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Cha Chas Preserve a Generations-Old Identity

Charles Hillinger's America

April 12, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

FRENCHTOWN, Virgin Islands — Locals call this tiny fishing village on St. Thomas Island "Cha Cha Town."

That's because, years ago, ancestors of French-American Virgin Islanders who live here often responded with the unfriendly term cha cha when other islanders kidded them about their dress. Their clothes usually included black-and-calico shirts and trousers rolled halfway up their legs.

They also were teased about their unique patois, a mixture of French, Creole and English.

The fishermen's responses--in their patois, a suggestion as to where the other person might go--earned them the nickname of Cha Chas, and their village became known as Cha Cha Town.

The names stuck.

"They call us Cha Chas or Frenchies," explained Francis Bryan, 34, one of the fishermen. "They are friendly nicknames. We call ourselves both names. It's like calling an American a Yank."

The Cha Chas of St. Thomas Island are a little-known American ethnic group numbering no more than 3,000.

The designation Cha Chas has been given legal recognition in the Virgin Islands. In its coverage of the Virgin Islands, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, notes:

Distinct Ethnic Unit

"The Cha Chas of St. Thomas form a distinct ethnic unit apart from other islanders. They are descended from French Huguenots who came from St. Barthelemy. The Cha Chas maintain themselves as a clannish, aloof, industrious community."

They are fishermen and farmers supplying St. Thomas Island with nearly all of its fresh fish and much of its fruit and vegetables.

"Our forefathers came from St. Barthelemy--or St. Barts, as we call it--a French Caribbean island 130 miles southeast of here," said Louis Danet, 43, a Frenchtown fisherman.

Danet stood beside a lineup of beached fishing boats on the Frenchtown waterfront--16- to 19-foot-long boats with names like French Boy, Espoir, Jalouse, Zozio, Marie Elaine, St. Rose.

About 1,000 of the Cha Chas live in Frenchtown on the western edge of Charlotte Amalie, capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Along the narrow, twisting streets of the fishing village is a sprinkling of bars and restaurants, establishments like Cafe Normandie, Le Bistro and the Coqui Bar.

Three miles away, over the steep mountain from Frenchtown, on the north coast of the island is Hull Bay, the other Cha Cha community on 13-mile-long, three-mile-wide St. Thomas Island. In Hull Bay and along the steep terraces that embrace this tiny fishing village live another 2,000 of the French-American islanders.

Different Dialects

In the 1600s and 1700s, French families from Brittany and Normandy settled on remote 11-mile-long, 2 1/2-mile-wide St. Barthelemy Island. In the mid-1800s, descendants of several of these families began migrating to St. Thomas Island.

Over the years, Hull Bay and Frenchtown, although only three miles apart, developed different dialects of the archaic West Indian French. People here know immediately whether someone lives in Hull Bay or in Frenchtown by the person's manner of speech.

Close ties have been maintained for generations between the French islanders on St. Thomas and St. Barts.

'We Are Very Close'

"There are only about 3,000 people living on St. Barts, the same number of Frenchies that live on St. Thomas," noted Sebastian Greaux, 67, bartender for 20 years at the Cafe Normandie in Frenchtown.

"Everybody on St. Barts has relatives here on St. Thomas and vice versa. We are very close. People go back and forth between the two islands all the time."

The pier at Frenchtown is jammed with islanders every day. They come to buy fresh fish from the French fishermen. Before sunup, the fishermen go out in their small boats, returning in the afternoon with their catch.

They unload their fish on the concrete pier--reef fish, snappers, groupers, yellowtail, lobsters and much more.

Beginning of Change

At Hull Bay, the fishermen go out in their small boats, return with their catch, load it onto pickups and drive the fish to market for sale mainly to grocery stores, restaurants and hotels.

For years, the Frenchies stayed pretty much to themselves, marrying only within their own group.

"That is beginning to change with my generation," noted Hull Bay fisherman Philip Berry, 35. "We Frenchies are all so interrelated. We are all cousins. It was getting too close.

"So now for the first time the younger generation is beginning to mix and marry outside the community."

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