New Orleans, Old Story
by Margot Pepper
They came shackled, scarred, half-drowned on Yemaya's back:
queen mother of the sea;
children like limbs, severed,
settled by Oshun, the Mississippi river;
clandestine gods and shells stowed behind catholic crosses:
vadu, voodoo, santería.
Where once sweat lodge smoke smudged the view
an auction block now stood.
And so, the great city rose up, multiplied–
cries of birth pains muffled in traffic,
throaty blues and hypnotic jazz,
generations layering bones of the dead–
Natchez, Atakapa, Chitimachan, Tunican, Houma bones.
Ten thousand years
'til 1519 came Panfilo de Navarez
trading small pox-infected blankets for gold;
came German peasants; Spanish-French creoles;
came British-fleeing Cajuns with Jambalya and gumbo feasts,
turtle sauce piquante, andoille sausage, crawfish etouifee
rich as the medley of arriving cultures.
Behind impressive desks for amassing armies, parting nations,
pale suited men clucked at cracks in a levy trickling coins
from the overdue jackpot of taxpayer money.
Came the rains, came torrents;
cyclonic winds of a planet spinning out of balance.
Greed's weight crumbling levies.
Snatching up treasures and flesh,
Oshun grew black and thick as blood;
a foul smelling stew harboring drowned infant dreams,
futures now floating corpses.
An old man's ebony hand gripping his life-long companion's
like a captain holding his line to the main sail in a fierce storm,
"You can't hold me. Nothing can. Take good care of the kids!" she
cried, as the current, Oshun, claimed his new bride.
Each day, the Jefferson Parish emergency management man
Phoned his mother trapped in St. Bernard nursing home.
"You coming, son? Is somebody coming?"
"Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you Tuesday."
"Mama, somebody's coming to get you Wednesday."
Friday night she was dead.
At last, having arrived at the government's promised Superdome land,
somebody's great-grandfather, uncle, husband and son
died in his lawn chair awaiting help.
Guards locked down jails and fled.
Prisoners, including un-convicted,
stood on cots shoulder-deep in sewage.
On the outside, free citizens stood on rooftops,
waving unshackled arms at TV cameras.
Still, came no cavalry,
came no helicopter fleets,
no campaigns air-dropped food
despite world-envied abundance;
only INS raids.
For how did the great nation amass such riches?
Was it pride which denied
1,600 doctors and 80 tons of medical supplies
more from Venezuela, Germany and France?
as pyramid scheme on dollar's shadow-side,
–built on now-shattered Third World backbones–
requiring new columns.
Homeland Security contracts to evacuate holdouts.
DynCorp, Blackwater, Wackenhut: with resumes in faraway ethnic cleansing, money laundering and sex
slave trafficking; congregated in St. James and Bourbon bar,
scattering to the streets mattresses, dresses, photos,
a fluffy white play bunny,
draped an American flag from the balcony.
And so without the trouble of eviction notices,
the dwellers of the coveted real estate—
mardi gras, bayou, crickets and cicada symphonies—
abandoned the city built by their ancestors,
As mud lines marked the water's descent on sides of buildings and cars,
Bodyguard and Tactical Security boasted about killing
African American males on a Ninth Ward overpass.
"This is a trend," spat a Blackwater mercenary.
"You're going to see a lot more guys like us."
buses tearing hundreds of sobbing, voiceless little ones from parents
triggering grandparent flashbacks of slave-holder kidnappings
the previous century or
Australian welfare officer kidnappings of Aboriginal children
the previous decade.
Over 5,000 missing infant and children claims;
6,000 more missing persons.
At a hearing, a senator commands Granny
to stop calling the government's feces-turfed Superdome a concentration
camp."Why? We were tortured. Many of my family members were killed!"
At long last, they came, White House representatives and FEMA guests:
the vice president's Halliburton corp and Disney
gathering all the fractured dream shards and ruptured promises
for burial under the shiny machinery of a New Orleans theme park.
Oh, great Sea Yemayá and River Oshun,
take pity on those innocent of the cancer in your waters.
They are but indentured servants to those melting polar icecaps.
The ones you would punish own
the SUV's patrolling the city with full blast air-conditioning.
"But we are not punishing anyone," they respond.
"We are, simply, that is all.
Our ebb and flow brings death, as well as life;
chaos, calamity and rejoicing.
Afterall,was it not your economic system which caused this tragedy?"
Mexican-born Margot Pepper's work has been published internationally by
the Utne Reader, Monthly Review, Z-net, Counterpunch, the San Francisco
Bay Guardian, City Lights, Hampton Brown and others. Her memoir,
Through the Wall: A Year in Havana, was a top nomination for the 2006
American Book Award.
By permission of author