Mexican Workers Filling Louisiana Oyster Jobs

Since Hurricane Katrina swept ashore along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico last August, business owners in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have struggled to rebuild and to reopen.

A group of workers washes oysters at Motivatit Seafoods.

Workers from Mexico wash oysters at Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La. Ned Wharton, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ned Wharton, NPR

A shortage of building materials has stalled reconstruction for many companies, for others a shortage of workers has stymied efforts to revive production and distribution of their goods and products.

With hundreds of thousands of residents instantly scattered across the country, many of them finding new jobs where they suddenly found themselves building new lives, workers from Mexico were hired to fill the labor gap on the Gulf Coast.

More from Houma

'Weekend Edition Sunday' and NPR have paid close attention as Louisiana's oyster industry revives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Steve Voisin of Motivatit Seafoods consults a map of oyster beds. i i

Steve Voisin of Motivatit Seafoods consults a map of oyster beds along the Louisiana coast. Ned Wharton, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ned Wharton, NPR
Steve Voisin of Motivatit Seafoods consults a map of oyster beds.

Steve Voisin of Motivatit Seafoods consults a map of oyster beds along the Louisiana coast.

Ned Wharton, NPR

The influx of Mexicans — some in the United States illegally and many others with temporary work visas — raised concerns among some people that the region would experience instant and possibly permanent demographic shifts.

Statistical surveys have not been completed on the ethnicity of people fleeing or entering Gulf Coast states, but the complexion of the workforce in hurricane-damaged areas has changed, at least by anecdotal accounts. Evidence of that could be seen in Houma, La., in December, on a visit to Motivatit Seafoods, one of the state's largest harvesters and processors of oysters, where a group of Mexican workers had joined the locals.

A return to Houma earlier this month found the group of women — all from the same village — hard at work and living in a group home that Motavatit Seafoods maintains for them.

The audio story was written by Stu Seidel and produced by Ned Wharton, with help from Phillip Martin and Elaine Heinzman and research assistance from Claudine Ebeid and Kee Malesky.

Deadboy: Out of Houma, On the Road

Tessie Brunet and Dax Riggs sit on steps outside a small house.

Tessie Brunet and Dax Riggs met a year ago, and they've just cut their first CD as Deadboy and the Elephantmen. hide caption

itoggle caption

From 'We Are Night Sky'

An artist's inspiration can come in many forms. Along with bandmate Tessie Brunet, musician Dax Riggs of Houma, La., has crafted an entire album out of the fear of death.

Riggs and Brunet form Deadboy and the Elephantmen. As a child, Riggs stayed up late one night to watch David Lynch's drama The Elephant Man on TV. Now 28, Riggs says he's still haunted by the story of a gentle, intelligent and yet monstrously deformed man shunned by society.

He relates to the idea of not fitting in. After his parents' divorce, he moved from Evansville, Indiana to Houma to live with his father during the oil boom in the early 1980s. Riggs did his best to adjust, but after failing the seventh grade he dropped out of Oak Lawn Terrebonne Parish High School and has since found his education through other means.

"I would read at school but not what they wanted me to. And then I met some people who wanted to play some music and we ran off, even left the state," he says. "I did come back and tried to go back to school it just didn't work out. And basically I've never had a thought in my head that I should go learn something. So yeah I have a comic book education... it's true."

Drummer Brunet is a soft-spoken, doe-eyed woman of 23 who moved to Houma as a child. She was adopted as a 3-year-old by a family there and now finds the quaint little fishing town too suffocating. "It's just like your typical strip mall," she says. "The place to be on a Friday night is the Olive Garden and an hour and a half wait to have dinner. That's what people do around here."

And Houma has other limitations even more chafing to a young musician:

"There's no music scene there, there's no place to play," Brunet says. "There are a couple of bars and they love cover bands. They want to sing songs that they hear on the radio."

Brunet met Riggs about a year ago, when she was home for what she thought was a stay of just a couple of weeks. A year later they've put out their first album, We Are Night Sky, on Fat Possum Records. And they're slowly making their way across the country on their first tour.

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