by Carl L. Bankston III, Tulane University
The Laotian Population of Louisiana
Laotians were Louisianas
second largest Southeast Asian group, after the Vietnamese. The numbers of
Laotians were not recorded in the initial versions of the 2000 Census, but
it may be estimated that there were four to five thousand of them in the state.
Iberia Parish held the greatest concentration of Laotians, since about 1,000
of them lived there. The Iberia Parish Laotians resided primarily in the city
of New Iberia or in a Laotian settlement just north of the city near the boundary
with Lafayette Parish. Outside of Iberia Parish, most Louisiana Laotians lived
in the large cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, or in the suburbs of Jefferson
Parish around New Orleans.
History of Migration and Settlement Refugees began to leave Laos
in large numbers in the Spring of 1975, when Communists gained control of
the government of Laos and proclaimed the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.
Most of the refugees fled to Thailand. In the late 1970s, the United States
Government began to accept large numbers of Laotians for resettlement in the
United States. The Government employed non-governmental voluntary agencies
to find homes and American sponsors for the newcomers. Agencies such as the
U.S. Catholic Conference began to place some Laotians in Louisiana, with the
largest influx at the beginning of the 1980s. About half of the foreign-born
people of Laotian ethnicity in Louisiana in 1990 had arrived in the years
1980 and 1981. The creation of a large Laotian
community in Iberia Parish in the early 1980s, and the growth of other Southeast
Asian communities outside the New Orleans area, emerged from new job opportunities
produced by the oil boom and by federal funding for job training. In Iberia,
in 1980, Redfox Industries began providing training to do welding, pipefitting,
and other forms of skilled labor, using funds made available under the federal
Comprehensive Training and Employment Act (CETA). When a few Laotians learned
of this training, and the jobs that followed it, word of available employment
spread through ethnic networks and others began moving to the region. In 1987,
the Laotians of Iberia Parish built a Buddhist temple north of New Iberia
and streets named after provinces in Laos were laid out in front of it. The
temple and the neighborhood around it became a cultural center for Laotians
around the state.
Economic Activities Partly as a result of the
concentration in jobs such as welding, Louisianas Laotian population
has been heavily represented in skilled crafts. In 1990, over half of the
Laotians in the state were classified by the U.S. Census as operators, fabricators,
and laborers, compared to only 15% of all Louisianians. While many Laotian
men worked as skilled workers in the oil industry, many of the women worked
in textile factories in Southwestern Louisiana. Fishing and shrimping also
provided jobs to a sizeable proportion of the states Laotians. Over
one out of every ten members of the group and over one out of every five men
worked as fishers, although less than one percent of all Louisiana workers
were in fishing.
During the 1990s, Laotians
increasingly moved into self-employment in small businesses. In New Iberia,
many Laotians established themselves as owners of small grocery stores, often
specializing in Asian foods. Restaurants provided another avenue to self-employment.
Louisiana Laotian restaurateurs often served Thai or Chinese food, since these
were more familiar than the food of Laos to non-Laotian customers and both,
especially Thai food, are similar to the cuisine of Laos.