Thanks to a quirk of history — and a love of bananas — New Orleans has had a Honduran population for more than a century. But that population exploded after Hurricane Katrina, when the jobs needed to rebuild the city drew waves of Honduran immigrants. Many of them stayed, and nearly a decade later, they've established a thriving — if somewhat underground — culinary community.
Signs of that community abound, if you know where to look.
You can see it in the lunch lines that form weekdays outside Taqueria La Delicia, a food truck, or lonchera, run by a Honduran immigrant. The lonchera sets up shop near a Lowe's Home Improvement store where day laborers congregate most days, looking for work. On weekends, you'll find vendors cooking up pollo con tajadas, a traditional Honduran dish, alongside a city soccer field while an all-Latino league plays.
Since Katrina, mobile food vendors like these have flourished alongside the city's Honduran population, says Sarah Fouts, a doctoral candidate at Tulane University researching Latinos in the U.S. and their foodways.
"They're filling a need — they're getting food that people are familiar with, that they want to eat," she says.
Today, New Orleans is home to America's largest Honduran community. But the ties between the city and Honduras stretch back to the turn of the 20th century, when the city became America's biggest importer of bananas (and eventually, the home of United Fruit Co.). Many of those bananas came from Honduras.
"That created this early relationship with Hondurans and New Orleans," says Fouts. "So [the Hondurans] coming today [are] like, 'I know someone that's in New Orleans.' It's just word of mouth in having those early connections."
Jose Castillo moved to New Orleans from Honduras when he was 5 years old. He runs Norma's Sweets Bakery in the Midcity neighborhood, where a lot of the New Orleans Latino population lives.
Don't let the name fool you — Norma's also has a grocery section, a hot food section with everything from Honduran baleadas to Salvadoran pupusas, and a Western Union window for folks to send money back home. Norma's has become a hub for the Latino population.
"We knew there was always a big Latin community here, and we felt like it wasn't being offered the services that we wanted to offer," Castillo says. "So we decided to set up here to be in a central part of the city."
The city is also doing its part to help culinary entrepreneurs. Elizabeth Oviedo, another Honduras native, moved from Houston to New Orleans to work in disaster cleanup after Katrina. When her job ended, she stayed to cook for the Central and South American day laborers who continued in the rebuilding process. Oviedo made $80,000 that first year feeding the crews from her house — the cars parked outside drew so much attention that city officials showed up to see what was going on.
"They knocked on my door and said, 'You can't sell food here anymore because it's not legal,' " Oviedo recalls. "They told me: 'We're not going to fine you. We'll help you.' "
She had the money, but no knowledge of how to rent a space or go through the permitting process. "The guy that had shut me down, he came and brought all the permits to me. They followed up with me until I opened the restaurant."
The clientele for Oviedo's restaurant, Telemar, are mostly men, she says. "Most aren't married, and they don't have someone to cook for them," she says. "They go to work, then they come here to eat."
While the city's Hondurans have figured out where to find tastes of home, their cuisine is still relatively under the radar in New Orleans, says Castillo.
"Marketingwise, the word 'Mexican' is more known in the United States," Castillo says. "People tend to think that all Latin food is Mexican!"
Some Hondurans are using this assumption to get non-Latinos through their doors. Fouts recalls one clever ploy she spotted at a Honduran restaurant.
"There was this sign that reads in English 'Mexican American Cafe' in big letters — it's the main part of the sign," she says. "But on top of that, in Spanish, it says 'typical Honduran soups and plates.' So for the English-speaking market, they're trying to sell this Honduran food as Mexican food, [because] that's what's familiar. But for the Spanish-speaking, they admit it's Honduran food."
Castillo says his clientele is mostly Latin American, but that's starting to change.
"Now we have a lot of Americans that come here," he says. "They want to eat the beans and the baleadas. I'm happy when I see a new face, but I'm very happy when I see the same face come back."
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