I left my country, and that’s what led me here,” said Maria Fuentes, 55, who came to the United States from Mexico a decade ago and settled in New Orleans after the storm. “This is the first time I’ve owned my own business and my dream is to have traditional restaurants, not trucks, all over this town.”

The six-wheel vans have Spanish names emblazoned on their sides such as “La Texanita” and “Taqueria Buen Gusto,” and, like street vendors in Latin America, serve such dishes as carne asada, or grilled steak, pork and chicken garnished with sliced radishes and diced cilantro.

The trucks usually park on street corners in areas with heavy construction activity, attracting laborers and native New Orleanians alike.

“It’s better than Taco Bell. I can tell you that,” said Michael Gould, 53, who lined up at Miss Fuentes’ truck during a recent lunch hour.

Still, the Jefferson Parish council member who restricted the trucks characterized them as unwanted residue from the hurricane.

“We’ve been trying to handle blighted housing, [Federal Emergency Management Agency] trailers, abandoned housing,” said Louis Congemi, whose zoning ordinance takes effect this weekend and is expected to clear the parish of taco trucks. “This is just one more thing we’re trying to get under control to make sure we bring our parish back to normalcy.”

New Orleans officials said that because of the Jefferson Parish ban, they will watch the number of trucks that move to their city and will enforce rules limiting the number of food vehicles to 100 on nonfestival days.

New Orleans’ Hispanic population has risen from 15,000 before the storm to an estimated 50,000, according to the city. The city’s overall population has dropped from about 450,000 before the storm to about 250,000.

In the months after Katrina, Mayor C. Ray Nagin created a furor when he was quoted as saying: “Businesses are concerned with making sure we are not overrun by Mexican workers.” In his subsequent re-election campaign, however, he praised Hispanics for their work ethic.

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