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Profiling Vicky Cintra and MIRA, a Gulf Coast Relief Fund Partner
It gets hot in the gulf towns of Mississippi early in the spring, at least by a Northerner's thermostat. In May, it was up into the 90's during the day, warm, humid, sun beating down—not the kind of weather in which you'd want to be sleeping in a drain pipe. Or a metal storage container. But that's what plenty of people in Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula, and other gulf towns are doing, explained Vicky Cintra, organizing coordinator of the Gulf Coast office of MIRA (the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance).
When Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of life as it had been in the Gulf Coast region, it washed away casinos, condos, private homes, restaurants, and businesses, and slammed gambling barges into piers and cars into the sand. It was an equal opportunity destruction machine, and the damage done isn't close to being undone even now, one year after the storm hit.
But the rebuilding is well under way. Mississippi put a priority on reopening its gambling casinos and hotels—an important source of revenue in a state that is struggling to restore its economic base. So the construction cranes are busy on the Gulf Coast, setting iron girders in concrete, clearing the wreckage of the destroyed casinos, and starting to build hotels once again so that the high rollers can come back. The luxury homes are being rebuilt as well, right on the coast, some of those homes bigger and more opulent than they were before the storm.
When the Katrina hit, it took away plenty, but among the losses was the local labor force of construction workers. They scattered to other communities, and now the private homeowners and the corporations need labor to get their structures rebuilt in time to capitalize on the fine fall weather the Gulf Coast is known for and to lure back the tourists they hope will return. And so workers have come from other countries, eager for the opportunity to earn much needed funds, many of them imported by the corporations themselves.These people are hoping for what America has always promised—a chance to work hard, earn some money, and build a better life.
Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out well in many cases. Vicky Cintra, who was raised in Cuba, speaks perfect Spanish and has the tenacity of a bulldog, runs MIRA, an organization that seeks to support the immigrant community of workers who are key in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. In far too many cases, these workers have been mistreated, robbed of funds they are entitled to, forced to sleep in drain pipes, storage units, or under railroad tracks, and denied basic health and human service benefits that Americans have come to expect.
When we sat in Cintra's office in May, she interviewed three workers from the Dominican Republic who had been cheated out of their money by a private homeowner for whom they'd been working for months. Another worker on the same job had fallen from a ladder, injured his back, and been denied a claim to worker's compensation by the homeowner. In short order Cintra - interviewed the workers about their experiences and informed them of their rights and of the services offered by MIRA. She told them to memorize the phone number for MIRA, and to make sure that they told their friends to call if they felt they were not being fairly treated or were being deprived of wages. And she called a lawyer who accepts MIRA cases—not pro bono, but at a fair price—to interview the injured worker and to begin court proceedings to force the homeowner to cover the worker's medical expenses.
Cintra told us story after story of how she and MIRA workers and volunteers have had to picket major hotel corporations to fight for the wages the workers deserve. She described how the corporations set up two lines for people seeking employment—one with application forms in English that state their wages and rights, and one with forms in Spanish that had deleted the information on legal rights and fair compensation. Her accounts were echoed in our interviews with people living in Louisiana who told of being offered jobs at wages lower than they had made before Katrina hit, and then being informed that if they did not accept the positions, immigrant workers were ready to take the jobs at lower wages. One person said she was told by a contractor who bragged of hiring immigrant workers, "They work all day and don't even ask for lunch!"
The plight of immigrant workers in the Gulf Coast leaves them, and the residents who have remained after Katrina and now seek work, in an unfortunate conundrum. The immigrant workers have come to offer labor sorely needed by the Gulf Coast. They seek fair and humane wages and benefits. Yet time after time, they are denied that dignified existence. Vicky Cintra is not optimistic: "These people continue to sleep in the woods because they can't get housing, and they continue to be denied medical services even on an emergency basis," she said.
Cintra made it clear that as long as that's the case, she, her husband Elvis, and dozens of other MIRA activists will be outside on the hot streets of Biloxi and other Gulf Coast communities, picketing, shaming employers into paying workers what they deserve, and agitating for what is right in a country that was built on the backs of people who believed America was a land of fairness and opportunity.
This is the ongoing work of the Gulf Coast Relief Fund, funded by donations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We are proud to count MIRA as a partner in the effort to restore the Gulf Coast and to allow people from the region to return to their homes and lead dignified, decent lives.
The UUA's Deborah Weiner visited the Gulf Coast in May. This profile is one of three focusing on partners funded through the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund.