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New Orleans' Milieu Threatened as Creoles and Cajuns Disperse

When Katrina hit, the city's Francophones fled. Some may never return, which could alter the historic mix of Colonial cultures.

October 30, 2005|Jeff Donn | Associated Press Writer

Southern Louisiana endures, and New Orleans is champing to rebuild, but their unique flavor is bound to fade if the French Louisianans don't return.

That community faces "probably the greatest catastrophe" in its history, said David Cheramie, who directs the state's Council for the Development of French.

"We can rebuild the levees, we can rebuild the buildings," he said. "But are the families going to come back?"

When Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, many Creoles and other Francophones were forced into flight to places like Houston and Atlanta and shelters throughout the country.

Many took refuge with friends and relatives to the west, in the state's Cajun heartland. Less than a month later, Hurricane Rita ruined homes there, drowned livestock, and forced another exodus northward.

"It is a blow," says Barry Ancelet, a Cajun professor specializing in language and folklore at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "A lot of those people are not going to come back."

But, he added, "We have survived lots of blows."

In fact, French Louisiana has been clinging tenuously to its identity -- while constantly reshaping it to enfold new arrivals -- for decades.

It traces its origins along separate roots stretching back to early America: Cajuns descended from Acadian settlers expelled from what is now eastern Canada; black or mixed-race Creoles from the Caribbean, West Africa and elsewhere; and white Creoles largely from France. Some native people also took up French through close contact with Francophones.

They tended to dominate early Louisiana life and government into the 19th century. While often distinct in dialect and other folkways, they share a legacy of French language and culture, long proximity and generations of intermarriage. They favor Roman Catholicism, spicy cuisine, pulsating folk tunes, strong family bonds and resilience in the face of hardship.

But resilience wasn't always enough. Burdened by a hard land and rough treatment by outside society, many went looking for better opportunity and melted away invisibly into American life during the 20th century. Others fled earlier insults of nature like the great Mississippi floods of 1927 or Hurricane Audrey 30 years later.

The percentage of Louisianans who claim French ancestry slipped 1 percentage point in the 1990s, down to 12%, according to U.S. Census data. With French long shunned in schools, fewer than 200,000 Louisianans -- not even the population of one big city -- still speak Cajun, Creole or French at home.

"We used to speak it a lot," says Wilbert Thomas, a Jefferson Parish evacuee with Creole blood who came to Camp Edwards, a military post at Bourne, Mass., with the first stream of refugees from Katrina. "Over the years, it's a dying breed."

Mindful of its cultural cousins, the greater Francophonic world -- places like France, Quebec, Belgium, Switzerland -- have showered Louisiana with offers of help.

France dispatched its U.S. ambassador to inspect losses firsthand. France Louisiane, a Paris-based cultural group, donated $48,000 "to help our friends," says leader Michele Eccart. A small Acadian society in Massachusetts added $500.

Some French Louisianans are already giving up, though. "It's time for a new beginning," declared Jerome Beauvais, a New Orleans Creole, who had never flown until emergency personnel herded him toward a plane for Massachusetts after Katrina. "I ain't going to miss nothing."

Norbert Billiot, a native Houma Indian, said he probably won't resettle in the swamped homeland of his Francophonic people south of New Orleans. He and his wife have taken up in central Louisiana.

"Everybody's all spread out now," he said.

Monique Verdin, of New Orleans, dodged both hurricanes and ended up in Florida. She talked of staying there -- but with regret: "Home is the place where everyone speaks French and practices their culture. And if homes are gone, that's lost."

Cultural keepsakes, from photographs to furniture, are gone too, swept away or buried in the muck. Warren Perrin, a Cajun who is one the foremost promoters of Louisiana's French heritage, bewailed his lost family history at his mother's flooded house in Henry.

"Mom left with nothing," he lamented. "So all the memorabilia, the documents, the childhood toys -- it's gone. I literally cannot walk into the house."

Some historical treasures -- books, photographs, artifacts, family histories -- were also spoiled by floodwaters at the Acadian Museum in Erath, according to Perrin, its founder. Three families of Katrina evacuees temporarily housed at the museum annex had to flee again in advance of Rita.

On relatively high ground, the French Quarter of New Orleans escaped the worst of the floods. Yet some say that genuine French Louisianan food and music were already endangered in that city, where 8% now claim Francophonic ancestry. Some wonder if New Orleans will be reconstructed with its grinning tourist facade, but even less of the local clientele and soul of French Louisiana.

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