It takes a gutsy reporter to ask an interviewee if he's sleeping with other women while he's sending money back to his wife and three kids in Guatemala. Sammy Loren is wired that way.
The Kansas filmmaker was attending Loyola University in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, gutting not only the city infrastructure but draining the local employment pool. "Most of the population was gone," he said. "The traditional underclass was dispersed across the U.S. A lot of jobs were filled immediately by Latinos."
Loren stumbled upon just such a work crew in his neighborhood -- a group of men from Central America working on a house just one block from a bar the filmmaker frequented in the Irish Channel district. He was already interested in a film project about this new workforce and how they integrated into an unknown city, cut off from their families and familiar settings.
Last night, the Loyola grad screened Nueva Orleans for a packed house at the Crossroads Infoshop and Radical Bookstore.
In one of the first shots of Loren's film, Ruben, a boisterous immigrant from Guatemala, is pictured, arms raised, biceps flexed, dubbing himself a "Pitbull Latino." He's on a painting crew, slathering a two-story house with bright yellow paint. Loren immediately makes a point about the necessity of these incoming workers. "If it wasn't for Latinos, this city would be gone," says Harry, the crew's boss.
As they paint, Loren uncovers how these men arrived in the ravaged city. Pedro, a young man from Mexico, paid $1,200 to a coyote to lead him through the desert into the United States. He came with nothing but the clothes on his back. When they ran out of water, he says, they drank murky liquid from filthy puddles.
Quickly, though, the camera gravitates to Ruben. He sings constantly and cracks jokes -- "Tortillas make you strong; white bread doesn't." He's honest and opinionated, welcoming the camera into a dilapidated living quarters he shares with several other immigrants. He pads around shirtless, cooking on a small electric burner, giving Loren his take on the American Dream and men in his situation.
"When you leave your country you know you're going to suffer," Ruben explains. But, for the work he's doing in New Orleans, he'd probably make 100 Quetzals back in Guatemala. Here he earns $100 -- or 750 Quetzals. He sends $200 to his family each week. It allows them to live in a nice house. It will free him up to start his own business when he returns home.
Loren doesn't shy away from the grittier aspects of these immigrants' lives, though. He asks Ruben about his infidelities. He shows Ruben's conflict with a Mexican immigrant on his work crew that forces him onto the street corner, looking for another employer. He captures Ruben's cut and swollen face after he gets in a drunken street brawl -- the same day his three kids call from Guatemala to wish him a happy Father's Day.
Throughout the film Loren provides context that makes his subjects representative of a much larger phenomena. Before Katrina, the film points out, Latinos made up just 3.1 percent of the population. By 2007, when the film was completed, it had jumped to nearly 10 percent. The number of day laborers on the street had tripled.
After the film, Loren told the group the city's response to the newcomers was erratic. "One day the police would be rounding up workers outside Home Depot and the next the city was saying they were thrilled they were there," he said. As for the filmmaker, he's lost track of the men in his movie. He's called cell phones and home numbers but they've been disconnected. "It's frustrating," he said. "I have no idea where they are."
To read more about Nueva Orleans and Loren's other endeavors, check out the Mindful Media Collective.