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L'Air de la Louisiane

August 13, 2002

Heather Heilman
Michael DeMocker

Fais do do D.L. Menard was playing at a festival in Lafayette and the dance floor was full of people who looked like they'd learned the two-step from their mamas. In fact, several little boys and girls seemed to be in the process of learning to dance right there. I was looking on with envy at the dancers' skill when a man invited me onto the floor. He patiently guided me through the steps, and before long I was doing a fair imitation of Cajun dancing.

And who was this Cajun gentleman who taught me how to dance? He told me he was from Ohio, that he had learned to dance at a Cajun festival in New Mexico, and that this was his first trip to Louisiana. That's okay. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and it looked all right to me.

Some Questions

Who is a Cajun? Is a Cajun someone who is directly descended from the French settlers who were exiled from Acadia and settled in Louisiana between 1765 and 1785? Or does the term simply designate the white working class of southwestern Louisiana? Do you have to live in the swamp to be a Cajun? Do you have to speak French? Or is a Cajun someone who, when D.L. Menard sings "The Back Door," grabs a partner and two-steps across the dance floor? Who is a Creole? Are Creoles the descendents of the French plantation aristocracy, or the descendents of their slaves? Or must you have mixed ancestry to call yourself a Creole? What's the difference between Creole French and Cajun French? Does it lie in the speaker or the language? And will the difference matter if no one in Louisiana speaks French anymore?


Francophone Tom Klingler knows where to find fluent French speakers in Louisiana in senior citizens' centers and retirement homes. "To find a fluent French speaker you have to go to people who are in their 60s and 70s or older. There are a few little pockets where there are younger people who are pretty fluent, but not many," said Klingler, a professor of French linguistics at Tulane. His forthcoming book is a historic and linguistic portrait of the Creole French of Pointe Coupee Parish.

"It's a document of a language that is quickly disappearing. A good 25 percent of the people I interviewed have died," he said. When English language education became mandatory in Louisiana in 1916, parents became reluctant to teach French to their children. Those children, in turn, weren't able to teach it to their children even had they wanted to. Klingler teaches a class called Field Research on French in Louisiana, which is open to graduate and undergraduate students. The students travel to rural communities in the "French Triangle"with vertices at Alexandria, New Orleans and where the coast meets the Texas lineto interview French speakers.

The interviewees are asked to translate a series of sentences from English into French, targeting certain words and grammatical structures. Their research contributes to a larger project looking at Cajun and Creole as they are spoken in various parts of the state. Klingler is interested in sorting out the distinctions between what people call the variety of French that they speak and what their French is linguistically.

White Louisianans who speak French call their language Cajun and blacks who call themselves Creole also call their language Creole. But the language of many white speakers is linguistically Creole, and the language of many black speakers is pretty close to Cajun.

"When I talk about Creole language as opposed to Cajun language, I mean Cajun language as a particular French dialect, and Creole language as a contact language between French-speaking colonists and African slaves," Klingler said. "But in Opelousas, for example, most Creoles speak the same kind of French as the Cajuns. You've got two different labels, but linguistically it's virtually the same thing."

Klingler wants to make a more comprehensive study of Louisiana French while it's still around to study. "We're doing work in communities where Cajun, Creole and something close to metropolitan French are spoken," he said. "I'm interested in looking at a collection of those communities and studying the whole range of French varieties that are spoken there, and linking that to culture and ethnicity."

Despite the efforts of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), he's not that optimistic that Louisiana French will remain a living language. "Ultimately, the language is only going to be preserved if parents teach their children French, and that's not happening," he said. But don't worry, cher. Certain French words and phrases will likely be permanent fixtures in the language of south Louisiana. 

A Brief History Lesson For Those of Us Who Were Ignorant of Acadiana Before the Advent of Blackened Redfish

The French colony of Louisiana was founded in 1699. The region was sparsely populated with French-speaking Creoles (the word meant something like "homegrown" and was meant to distinguish those born in the colony from new arrivals) when the Acadians arrived between 1765 and 1785. They had been pushed out of Acadia, or Nova Scotia, when the British assumed control of that colony and pressured the French colonists to abandon their French allegiance or their land.

French speakers call their dispersal the Grand D'rangement. Although the Acadians resettled in isolated areas in the bayous and prairies of southwest Louisiana, their blood and their culture became increasingly mixed with that of the Native Americans they encountered, with immigrants from Germany and Spain, and with the other French speakers of the area. This included the descendants of slaves who called themselves Creoles and were developing a culture and an identity of their own.

