Different Sanctuaries


First Person

Jane Brewster, Houses on the Bayou, 2008.


Just about every Tuesday, I play soccer in City Park. Our pickup matches are in the back, behind the New Orleans Museum of Art. My first few weeks in the city, I only joined the ones out front, which were mostly made up of oil-and-gas types, or parents, or younger white dudes.

One day, during a halfway decent set, a couple of Honduran guys settled on the grass to watch. Afterward, they asked what the fuck I was doing. Was I up for a real game? They told me they needed forwards. Maybe they could use me for a set, they said. Their English was a little slow, and eventually I switched to Spanish, and that’s when their eyes almost popped out of their heads.

Being black and speaking anything but English in this country can do that. After living in Houston, I’d picked up pieces of Spanish, mostly to talk to boys, but also because it fuels the city, one that’s nearly half Latino and just about seven hours from the border. Mexico’s culture is virtually inextricable from Houston—the further east you drive, you’ll hit taquerias and cantinas ad infinitum. I started spending most of my time out that way, but never once was I treated like an outsider, or el pinche gringo negro. Everyone treated me like I was home. 

New Orleans, meanwhile, is home to the largest Honduran community in the States. Their sway over the culture dates to the late nineteenth century, before the United Fruit Company’s relocation to 321 Saint Charles Avenue. Despite keeping their headquarters in Louisiana, the company grew their bananas in Honduras (prompting O. Henry to deem the country a “banana republic”). On the heels of the country’s turmoil, a trail of émigrés followed over the decades, surging after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. More recently, after Katrina, a couple thousand more Hondurans arrived in the parish, without whom the city wouldn’t have been rebuilt nearly as quickly. A lot of white folks simply weren’t about to do that work. And once the Bush administration relaxed some of the city’s labor laws, a loose system was in place for newcomers to build new lives of their own.

Nowadays, the community is spread throughout the city’s limits—from the suburbs of Kenner and Metairie to the parish’s expanses in the east. Some parks are privy to all-Latino sports leagues, and Mid-City hosts markets and food trucks along the street car, and there aren’t too many Honduran restaurants nestled across the city but somehow everyone knows where to find a baleada. Every few blocks, you’ll pass gaggles of men with brown bags or mothers waiting for buses or kids keeled over in laughter, and if there’s anything particularly exceptional about these vignettes, it’s that they’re reminiscent of elsewhere—but really you’re just in New Orleans.

That next week, I joined the match behind the museum. Thirty seconds in, it was obvious I’d made a mistake. The players were mainly Honduran, most of them nearly a decade older, but their speed wouldn’t have told you so. They played devastatingly proficient to a man. My team started passing me the ball, and I immediately started losing it. After it was swept from my feet a fourth time, our goalie left his post to suggest I settle in on defense.

He was around my age. He took the time to point out the playmakers. Across the field, someone would rattle a call in Spanish, and he’d repeat it for me just a little slower. After the game, I thanked him, and he introduced himself as Ramiro, saying I’d catch up eventually.

He was wrong, but I got a little better, and I never went back to those games out front. Eventually, occasionally, they started passing me the ball again. I kept showing up, and the play felt less and less intense. Some more months passed, and then the election happened—my sense of gravity shifted, and soccer was the last thing on my mind.

But that next week, I showed up anyway, wondering if anyone else would. And of course they did, and the game was rough—we played faster, harder, until we devolved into obvious fouls. Stray cleats collided with shins. Two defenders plowed into a midfielder on the pitch. Once, after a header brought the ball soaring over our shoulders, a man leaped to top it off, only to find himself crushed on both ends.

But that’s when a strange thing happened: every player on the field slowed down. We took the time to help our guy up. We checked on him, made sure he was good.

Once, after knocking me on my ass, a graying man broke his stride to lift me up.

Todo bien, he said, and I affirmed. Then he nodded, and I nodded, and we started again.


One day, eating lunch by some benches of the university I work at, I ran into Ramiro. He was wearing track shorts and a hoodie. He nodded my way and took a seat beside me, and he asked why the hell I was wearing a name tag.

He’d been studying engineering. What he’d really been interested in was social work. But there’s wasn’t any money in that, he said, and he hadn’t come here to be broke.

Ramiro made it to North America as a kid. He’d ridden La Bestia from Guatemala, after walking there from Honduras, taking the freight train with his uncle and a sister across Mexico. After many months, once they’d made it out of Texas and through a stint in Los Angeles, he’d ended up in Louisiana. He’d learned English in California. He’d mopped gas stations in Gretna. In the Ninth Ward, he swept porches, caught chickens, and cleaned fruit. He’d applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in high school and got it, and I learned his story in bits and pieces over the next few weeks. Mostly we talked about his professors and trap music and hangovers, or whatever financial ailments we’d been negotiating or some egregious play I’d made the week before.

Once, I asked if he planned on staying in the States or if he ever thought about going back home, and he looked at me like I’d just propositioned him.

Where the fuck would I go, he said. This is me now. I’m an American.

He asked if I ever thought about going back to Africa. I told him I did not.

We had lunch again a little while ago, after the president had issued his executive order on sanctuary cities and the mayor of New Orleans had insisted that he would not lead a deportation army. I didn’t want to ask Ramiro how he felt about all that, because I was pretty sure I knew, but I told him I’d noticed he hadn’t been on the field in a while.

He looked at me and laughed. He told me he’d been busy. I’ve been here, he said, opening his arms, taking everything in. I’ve been trying not to waste any time.


Bryan Washington divides his time between Houston and New Orleans. He is working on a collection of short stories.