Graduate student studying New Orleans' Latin American connections

Rafael Delgadillo, who grew up in New Orleans, is exploring the Latin American connections to his hometown for his doctoral thesis.

When you think of North American cities with the strongest connections to Latin America, you probably think of Miami or Los Angeles.

Would you believe that in the 18th and 19th centuries, that city was New Orleans?

“We already know New Orleans is a rich city when it comes to history and culture,” said Rafael Delgadillo, a UC Santa Cruz doctoral student in Latin American and Latino Studies. “I think it’s important to understand how much of that richness is connected to Latin America.”

People forget that Spain controlled New Orleans from 1762–1803 and the city was a frequent stop for travelers arriving from the Caribbean and Central and South America, Delgadillo said. Benito Juarez, known as the “George Washington of Mexico,” lived in New Orleans with other Mexican exiles during two separate periods in the 1850s. There’s a statue of Juarez on Basin Street.

Exiles from Cuba also showed up in the 19th century, said Delgadillo, pointing out that a steam ship from Havana to New Orleans only took four days. The Cubans lived alongside immigrants from Spain, which led to some conflict as the islanders were trying to overthrow Spanish rule.

Delgadillo, who grew up in New Orleans, is exploring the Latin American connections to his hometown for his doctoral thesis. “In one way, I’m looking at New Orleans’ colonial foundations and how that set a tone in its distinctiveness in the U.S.,” he said during a recent call from the city not long after Hurricane Ida blew through.

Delgadillo’s family is originally from the Dominican Republic and landed in New Orleans after a brief stint in New York. New Orleans has been historically so popular with Caribbeans that it has been called the “northern most Caribbean city,” Delgadillo said.

As in the Caribbean, New Orleans was home to many Africans who were enslaved and shipped in by the European colonial powers. In both places, the people who were enslaved were converted to Catholicism and a racial caste system developed. While in other areas of the New World, people were categorized as either black or white, in New Orleans and the Caribbean, a more nuanced system emerged where racial mixture mattered, Delgadillo said.

Delgadillo has been researching New Orleans’ diverse collection of Spanish language newspapers to learn more of the history. Spanish newspapers have been serving the city since 1808, he said.

“There’s this understudied history,” he said. “Some of those newspapers shine light on these (immigrant) communities.”

With the advent of the 20th century, the pattern of immigration to New Orleans changed with the majority arriving from Honduras. This had to do with the banana trade as United Fruit Company had its headquarters in New Orleans.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more Mexican immigrant construction workers arrived to help with reconstruction with their wives often working in the service industry, Delgadillo said.

Today, however, the Hispanic population of New Orleans is quite low at only about 5 percent. More Hispanics live outside the city in neighboring parishes.

Delgadillo said he appreciates having the opportunity to do his research at the city he has loved for most of his life. “This is all driven by my passion,” he said. “It’s home.”