Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity

Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity

by Thomas Jessen Adams, Matt Sakakeeny

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Approached as a wellspring of cultural authenticity and historical exceptionality, New Orleans appears in opposition to a nation perpetually driven by progress. Remaking New Orleans shows how this narrative is rooted in a romantic cultural tradition, continuously repackaged through the twin engines of tourism and economic development, and supported by research that has isolated the city from comparison and left unquestioned its entrenched inequality. Working against this feedback loop, the contributors place New Orleans at the forefront of national patterns of urban planning, place-branding, structural inequality, and racialization. Nontraditional sites like professional wrestling matches, middle-class black suburbs, and Vietnamese gardens take precedence over clichéd renderings of Creole cuisine, voodoo queens, and hot jazz. Covering the city's founding through its present and highlighting changing political and social formations, this volume remakes New Orleans as a rich site for understanding the quintessential concerns of American cities.

Contributors. Thomas Jessen Adams, Vincanne Adams, Vern Baxter, Maria Celeste Casati Allegretti, Shannon Lee Dawdy, Rien Fertel, Megan French-Marcelin, Cedric G. Johnson, Alecia P. Long, Vicki Mayer, Toby Miller, Sue Mobley, Marguerite Nguyen, Aaron Nyerges, Adolph Reed Jr., Helen A. Regis, Matt Sakakeeny, Heidi Schmalbach, Felipe Smith, Bryan Wagner

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478003328
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/04/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Thomas Jessen Adams is Lecturer in History and American Studies, Academic Director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and coeditor of Working in the Big Easy: The History and Politics of Labor in New Orleans.

Matt Sakakeeny is Associate Professor of Music at Tulane University and author of Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans, also published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt


La Catrina

The Mexican Specter of New Orleans


We came into an old, ailing city, filthy with the smoke of wood and coal. It is one of those Gulf cities that all seem like sisters, but very large, very developed. Tampico, Veracruz, and Campeche would all fit within it — and it has something of all of them — and of Veracruz above all.

— Mexican writer JUSTO SIERRA MÉNDEZ, on his arrival in New Orleans in 1895

Sierra, a native of Campeche, recognized something deeply familiar and sororal about New Orleans — from its architecture, to its commercial life, to its food. During his stay, he was ably hosted by the city's Mexican community. But his account is barely recognizable in the city's vain reflections of itself today. What happened to the mexicanidad of New Orleans? What is the place of Mexico in the history of New Orleans? Why does Mexico seem to matter so little to New Orleans's narratives of authenticity and exceptionalism? In fact, Sierra makes New Orleans appear quite unexceptional when viewed as an extension of Mexico rather than the United States. The explorer of New Orleans's archives and old texts will frequently come across references to Mexico, but without an already existing genealogical narrative, it is hard to know where to put them. Mexico comes across as a constant but ghostly presence in the history of the city. This chapter is a descriptive attempt to bring that historical specter forward and ask it questions. Both Veracruz and New Orleans, after all, in the nineteenth century earned the title City of the Dead. New Orleans likes to think this is because of its beautiful aboveground tombs. But the nickname originally referred to a shared history of yellow fever in these two ports, a disease itself not unconnected to their shared history as the largest slave markets on the Gulf. This spectral-sister relation can be represented by the twin figures of Catrina and Katrina. La Catrina is the iconic image of Day of the Dead in Mexico, a lady skeleton wearing a pretentiously fashionable hat by which the cartoonist José Guadelupe Posada meant to parody the elite criollos (those of majority Spanish descent) and their emulation of European styles. The lady forgets that she is really Mexican. She is thus an apt representation for the way in which Mexico has haunted Louisiana, down to Katrina. New Orleans forgets that in some way she is Mexican.

As the editors of this volume point out, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have been a worry stone for New Orleans's perennial preoccupation with authenticity. What surged to view through the disaster provides rich material for a reweaving of the historic fabric. In Walter Benjamin's words, these moments are like flashes from a camera bulb: "what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation." Sudden change creates a confrontation between the past and the present, rearranging things and enabling new realizations about both. What I can see now, looking back, is that the popular imaginary has forgotten New Orleans's Mexico connections. While I will briefly outline the contours of this now-neglected history, the more important point for discussion is the contours of forgetting. Forgetting is a negative dispositive of authenticity. Attending to what drops out in public memory underscores the way in which authenticity registers are created through willful enunciation. They are not passive constructions. Paul Connerton argues that there are at least seven types of social forgetting. As I argue, the two that seem to fit best with the New Orleans–Mexico case are "forgetting that is constitutive in the formation of a new identity" and "repressive erasure." More uniquely, I argue that the temporality of relations — continuous, sudden, revived, or ruptured — has a significant effect upon the ways in which they are remembered, or forgotten.

