National Latino advocacy group kicks off conference

The annual meeting of the nation’s largest Latino advocacy and civil rights organization begins Saturday in New Orleans.

The National Council of La Raza, will host free seminars — workshops on issues important to the Latino community — at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center through Tuesday, concluding with a speech from first lady Michelle Obama.

The conference is the largest annual gathering of leaders, organizations and companies with impact on that community.

About 5,000 people have registered to attend the four-day event. Another 15,000 to 20,000 are expected at the National Latino Family Expo, a free event with exhibits from more than 200 artists, grocery stores, banks, small businesses and other resource providers, the organization’s spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said.

The advocacy group decided to hold its meeting in New Orleans, a city with a much-smaller Latino community than the places where it usually meets, in part to honor the Latino workers who helped to put New Orleans back together following Hurricane Katrina, Mayorga said. The group’s president had promised shortly after the storm that the conference would come here as soon as a slot came open in its rotation.

“We are so excited to be making good on that promise,” Mayorga said.

The organization also wanted to spotlight the growing Latino community in New Orleans.

“So many people say ‘New Orleans? I didn’t know there were Latinos there,’ ” Mayorga said. “We hope that after this conference no one will even question whether there is a Latino community in New Orleans.”

About 5 percent of residents of Orleans and St. Tammany parishes are Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The largest population of Hispanic or Latino residents in the metro area is in Jefferson Parish, where they make up 13 percent of the population.

The metro area’s Hispanic and Latino population has both grown and diversified since Hurricane Katrina ushered in thousands of people to help with the rebuilding effort here. Before the storm, the city’s Hispanic residents were mostly from Central American countries like Honduras and Nicaragua. It now includes more people from South America, said Jordan Shannon, policy advocacy coordinator for Puentes New Orleans, the local La Raza affiliate. Puentes was created in 2007 to advocate for the growing community.

“We started to see some language barriers that were cropping up in schools, in hospitals and elsewhere that the city wasn’t necessarily prepared to confront,” Shannon said. Puentes will sponsor seminars on race relations, immigration, education health and civic engagement during the conference. A workshop on crime and safety in the Latino community will focus exclusively on New Orleans and Philadelphia.

Also on the agenda are seminars on housing discrimination and workforce development.

As the overall Hispanic community has grown and changed over the last several years, so has the business community, said Darlene Kattan, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana. Although restaurants, grocery stores and other food-related businesses still make up the bulk of Hispanic businesses, accounting firms and insurance companies are now following them here.

“Years ago we wouldn’t have seen all of this variety,” Kattan said. “Now you see this economy that’s really starting to take off like a locomotive and people want to be a part of it.”

The National Council of La Raza meeting is one of several gatherings of Hispanic and Latino groups meeting in the city this year. The Latino fraternity Lambda Theta Phi and sorority Lamda Theta Alpha both held annual meetings here last week. The National Association of Hispanic Nurses will be here in August.