New Orleans: Multicultural Stew

New Orleans: Multicultural Stew

Latinx immigrants are having an impact on New Orleans. A look at how they are affecting the U.S. city along with the city's past immigration trends.


9 - 12+


Anthropology, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, World History

NGS Resource Carousel Loading Logo
Loading ...

When Dr. Charles Chamberlain III, a historian, thinks about immigration trends in the American city of New Orleans, Louisiana, his mind turns to mouthwatering Louisiana dishes like gumbo and jambalaya.

According to Chamberlain, gumbo developed as early New Orleans residents from France, Africa, and Spain combined their cooking techniques to create the hearty stew. Jambalaya, a rice-based dish with chicken and sausage, recalls both Spanish paella and West African Jollof rice.

“I think food is the ultimate metaphor for describing how these cultures blended,” says Chamberlain, of the Louisiana State Museum.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, a new wave of immigrants flooded Louisiana’s largest city. Chamberlain says the city’s reconstruction efforts after Katrina relied on Latinx laborers from Mexico and Central America. According to 2008 United States Census Bureau figures, the Latinx population in New Orleans has grown from 3.1 percent to 4.5 percent since 2000.

As Chamberlain ponders the latest wave of immigration, his thoughts once again turn to his stomach. “I grew up [in California] eating Mexican food, and when I moved here 20 years ago, I was pretty disappointed,” he says. “After the storm, I was like ‘thank god’ to the first taqueria truck I came to. Sure enough, taqueria trucks popped up all over the place with awesome, authentic Mexican food. So that was the symbol of the new post-Katrina population.”

History of Immigration

Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane University who writes about the physical and human geography of New Orleans, says he, too, has noticed the growing Latinx influence in the city since Hurricane Katrina.

It’s an assumption supported by the fact that the New Orleans Police Department recently made one of its officers an official Spanish translator and liaison to the city’s growing Latinx populace.

“The streetscape is replete with evidence” of a growing Latinx population, Campanella says. “That is to say, there are mom-and-pop Latino grocery stores appearing throughout the city and the suburbs, because many of these folks are settling in suburban areas. You are also more likely to see bilingual signage.”

Since New Orleans was founded in 1718 (by the French, who initially claimed the region), there have been several waves of immigrants to the city. Early in its history, the French colony became a mix of French, Spanish, and African settlers.

In terms of linguistic shifts, the current influx of Latino immigrants “is replicating some of the patterns we saw two centuries ago,” Campanella says. “This was once a part of the Spanish colonial empire.”

Following Spanish rule, the French again took over Louisiana before selling the region to the United States as part of the massive Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Before the Louisiana Purchase, French-speaking Catholics known as Creoles dominated the region’s culture, though African and Spanish influences were also quite prominent. Later, French-speaking immigrants from the Acadia region of eastern Canada moved to the rural areas outside of New Orleans. This group became known as the Cajuns.

When the United States took over Louisiana, Anglo-Americans, U.S. citizens of English heritage, poured into New Orleans and intermingled with the Creoles.

“The two groups had very different views in just about everything that relates to the notion of culture—from law, to language, to religion, to architecture, to surveying, to views on race and slavery,” Campanella says. “Much of the 19th century is the history of these two groups kind of coming to terms with each other, oftentimes uncomfortably, and eventually hybridizing.”

In 1809, as New Orleans was becoming more Americanized, about 9,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue, a French colony that eventually became the nation of Haiti, moved to the city and virtually doubled its population overnight.

“Anglo-Americans are starting to come down and you are starting to hear English more and more on the streets, and then here comes this fresh new dose of French Caribbean culture,” Campanella says. “This implants more linguistic and cultural diversity in the city.”

Though one rarely thinks of their influence on New Orleans, German and Irish laborers were lured to New Orleans between 1837 and the Civil War. New Orleans was one of the largest, busiest ports in the United States, and immigrants were drawn by the promise of good jobs.

Chamberlain says most of the Irish residents wanted to blend in with the prevailing culture, while the German immigrants stuck to their traditions and made their own imprint on the city. “New Orleans was the beer capital of the South ... and one of the beer capitals of America, rivaling Milwaukee before Prohibition,” he says. “That comes from our German heritage.”

Another important event that increased immigration to New Orleans was the emancipation of enslaved Black people from nearby plantations after the Civil War. According to Campanella, sugar cane and cotton plantations recruited Sicilians and Chinese to replace their formerly enslaved workforce.

“Emancipation had this curious effect of increasing the diversity of New Orleans by encouraging many African Americans to move to the city as well as these two other groups,” he says.

Legacy of Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, the resulting flooding of neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward overwhelmingly affected Black residents, many of whom were forced to flee. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, since 2000, the city has lost more than 91,000 African American residents.

But throughout its nearly 300-year history, New Orleans has always been refreshed by waves of immigrants. The recent Latinx influx is sure to contribute to the city’s rich cultural legacy—including its unique cuisine.

“We haven’t had crawfish tacos yet,” Chamberlain says. “It’s inevitably coming.”

Fast Fact

Spanish Speaker
New Orleans police officer Janssen Valencia was officially installed as the New Orleans Police Department's liaison to the city's Latinx community in 2009. Valencia was the first person to hold the position.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 23, 2024

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources