Louisiana Cajuns Celebrate Bid to Promote Their Culture

While region's distinctive food, music gain popularity, effort to preserve language is losing ground

A GENERATION ago, Cajun leaders and scholars here were so concerned about the possible disappearance of their language and lifestyle that they formed a highly publicized, state-funded agency whose sole mission was to preserve that which had not already died.

Today, 25 years later, many Cajuns agree that the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) has been a success - more people than ever are aware of Cajun culture, with its zesty food and entrancing music.

But, at the same time, the language - a patois blending French and English known as Cajun French - still seems diminished with each passing year.

``French as a language here just isn't heard or spoken as much as it used to be, despite our best efforts to save it,'' says Earlene Broussard, executive director of CODOFIL, whose state budget is just over $200,000. ``Basically, assimilation has taken its toll - you've got TV, radio, newspapers, the larger culture, in general, using English.''

Indeed, state language experts estimate that less than 5 percent of the more than 1.1 million Cajuns in Louisiana speak French as their first language, down from 90 percent-plus 60 years ago. Meanwhile, ``[Younger Cajuns] only know the essentials. It really isn't an operative language for them,'' Ms. Broussard says.

The experience of New Orleans resident Elizabeth Schexnyder is fairly typical: Born in the Cajun sugar-mill town of Youngsville, she was discouraged early from speaking French. ``My father didn't want us to be stigmatized by having French accents,'' she says. ``When he was growing up, French-speaking people in Louisiana were considered to be illiterate and were taken advantage of in business affairs.''

Ironically, Ms. Schexnyder did learn to speak French, but only after she moved to France to study. She has never regretted it: ``It's part of my past, too, the heritage of my family. And it's something I'm proud of and want to keep alive in my own way.''

The question of whether or not to speak French didn't become crucial for Cajuns until 1921 when a new state constitution required that all public education be conducted in English. At the same time, French was prohibited on school property, to the point that old-time Cajuns remember being whipped for lapsing into the language of their forebears. ``It was the cultural prejudice of its time,'' Broussard says. ``Louisiana wanted to improve its literacy rate, and speaking French meant you weren't literate. It was an incredibly harsh and insensitive thing to do.''

But, for many Cajuns who live in at least 20 parishes (counties) across bayous and farmland, cultural insensitivity is just part of the experience, says Warren Perrin, founder of the Acadian Heritage and Culture Center in Erath. ``These are a people who have endured great injustices and hardships in their pasts. But, somehow, as a culture, they have always found the strength to persevere.''

The Cajuns, French colonists of the 17th century who settled along Canada's Bay of Fundy, were moved off their land by the British in the Expulsion of 1755 and crammed aboard ships. Some who survived the hardships of the voyage found a new homeland in semitropical Louisiana.

``There are only two cultures that came to America against their will,'' Mr. Perrin continues. ``One is the African Americans' through slavery, and the other is the Acadians' through relocations. I don't think people realize how closely related and similarly tragic their stories are.''

Despite enormous physical and economic challenges facing Cajuns in southern Louisiana, they thrived in a land many Anglos found foreboding. Hunting and fishing in coastal marshes and deep swamplands, Cajuns kept many features of their lives in Nova Scotia - spicy food, like boudin sausage and gumbo; the French language; and Cajun and zydeco music, much of it based on old French melodies and performed as a fast two-step.

But Cajuns were different in ways other Louisianans found threatening: They comprised the only Catholic enclave in a Protestant area, and they tended to support political rabble-rousers in far greater numbers than the rest of the state. The infamous Huey Long, in the 1920s and '30s, was hugely popular here, as is Cajun native and current Gov. Edwin Edwards (D), who plays up his swashbuckler image. As recently as 1992, in fact, Cajuns showed political differences with the rest of Louisiana - President Bush carried central and north Louisiana over Bill Clinton by a 49-to-34-percent margin, while Mr. Clinton won Cajun country 45 to 39 percent.

``They are different from the rest of the state, no question about it, and the difference has become a point of celebration for many,'' says James Dormon, a University of Southwestern Louisiana professor. ``Much of northern Louisiana is really more like an extension of Mississippi, while you don't have to be in Acadiana long to find out that it is pretty unusual. Some say it is more like Europe than the rest of the US. I think it's more like the Mediterranean region or the Caribbean.''

In any case, Cajun country is popular. Partly due to the food created and celebrated by such Cajun chefs as Paul Prudhomme, whose blackened redfish is a national staple, and Cajun music, which attracts listeners to dance halls in many cities with its accordions, fiddles, and triangles, the marketing of Cajun culture has become a local boom industry. The annual Festival International de Louisiane in April, a Cajun country celebration, brings in 250,000-plus people for a five-day event, while the Festival Acadiens in September is only slightly less popular.

``I think people all over the US and the world come here because of the mystique of it all,'' says Jake Kern, the manager of Mulate's Cajun restaurant in Breaux Bridge. ``People just instinctively want to know more about a place that is different from every place else, especially when every place else is beginning to look all the same.''

Macon Fry, a New Orleans guidebook author to Cajun country, agrees that its unique atmosphere and people have become its greatest attractions. But he views the economics of Acadiana soberly. ``The people there may look like they are always happy, but they have undergone incredible economic reversals and continue to endure extremely limited economic opportunities.''

When Louisiana's thriving oil and gas market went belly up in the 1980s, with oil dropping to less than $15 a barrel from $30-plus in under two years, few regions were hit as hard as Cajun country, where much oil was drilled. For many, jobs and fortunes were lost. ``Even with the big tourist business trading in Cajun culture, the effects of oil's collapse can still be seen throughout the region,'' Mr. Fry says.

He notes that newly constructed, never-utilized buildings and 1980s ranch-style suburban houses foreclosed by banks are only two signs of the collapse. Another is in the raw numbers: While the national average for per-capita income stood above $18,600 in 1990, in Cajun country it averaged just over $10,000. At the same time, Acadiana median house values improved only marginally from the 1980s - from $47,000 to $53,000. Nationally, the value jumped from $47,000 to more than $84,000.

The region's growth rate is also troubling, up 2.6 percent from the 1980s, compared with a national-average hike of nearly 10 percent. But Cajun country residents take problems in stride. Perrin said the growing interest among chefs, musicians, writers, and most importantly, tourists, confirms his belief that Cajun country will endure. ``We're seeing right now a renaissance, and it's just going to continue to pick up steam,'' he says. Schexnyder agrees: ``This is a culture that has a unique strength, an incredible ability to survive. I've lived in Europe and in different places in the US, but I've never seen or felt anything like Acadiana.''

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