BY KAREN NELSON
BILOXI SUN HERALD/TNS
PASCAGOULA, Miss. — Many hard-working Hispanics with skills in construction and roofing poured into the Gulf Coast for jobs after Katrina, joining other Hispanic nationalities.
They would sleep in parking lots, in tents and on the bare ground because there were no rooms to rent. They helped tremendously in rebuilding the Coast.
Their nail guns pounded from sun up to sun down, seven days a week in the early months.
Without the Hispanic labor force, crawling out from under the debris would have taken considerably longer. These workers, many of the immigrants, were willing to endure conditions that many American workers might not have accepted.
From Florida, Cuba
They came from large cities around the U.S. and from Texas, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and their home countries. They hailed from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and South and Central America.
There are 21-plus Latin American countries or regions and today, each one of those is represented on the Gulf Coast, according to organizations that work with the community.
Many workers moved on. Early estimates from the Hispanic community were that South Mississippi’s Hispanic population tripled to 60,000 (a third of them living in the United States without documentation) and then settled closer to 30,000 in the years after the storm. Census figures list the numbers considerably lower, but there is much doubt that the Census can accurately estimate the somewhat elusive population.
Those who stayed have taken root and the population is growing, no matter how you count it.
When the construction jobs dried up, some opened businesses — landscaping, real estate, auto sales, churches and especially restaurants and groceries, so they could have authentic, native food.
Those who sent for their families have changed the face of the Coast forever.
Census data showed that between 2010 and 2013 in Harrison County, Miss., the Hispanic population increased by nearly 8 percent. In Hancock County, it was up 13.5 percent and the boost was largest in Jackson County with a 15.5 percent jump.
In the Pascagoula-Gautier School District, the population of English learners more than doubled from 196 in 2005 to 463 in 2007.
In the following years, the district has seen a steady climb in enrollment that reached 708 this past school year, said Frank Catchings, director of federal programs for the district. While not all of these students are Hispanic, more than 90 percent of them are.
Church attendance swells
The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, the Gulf Coast Latin American Association and El Pueblo stepped up to address the needs of the community, connecting new immigrants with local resources.
The Diocese of Biloxi has Catholic churches that now offer Mass in Spanish at nine services from Pascagoula to Wiggins. This year, the diocese has ordained two new priests from Mexico, bringing the number of Hispanic priests to five.
“They are very much better at taking care of the (Hispanic) community than I was,” said the Rev. Paddy Mockler, pointing out jovially that he speaks Spanish with an Irish accent.
Said city spokesman Anne Pitre, “They’re purchasing land and starting businesses. It has lead to some real revitalization in east Pascagoula.”
The city that has started a new festival, Festivo Hispano, at River Park on Sept. 22, is looking to be more inclusive in its practices. Employees who interact with the public are taking Spanish classes.
“For my personal growth, I’m learning to write Spanish,” Pitre said, “so I can translate brochures and public notices.
“The Hispanic population in Pascagoula has grown from 5 percent to 11 percent in the last few years,” she said. “That’s huge, huge growth.”