As some may recall, a rather ridiculous controversy broke out a few months after the storm during the period of cleanup and reconstruction, when the underprovisioned city was suddenly being served by a new fleet of taco trucks. The trucks plied flooded-out neighborhoods, serving day workers performing the cleanup and gut stripping of mildewed buildings. Many of these workers spoke Spanish; the majority (though not all) were Mexican. They liked tacos. Ever open to culinary possibilities, many other New Orleanians discovered they liked truck tacos too. Yet a hue and cry went out to ban the unregulated trucks. Jefferson Parish outlawed them. No parallel moves were made to outlaw unregulated fish and produce trucks, or snowball stands, which have long been fixtures of the local consumer landscape. One does not have to be an anthropologist or political analyst to realize that the undocumented trucks were serving as a proxy for the undocumented workers from Mexico and Tejas who flocked to the city in those months to provide much-needed labor. But clearly, some locals felt threatened by this new population.

I admit that I was naively taken aback by this rejection of a foreign body by the local collective. Familiar with all those dusty references to Mexico in the archive, I knew that Mexicans have never been foreign to New Orleans. But there are significant differences between archive and memory. Mexico could be narrated as one branch of New Orleans's deep heritage. The constant ply of goods and people back and forth between New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mexico formed a rhythmic undercurrent of the colonial period that continued well into the twentieth century, along with significant flows from Cuba and, later, Honduras, two Latin American connections that have received more acknowledgment in recent years. Katrina's flash of the bulb revealed that the Mexico connection was utterly forgotten and unacknowledged in the popular imagination. I am fairly certain that if the food trucks were serving shrimp po'boys, everything would have been fine. But tacos are not authentic New Orleans. Or so the story goes.

This chapter restores to view some of the connections between Mexico and New Orleans and, more importantly, tries to understand why and how they have been so actively forgotten. Once I began looking more closely at the Mexican connections from the French colonial period to the post-Katrina present, it became clear to me that the linkages were diverse and episodic. The temporality of New Orleans's relationship to Mexico resists a continuous genealogy. It is, indeed, more of a sibling than a parental relationship, but no less intimate. The history of connection has had many facets and many chapters. They do not add up to a neat teleology by which we comfortably arrive in the present.

The Catrina Archive

The connection between Mexico and New Orleans has been at its most active in times of crisis — supply and labor shortages, wartime, and revolution. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such crises were more the norm than the exception. The primary feature of this lifeline was an informal, and often illegal, flow of goods and people that provided mutual material comfort and, at times, refuge and the prospect of a new life. Thus, the fact that the crisis of Katrina sparked a revival of this flow is only the latest instance in a long pattern that I will try to briefly recapture here, from the beginning of the Louisiana colony in the early 1700s through the Mexican Revolution.

Mexico was Louisiana's first raison d'être. With its patent to Antoine Crozat's Louisiana company in 1712, the French Crown explicitly sought Mexican silver emanating from the port of Veracruz, as seen in a founding document titled "Project for the Royal Company of the Indies on the Subject of Trade with Mexico." The scheme represented a sanctioned form of smuggling, legitimizing a commerce that the LeMoyne brothers had already established by 1708 along the Gulf Coast. Soon, a thriving coastal trade by small boats and minor players became one of the only reliable features of the colonial economy, a condition that soon benefited the port of New Orleans (established 1718). In this system of intercolonial commerce across the Gulf-Caribbean, the general pattern was a transshipment flow of sugar, coffee, flour, cloth, tools, liquor, leather, Indian trade items (primarily firearms, beads, and blankets), and household sundries. Some of these items were local colonial products, while others were European imports being moved around by enterprising middlemen. The types of goods within this flow changed over time as Louisiana experimented with cash crops of tobacco, sugar, and indigo. In the French period, Louisiana exported tobacco to Mexico, while it imported sugar. In the Spanish period, this pattern flipped. Louisiana indigo had been intended for the European market, but the industry failed, to be replaced by a lucrative middleman trade in Mexican cochineal (a red dye extracted from beetle juice). Some of the more enduring exchanges in the colonial period involved the acquisition of coin (especially silver pesos) and flour from Mexico and the delivery of French textiles, wine, and brandy, as well as Louisiana pitch and tar used in shipbuilding and repair. In the eighteenth century, the greater Veracruz region was second only to Saint-Domingue as one of the most developed plantation economies in the greater Caribbean, with sugar and coffee the main exports, and African and Afro-Mexican slaves providing the primary labor. Louisiana's own fledgling plantation economy became dependent on its colonial trade partners for the supply of slaves after the 1730s. Between 1735 and 1763 (the late French period), of trackable ship routes mentioned in colonial documents, 40 percent were illicit voyages to the Spanish colonies, and the plurality of these were to points in Mexico (35 percent), followed by Florida (25 percent) and Cuba (20 percent). Despite the fact that Cuba has become one of the celebrated roots of the Creole heritage narrative in Louisiana, Mexico was a more significant point of economic contact in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