The region's isolation helped it to retain its distinct culture even after it became part of the United States. But by the beginning of the 20th century, there was an emphasis on national unity that increased with the dawning of World War I. Cultural diversity was discouraged, and in 1916 mandatory English-language education became the law in Louisiana. In the classroom, children were forbidden to speak the only language they knew. The language began to seem somehow shameful, as did the distinct music and folkways of the region. French Louisiana's self image hit an all-time low.

Things began to improve in World War II, when Cajun and Creole soldiers discovered that their native tongue, which they had been told was nothing but a patois, was understood perfectly well in France and that their bilingualism was an asset. In the 1950s and '60s, Cajun pride grew into a movement, though at the same time black Creoles were probably more interested in the national civil rights movement than in preserving their culture. The later explosion of interest in all things Cajun helped to spur a renaissance of Creole culture as well.

In 1968, CODOFIL was formed and began to develop French-language education programs. Since there was a shortage of French-speaking teachers in the state, they began to import teachers from France and French Canada. This had an interesting consequence. The larger Francophone world became aware of its "lost colony." Since then, south Louisiana has become a hot destination for French scholars and tourists.

And somewhere in the '80s, the rest of America discovered French Louisiana. Thanks to Paul Prudhomme and Paul Simon, we Yankees learned to eat crawfish and blackened everything and tried to dance to zydeco. New Orleans, of course, is part of French Louisiana, though by virtue of being a large city it's many other things as well. It was never really a Cajun town, though it now sells all things Cajun to tourists.

Still, many things that are true of the country are true of the city as well. A hundred years ago French was widely spoken in New Orleans. Now, one hardly hears it at all. When he can find them, Tom Klingler interviews New Orleanians who grew up speaking French in order to document their speech.

Cajuns Tulane sociology professor Carl Bankston is the co-author of the forthcoming Blue Collar Bayou: Cajuns in the New Economy. The other author is Jacques Henry, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and one of those French scholars who came to the area to study French Louisiana.

"In the book we look at the evolution of Cajuns in Louisiana," Bankston said. "We argue that the term originated in the 19th century as a way of describing the rural poor of southwestern Louisiana." Although the word is a corruption of "Acadian," a middle-class person of Acadian descent would probably not have been referred to as a Cajun. It was a derogatory term, a regional equivalent to "poor white trash," and referred to people who worked as farmers, trappers and fishermen.

Today, people who identify themselves as Cajun are more likely to work in blue-collar jobs, but they still tend to work with people like themselves. Large numbers of self- identified Cajuns work in the oil industry of south Louisiana, for example. In fact, Bankston has begun work on a new project to look at whether the concentration of Cajuns in the oil industry is helping to preserve the language.

"The oil industry is playing something of the part that isolation played in the past. It's bringing people from a common background together so they maintain language and culture. We argue that one of the things that keeps them together as an ethnic group is the fact that they tend to be in similar occupations," he said. But many of those who are most interested in promoting and preserving the Cajun heritage, particularly the language, are middle-class Cajuns.

Bankston doesn't consider himself a Cajun"there's so many other things in the mix," he saidbut he has Cajun roots on one side of his family. A portrait of his grandmother's great grandfather, who was a merchant in Crowley, La., in the middle of the 19th century, dominates his office. One set of his grandparents lived in Lake Charles. 

"I can remember when I was a child going to visit older people who spoke no English," he said. And he understands the complicated mix of feelings that the term carried. "My grandmother would describe herself as Cajun in some contexts and as French in others. And she always insisted that the French she spoke was pure Parisian," he said.

Different people mean different things when they call themselves Cajun. To some it signifies the descendants of those who arrived in Louisiana from Acadia. To others it means a white Louisianan who speaks French, or just someone who adheres to a certain set of customs and attitudes.

"Today, there are a lot of Romeros and Schexnayders who call themselves Cajun," Bankston said. "New Iberia is called New Iberia for a reason. There was a Spanish colony there. The Cajuns seemed to be good at assimilating outsiders. People who moved into the region tended to marry into the dominant group, and at least until the 1920s that was the Cajuns."

Of course, people are more likely to want to call themselves Cajuns now that the term has increasingly become one of pride. In studying the history of the Cajuns, Bankston and Henry turned to written descriptions of people in Acadianaand in the early years those descriptions were written by outsiders and tended to be negative.

Yet somewhere along the way, Cajuns began to write about themselves. "Interestingly enough, we found that the insiders tended to take over many of the descriptions that the outsiders had used. But they would twist them around so that what was negative became positive," Bankston said.

