|My journey as a Cajun/Acadian/Franco-American
By Elaine F. Clément, Louisiana
I was born in the later 1950's in
the small port town of Morgan City, Louisiana, on the Atchafalaya River,
basically at the bottom of the Atchafalaya Basin, surrounded by water and
family and Catholics. Those were the most significant things for
me when I was young. I had all of the evidence around me of being
French, Cajun and Acadian, but no one who could explain what it all meant.
My dad told my four siblings and I that we were just a bunch of coonasses. Coonass was a word developed by the greater Anglo-American community to describe the Cajuns, and is heavily used all over the South as a putdown, but particularly in the oil industry.* He told us that it meant we were Hines 57, because we also had German and Irish ancestry, and he hinted at the possibility of other ancestors, native American or African. He would say coonass with a mixture of pride and self-denigration. He had clearly gotten the message that he did not have the right to call himself either Acadian or Cajun, perhaps also because he didn't speak French. In a strange way it gave him something to be, in essence he was fighting assimilation, and being a coonass for him included some pride in who he was, and in a strange way, it touches me that he was trying to transmit to us what he had left of his culture.
Family was everywhere. My great-grandmother, Mama Berniard, my mom's mom's mom, was the matriarch of the family, and we would often get together at her house for meals, to watch parades, to visit. So I grew up playing with my 3rd and 4th cousins and it was just expected that we know them all and our relationship to them. I liked having so much family, and I loved visiting Mama Berniard's house because she had a screened in front porch with what seemed to me a hundred rocking chairs, but was more like 8 or 10, always filled with young people and visitors hanging on the steps and running in and out of the house.
The Catholic Church was everywhere also. I went to Catholic schools through 4th grade until it became too expensive. Everybody we associated with was Catholic. Probably 90%+ of the population of Morgan City was Catholic. We went to church every Sunday, one day a week at school, the first Friday of every month. Mom learned how to decorate cakes, and her specialty was First Communion cakes, with a host, a chalice and her specialty: grape vines. I remember we had a birthday cake one year at Christmas for Jesus, and we sang Happy Birthday to him first thing in the morning. One year, she and my Dad made several Christmas tree decorations by taking biblical references and creating ornaments out of sequins and Styrofoam. We had Jonah in the whale, Jacob's Ladder, etc.
I was at the same time in awe of my mom and completely terrified of her. At some point in my youth, she began rewriting the Catholic Church. If something didn't make sense to her, she would just ignore it or do it the way it made sense to her. After her 5th child and 5th Caesarian, she decided that she needed to go on the pill. I remember going to a cousin's wedding on a Saturday morning, and we were informed on the way home that she was certainly not going to dress 5 children a second time and that the wedding Mass had fulfilled our Sunday obligation. Now it all seems just practical decisions she was making, but at the time those were major decisions for a Southern Cajun French Catholic woman to make. On my part, I think I equated her with God, because she was changing God's laws.
A black woman took care of me and my siblings for the first couple of weeks after our birth. Other than that, we literally had no contact with the black community. De-segregation in the late 1960's was my first opportunity to get to know black young folks. There was also a large Italian population, and I remember them being different but again they were Catholic.
Since Morgan City was a port town, there were lots of folks from elsewhere and lots of Americans as Anglo-Americans are sometimes referred to here. So English was the dominant language. My great-grandmother and her family would speak French among themselves when they went home to their small home town of Napoleonville, but once they arrived in Morgan City, it was nothing but English except for a few words. Although it's interesting to me that all around Morgan City within 5-10 miles, it was and is almost all French heritage and French-speaking. Lots of people here in Lafayette and surrounding areas will tell you stories about arriving at school not knowing English and being punished for speaking French. I didn't hear those stories in my family. They just quit speaking.
I somehow knew that French was Mama Berniard's first language as well as that of my dad's grandmother, Mama Dicky. I just recently figured out that they must have read and wrote French because I have both of their French prayer books. My dad tells the story about Mama Dicky that there were 2 women from France in the town near where she lived who were illiterate in French and they would bring their letters from home and Mama Dicky would read them to the two ladies. My Dad remembers them discussing the letters and telling my great-grandmother how to respond. She would then write the reply in French. My Dad was born in 1935, so this would have been early to mid 1940's.
We also speak here what some people call Cajun English. Even though I never heard Mama Berniard speak French and we certainly never even thought of speaking to each other, I did know what frissons meant and she would always fuss about all that créyasse (sp?) I had, referring to my long and thick hair. I later found out that that meant a horse's tail. When Dad would yell Viens voir ici, you knew to move pretty quickly. And I later added to my vocabulary. Quit boudéing, I'm honte, en plat, etc., etc.