While many of these relations were primarily business affairs, over time the larger merchant families of Louisiana extended their branches into Mexico. The off-kilter gender ratio in colonial New Orleans also encouraged men in the trade to look for Mexican brides. Some came to New Orleans to settle before the colony was turned over to the Spanish in the 1760s, and this flow, among the military and economic elites in particular, grew more significant. Unfortunately, the census sources for the colonial periods (both French and Spanish) do not allow us to track the birthplace of settlers, although Spanish surnames were quite common, particularly among sailors and tavern keepers, indicating that men as well as women may have immigrated to the city, and their numbers were not restricted to the elites.

The pattern of New Orleans merchant families having personal ties to Mexico begins in the French period and runs up through the peak of the city's port business in the early twentieth century. The Rasteau family of La Rochelle, France, sent a son, Paul Rasteau, to New Orleans in the 1740s. In a letter of instructions, elder family members advised Paul to consider the destinations of Veracruz and the coast of Campeche. The company's ship, the Lion d'Or, made constant trips between France, Louisiana, Pensacola, and Veracruz, with the captain instructed to give gifts to the harbormaster at Veracruz as needed. The Rasteaus received gold and silver coin in exchange for luxury items such as gilt mirrors and beaver hats.

In the Spanish colonial period (ca. 1766–1804), the Crown formalized trade relations between Louisiana and Mexico, but only under Spain's mercantilist restrictions that specified a short list of goods that could be exchanged between specific colonies. This resulted, however, in a new policy intended to stimulate Louisiana tobacco production and allow it to be sold specifically to Mexico in the 1770s and 1780s. Traffic between New Orleans and the official port of Veracruz grew in these years. The Spanish government also encouraged the importation of slaves, helping to stimulate the plantation economy that had struggled under the French. Many of these slaves came from Mexico, where experiments with the plantation economy in all but the Veracruz region were beginning to wane. One ship, Nuestra Senora del Carmen, plied a regular trade of slaves and logwood from Campeche to New Orleans for the last twenty years of the Spanish regime.

The number of residents with Spanish surnames living in the city grew. However, officials in the Spanish government and military were almost entirely European born. The only officially sponsored immigration of Spanish speakers was of Canary Islanders who arrived in the 1770s and 1780s. Still, high-ranking Spanish officials often married into Louisiana families, and their careers then helped create dynasties that spanned across New Orleans, Mexico, and the Atlantic. One example is the St. Maxent sisters, daughters of a prominent New Orleans merchant. Victoire married Juan Antonio de Riaño, intendant of Guanajuato, and Antoinette Marie married Manuel de Flon, intendant of Puebla. Félicité's second marriage was to Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Louisiana. She followed her husband to Mexico City in 1785, where she gave birth to a daughter named Guadalupe (after the patron saint of Mexico).

Some of the strongest evidence for the strength of contacts between Mexico and New Orleans in the Spanish colonial period comes from the archive related to the Baratarians, the loose confederation of smugglers and privateers associated with Jean and Pierre Laffite. Below the official surface of things, the Laffite brothers inserted themselves into the by-now regular traffic between New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mexico. By 1809, they had established the smuggling base camp on Grand Terre at the outlet of Barataria Bay and made regular trips to both Mexico and New Orleans. Their cargo was primarily human, with prices for foreign slaves soaring after the ban of 1808. In early French colonial documents, writers noted that traders who could not be sure of bribing officials in Veracruz could dock at one of the smaller towns up the coast, which were never named. By the Laffite period, these are familiar locations — Nautla and Boquilla de Piedras. Regular shipments flowed between these two towns and Barataria in the 1810s, often bearing arms to stoke the fire of revolution. Flow went both ways. Mexico also had its smugglers and privateers. Mexican ships frequently moored at the mouth of the Mississippi during the Mexican War of Independence. After losing favor with the US government due to his transition from slave smuggling to questionable privateering for both insurgent Mexico and Cartagena during the revolutionary Bolívar period, Jean Laffite was driven out of Louisiana. For a while he established a new independent republic of his own on Matagorda Island (now in Texas, but Mexican territory at the time, which Laffite rather confusingly decided to dub Campeachy). The Baratarians often picked up not only goods from Mexican shores, but crew members, such as when Pierre Laffite completed his crew out of the real Campeche in southern Mexico in 1815. Pierre died in Campeche, where he had collaborated with several Mexican associates (sailors, farmers, and fishermen) in his smuggling and filibustering schemes. Today a monument to the Laffite brothers stands in the Mayan town of Dzilam. This particular Louisiana connection has not been forgotten by Mexico.

