A Creole Revival in Louisiana
In Louisiana, Creole culture is growing in popularity, even as the number of French speakers declines. But a new generation is fighting against the odds to preserve their traditional dialect.
In the woozy June heat outside Lafayette, Louisiana, Grant Vercher winds up and casts his rod into a swamp, making a splash. His friend Brian Klingman does the same, but when he yanks at the line to come back, it won’t budge — it’s stuck in the thick grasses ubiquitous to southern Louisiana. Klingman promptly dives in to release his hook.
Both men identify as Cajun, descendants of the Acadians that settled in Louisiana after being expelled from the Maritimes in the 18th-century Grand Dérangement. But they don’t speak much French. “I wish I would have learned more, because it’s really something that’s dying,” said Vercher, showing off the fleur-de-lys tattoo on his ribcage.
Emerging from the water, a soaking-wet Klingman chimes in: “You know you’re Cajun when you wake up with a hangover and you still go for the crawfish in the fridge.”
These men are part of growing Cajun, or more accurately, Creole, pride in Louisiana. Contrary to a common narrative, a new school of historians argues that all Cajuns are Creoles, a term historically used for people born in Louisiana that are Roman Catholic and speak either French, Kouri-Vini, or Spanish natively, though the groups were divided along racial lines in the 20th century.
Today it’s “absolutely cool” if your ancestors spoke Louisiana French, says Bennett Boyd Anderson III, a 24-year-old Lafayette-born student. “It’s actually cool to the point where you have people that really aren’t descended from Acadians at all or people who just moved to the area 30 or 40 years ago that really kind of claim this Cajun label,” he said.
As I drove across what’s been dubbed “Acadiana” in 2018, I noticed many more fleurs-de-lys like the one on the fisher’s rib cage: on flags over gas stations serving boudin sausages, on bottles of Cajun spice, and on trucks sporting the logo of the New Orleans Saints football team. Odes to the culture — some more authentic than others — were there in the food, too, such as when I trawled my fingers through a giant pile of red crawfish heaped on a table, gnawed on a turkey leg at Glenda’s Creole Kitchen, and, yes, ate fried ‘gator. The heritage was most vivid when dancing to accordion and fiddle music at the Blue Moon Saloon and on a Creole trail ride, where Black cowboys trot through the streets, beer in hand, partying to an infectious mix of zydeco music and hip-hop into the night.
But while I saw expressions of French-speaking heritage everywhere, rarely did I hear anyone speak the language or see it on any signs. “Unlike Québec or other places in Canada, you don’t see any signage in Louisiana in French,” Anderson explains, adding that those who speak French probably can’t read or write it because it wasn’t offered at schools until recently. “It’s very much an invisible language.”
Don’t drop the potato
After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Americanization and English-speaking jobs took precedence over French, Kouri-Vini (an endangered Creole language), and Spanish. In 1921 the state’s lingua franca was enshrined with a law forcing all school-age kids to attend English classes. The stereotype that speaking a language other than English was a sign of poverty only made matters worse.
The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), founded in 1968, tried to stop the bleeding by offering French lessons, but instead ended up adding to the local dialect’s destruction by almost exclusively hiring European teachers. CODOFIL has since rectified this issue by hiring local teachers and offering more immersion classes than ever, but it’s tough to stop a boulder that’s already tumbling downhill. There are no recent figures for exactly how many people speak French in the state, but Louisiana Creole historian Christophe Landry estimates it’s between 50,000 and 100,000, out of a total population of more than 4.5 million.
Against the odds, young people like Anderson are fighting to keep Louisiana French alive. He started a French-language online journal, Le Bourdon de la Louisiane, and two twenty-somethings recently started a French online TV station called Télé-Louisiane. There are various podcasts including Nous NOLA, French bookstores in Lafayette and New Orleans, and an array of festivals celebrating the language and culture like the Festival Acadiens et Créoles and Festival International de Louisiane. “I’m not saying that the future of Louisiana French is rosy, don’t get me wrong, but to me, the series of changes that we’re seeing is clearly positive as opposed to negative,” Anderson said.
“The only question is,” he added, “in what sphere is French going to continue to be a language of use?”
French isn’t going to be the first language spoken at grocery stores, shops, and churches across Louisiana any time soon, and the enticement of English-speaking jobs is no less present in a state that’s one of America’s poorest per capita. But Anderson believes those who learn the language now will boost the state’s tourism industry, act as a bridge between the U.S. and French-speaking countries around the world, and most crucially, preserve the culture.
Anderson recalls an expression his French-speaking grandmother used to say that fits perfectly with the struggle to keep French alive in Louisiana: “lâche pas la patate.”
“I think that that’s everybody’s preoccupation,” he said. “Nobody wants to ‘drop the potato.’ The desire to go on is there.”
Joel Balsam is a Montréal-based freelance journalist and travel guidebook author. His work has appeared in National Geographic, the Guardian, TIME, CBC, Lonely Planet, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with his latest work @joelbalsam.
Stephanie Foden is a Montréal-based freelance documentary photographer who has shot stories for National Geographic, the New York Times, the Guardian, ESPN, and more. Follow her on Instagram to keep up with her latest work @stephaniefoden.