I decided I wanted to study languages and French in particular when I was 13. I realized recently that that was in the middle of desegregation of the schools and about the time I had spent a year of my life getting to know black young people for the first time in my life. It gave me a broader and sometimes sadder picture of the world, and helped me to see that there were many cultures in the world and many ways of seeing the world and how limited my world had been to that point.
I went on to study French in high school and college. When I was in high school, we moved to the town of Houma, which is where my mom's dad, my Papa Guidry, was born. I loved it and flourished. People where I went to high school down the bayou were much less assimilated. French was much more open and evident. Our high school president would say the pledge of allegiance every morning with a decidedly Cajun French accent. It just solidified my love of French and my future of pursuing the language.
I studied French in college, got a chance to study abroad in France and Moncton, New Brunswick, got side-tracked by law school and practicing law for several years, wandered around several more until I went to the Congrès Mondial Acadien in New Brunswick in 1994.
It was a turning point in my life. Coming home. It was a bit like finding my family after many years. I cried at the Sommet des Femmes at the 1st Congrès when I saw so many women stand up proudly as Acadians. It is not something I had seen up to that point in my life. I went to the Bernard family reunion outside Moncton, I went home (Houston at that point), moved back to Lafayette, went to work for CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana), and organized the Sommet des Femmes for the Congrès in Louisiana in 1999.
My years back in Louisiana have been a wonderful opportunity to learn what no one could explain to me growing up of being Cajun, Acadian and French. That the Guidry`s were Acadian, what it means to grow up biculturally, to be Franco-American in Louisiana, to struggle to reclaim your own language and the joy of mastering it, reclaiming my family on many levels, Cajun, Acadian, French-speaking, African American, Native American, American, the human family.
I helped write my current job description (Community Outreach Coordinator) at CODOFIL. I wanted to reclaim all that it meant to be Franco-American and I wanted to learn from lots of people around the state what that meant for them. I spent a lot of time the first year in my job just visiting as many of the communities around the state as possible, just to get to know people and start building relationships and links between the communities. My favorite part remains listening to people's stories.
What I learned is that we are such a unique and beautiful people. Our persistence and Catholic faith and family connections and our joie de vivre are the reasons we have survived al of these years. We are good, honest, hard-working, deeply-caring people. We are very smart and industrious. We love to laugh and dance and play music. And at the same time, our isolation and fear and mistrust because of our history keep us from remembering how powerful and smart we are and how connected to each other. We've had no other option than to survive for so long that I think we don't often consider the possibility that we no longer have to. We've survived; we can live and even thrive now.
I had the chance to visit the Franco-American communities in Maine for 10 days this past July. That's another story, but what I learned from my trip is that we are the same people. OK, I speak southern English, but what I heard in French was very similar to the French I hear and am learning to speak in Louisiana. I saw the same values, the same sense of humor (everyone laughed at my jokes), the same family connection, hard-working, creative, persistent people.
. Je suis fière d'être Cadienne/Acadienne/ Franco-Américaine Catholique.
*Morgan City is what I like to call
the working class or guts of the oil and gas industry. It's where
a lot of the supply companies have their offices, and where offshore workers
go to catch supply boats or helicopters to go out to the rigs.
Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture
Atchafalaya refers to both a river and a large wetlands region; the name derives from the Choctaw hacha falaia, meaning "Long River." The river itself serves as a major distributary of the Mississippi and Red rivers, and runs through a swampy wetlands called the Atchafalaya Basin, which is about twenty miles in width and one hundred and fifty in length. Since the eighteenth century, a small number of Cajun fishermen and trappers have depended on the basin and river for their livelihoods. During the Civil War, the region provided a hiding place for Cajun conscript evaders. Although a misconception holds that Cajuns primarily inhabit swamps like the Atchafalaya, the basin remains largely unpopulated, except by wildlife, including three hundred bird species, as well as crawfish, shrimp, crabs, frogs, snakes, nutrias, beavers, raccoons, foxes, alligators, and black bears. It is used, however, by weekend sportsmen, Cajun and non-Cajun alike, whose camps line its fringes and elevated enclaves. Tourists flock to the basin's "swamp tours" and seafood restaurants. Spanned by an 18-mile elevated section of Interstate 10, the basin is enclosed by artificial levees on its eastern and western sides. During major floods, the region serves as a containment area for rising waters.
Sources: Abington et al., Louisiana:
A Geography; Bradshaw, History of Acadiana (St. Martin Parish); Fry and
Posner, Cajun Country; Newton, Atlas of Louisiana.
|For more information on CODOFIL|
Southeast Louisiana Coast between Atchafalaya
Bay and Grand Isle