Other New Orleanians such as Emile La Sere used their multilingual abilities to build a more legitimate economic and political career based on their expertise in Mexico. La Sere served as a clerk for the merchant house McClannahan and Bogart. They assigned him to Mexico in 1825, where he remained for fifteen years. Returning to New Orleans, he became active in politics and eventually ascended to the US Congress. After the Civil War, his Mexico connections drew him back to build up a lucrative business, and he eventually became president of the Tehuantepec Railroad Company, a politically significant ploy to shorten the route to the Pacific and give New Orleans an even more dominant role in trans-American trade. Toward the end of his career, La Sere returned to New Orleans and the Louisiana-Mexico mercantile trade.

The political landscape of Mexico was tumultuous in the nineteenth century, from the first revolt against the Spanish in 1811 on through independence (1821), the Texas Revolution (1835–36), the Pastry War (1838–39), the Mexican-American War (1846–48), and the invasion of Maximilian (1861–67). While dealing with all these conflicts (the later ones being foreign attacks on Mexican sovereignty), liberal and conservative forces fought one another for control over the new Mexican state, sometimes flipping sides in the process. The active role of smugglers, privateers, mercenaries, spies, and filibusters emanating from New Orleans made events even more complex. One can cite the colorful careers of John Sibley, Daniel Clark Jr., Abner Duncan, Augustus Magee, James Wilkinson, and none other than Aaron Burr, who each had at least one foot in New Orleans. New Orleans merchants such as Daniel Clark were key in providing intelligence on conditions and contacts in Mexico in various political intrigues. New Orleans newspapers avidly covered events across the Gulf throughout these years, not infrequently carrying stories in every issue for weeks on end.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction: What Lies beyond Histories of Exceptionalism and Cultures of Authenticity / Thomas Jessen Adams, Sue Mobley, and Mat Sakekeeny  1
Part One. Constructing Exceptional New Orleans
1. La Catrina: The Mexican Specter of New Orleans / Shannon Lee Dawdy  35
2. Charles Gayarré and the Imagining of an Exceptional City: The Literary Roots of the Creole City / Rien Fertel  55
3. Phony City: Under the Skin of Authenticity / Aaron Nyerges  72
Part Two. Producing Authentic New Orleans
4. "Things You'd Imagine Zulu Tribes to Do": The Zulu Parade in New Orleans Carnival / Felipe Smith  93
5. The Saga of the Junkyard Dog / Bryan Wagner  117
6. Local, Native, Creole, Black: Claiming Belonging, Producing Autochthony / Helen A. Regis  138
7. The Contradictions of the Film Welfare Economy, or, For the Love of Treme / Vicki Mayer, Heidi Schmalbach, and Toby Miller  162
Part Three. What Is New Orleans Identity?
8. "Queers, Fairies, and Ne'er-Do-Wells": Rethinking the Notion of a Sexually Liberated New Orleans / Alecia P. Long  179
9. Building Black Suburbs in New Orleans / Vern Baxter and Maria Casati
10. Refugee Pastoralism: Vietnamese American Self-Representation in New Orleans / Marguerite Nguyen  219
Part Four. Predictive City?
11. Boosting the Private Sector: Federal Aid and Downtown Development in the 1970s / Megan French-Marcelin  241
12. What's Left for New Orleans? The People's Reconstruction and the Limits of Anarcho-Liberalism / Cedric G. Johnson  261
13. Neoliberal Futures: Post-Katrina New Orleans, Volunteers, and the Ongoing Allure of Exceptionalism / Vincanne Adams  288
14. The Myth of Authenticity and Its Impact on Politics—in New Orleans and Beyond / Adolph Reed Jr.  307
References  327
Contributors  351

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“This is NOLA unmasked: a brave and unflinching critique of the myth of the Big Easy. In fact, as these essays argue so powerfully, no southern city is less at ease or more pervaded by class and racial tension.”

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