Cajuns became proud of their struggles, their scrappy resourcefulness, their country ways, and their culturejust as they began to lose it. Creoles "Creole" is an even less well-defined term than "Cajun," but for purposes of this article it means the black and mixed-race people in French Louisiana who identify themselves as such. Although Creoles and Cajuns consider themselves distinct groups, the two cultures have profoundly influenced each other, which is not a surprise since they're both predominantly Catholic, have a Francophone heritage, and have shared the same landscape for centuries.

"Creoles have contributed enormously to things that are considered Cajun," Bankston said. Things like gumbo, for example, come from Africa by way of Haiti. Zydeco music, a Creole invention that uses distinctive instruments like the accordion and rub board, has influenced and been influenced by Cajun music so extensively that the border between the two has blurred. "Many Creoles object strongly to the culture of southwestern Louisiana being identified as Cajun because they feel it leaves them out," Bankston said.

But while no one would claim that French Louisiana is free of racial antagonism, Cajuns and Creoles seem to get along better and interact more than most white and black Americans who live in proximity to each other. A zydeco dance floor can be one of the most truly integrated places in America, not just racially but generationally. In fact, one trait that Cajuns and Creoles seem to have in common is the ease and speed with which they take to the dance floor.

Preservation and Commodification

As a transplanted Yankee, I'm always aware that I'm someplace different in southern Louisiana. The natural landscape has much to do with ityou don't find a lot of cypress swamps up north, nor can you buy crawfish or boudin or gamble away your traveling money at any truck stop along the highway. The culture is there if you look for it. If you scan past the Clear Channel radio stations emanating from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, you might find a deejay who speaks French and plays the chanka-chanka music.

But for natives, particularly natives who come home after being away, what's striking is the degree to which south Louisiana has become like everywhere else. Lafayette, the proclaimed heart of French Louisiana, is ringed with suburban subdivisions no different than Anywhere, USA. In Lafayette, you can shop at Wal-Mart and eat at Applebee's. You can also visit one of two "Cajun theme parks," sort of ersatz Cajun villages where visitors can wander through small slope-roofed houses like the ones built by the exiles from Acadia who first arrived in the area. 

"As American society and the American economy changes, people ask themselves who they are in an increasingly suburbanized world. When there's a crisis of identity, people look to their ancestors and what they understand about the past to say where they come from and who they are," Bankston said.

It seems that the people of southwest Louisiana made a collective decision to preserve their culture by celebrating itand these are people who can party without peer. These days in the French triangle, you can find a festival almost any weekend dedicated to celebrating some aspect of the region's French heritage. There are courirs de Mardi Gras, zydeco festivals, crawfish festivals, Cajun joke-telling contests, you name it. And the celebration isn't confined within the state line.

Cajun and zydeco musicians travel across the country and throughout Europe at festivals dedicated to the music of French Louisiana. These festivals are largely responsible for keeping the region's culture alive, but at the same time they change the culture by turning it into a commodity. That's not intended as an insultit might be that the only things that can survive the onslaught of our consumer culture are things that can be sold. Many of the buyers, maybe most of them, are outsiders.

For those of us who grew up in the blandness of suburbia, the culture of French Louisiana is extremely attractive. "Part of the appeal of things like Cajun festivals is that we can get a vicarious connection to other people's past," Bankston said. "Not only can they romanticize it, but we can romanticize it with them." And you don't have to be American to romanticize it, either.

In France, there is a popular series of romance novels set in Acadiana. If you hear French spoken in a store or restaurant in Louisiana, it's as likely to come from the mouth of a French tourist as a local. If they arrive expecting to speak French with most of the people they meet, or encounter much that they would recognize as French culture, they will be disappointed.

French Louisiana is far more American than it is French. Even so, the region does seem to be in the process of re-linking itself to the rest of the French-speaking world in a way that may help it retain its distinct identity.

The culture of French Louisiana is changing and will continue to change. But that's a sign that it's alive and viable. Many of the things that we think of as icons of the culture are themselves relatively new inventions. "Blackened redfish demands kitchen equipment that most 18th-century Louisianans didn't have. There's a certain amount of invention of heritage," Bankston observed. He believes some things will remain constant.

"Most young women will learn how to make a roux from their mothers. Hunting and fishing will still be common activities. Things like that will hang on even as southwestern Louisiana becomes more suburbanized," he said. And people will still learn to two-step, either from their mothers or from strangers at a music festival. Et toi!

Heather Heilman is an editor in University Publications and a regular contributor to Tulanian.


Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000