In Cajun land, a reveille to French heritage

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 3, 2012 

— It’s 9:30 a.m. and the drinking and dancing already are raging at Fred’s Lounge, a fais do-do of Cajun French music, waltzes and two-steps, with cans of Miller Lite the breakfast of choice in this joint down a winding road past rice fields and crawfish ponds. The Saturday morning party from the windowless, 66-year-old bar is broadcast live throughout the South Louisiana prairie on 1050 AM out of Ville Platte, and the music has been credited with helping to sustain the Cajun French culture since just after World War II.

But Fred’s 81-year-old manager, Sue Vasseur, known as Tante Sue de Mamou, worries about the survival of the Louisiana French culture. The current generation, she said, isn’t picking up the French language, which is part of the soul of the Acadian people who settled in Louisiana in the mid-1700s, when they were expelled from the present-day Canadian province of Nova Scotia after refusing to swear their allegiance to the British crown.

“I’m hoping it’s going to continue. They are teaching French in our schools here now in Mamou and Evangeline Parish. So I think possibly some of it will rub off on our grandchildren, our great grand-children,” said Vasseur, wearing a pistol holster of cinnamon schnapps on her hip as dancers whirled to a rollicking 10-button accordion and a singer belting out a love song in French.

There’s a major effort in Louisiana, a state named for the French king Louis XIV, to reverse the trend and restore the French language. It’s part of a resurgence in cultural pride, and there are signs that the decline in French speakers has slowed. Among the last hopes is the nation’s largest French immersion program, in which every subject except English is being taught in French to kindergarteners through eighth-graders. Just under 4,000 students in nine parishes are in the program, typically with teachers imported from France, Belgium, Quebec and French-speaking African nations.

Bureaucrats and schoolteachers long sought to stamp out Louisiana French in the name of Americanization. They almost succeeded. Cajuns and others who spoke the language were told it was shameful and a sign of ignorance. Students were punished in school, even beaten, for speaking it after the state board of education decided in 1915 to suppress French, a move that was strengthened six years later when the Louisiana Constitution forbade the use of any language other than English in the public school system. There was little incentive to pass the language through the generations. It was estimated that there were about a million French speakers in Louisiana in 1968. Today the number is pegged at 150,000 to 200,000. Those who speak French as their first language tend to be older than 70, and their children often didn’t pick it up.

Cajun and zydeco music, sung in French, has devoted fans worldwide. The cuisine is celebrated. People are fascinated by the cultures that sprang from the Acadian and French settlers who arrived in Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries. A recent crop of Louisiana-based reality TV shows, while giving a less-than-accurate picture of life in south Louisiana, provide a glimpse into the heritage, so different from that found anywhere else in the nation.

Advocates of sustaining French in Louisiana say the unique food, music, heritage and way of life all are tied to the language. Cajun musician Zachary Richard’s song “Reveille” has stood as a rallying cry. He founded Action Cadienne, a group to advocate for the French language in Louisiana, whose manifesto declares it “impossible to conceive a culture without being able to speak its language.”

“Reveille! Reveille!

Hommes acadiens

Pour sauver l’heritage.”

Awaken! Awaken!

Acadian men

To save our heritage.

But Louisiana French advocates are fighting an uphill battle. There are economics at play, the fact that Louisiana is a poor state that doesn’t have a lot of jobs in which speaking French is an asset. There also are politics. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal used his veto power last month to slash 40 percent of the budget of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. That state agency is charged with, among other things, helping to recruit immersion teachers from French-speaking countries. The agency is left with a budget of $150,000 and two employees, a situation that director Joseph Dunn suggested in a recent interview might allow it just to “keep the lights on and do the absolute bare minimum.”

Deep in the bayou

Language revolution comes slowly in a place such as Butte La Rose, a town of 800 accessible by a narrow pontoon bridge, where locals for generations have harvested crawfish and catfish from the Atchafalaya River and the surrounding swamp. It’s a beautiful, muddy world of cypress trees and Spanish moss, of bullfrogs, alligators and snakes.

At Doucet’s Grocery, the only retail outlet in town, Jack Doucet sat behind the counter shooting the breeze with his customers as he’s done every day while running the place for 47 of his 83 years, closing only for Christmas and New Year’s. Gwen Duplechin stopped in for a leisurely chat, and reflected on the survival of Cajun French. “Our older people are dying off, our people that talk French are dying off,” Duplechin said.

Duplechin said her granddaughter took French immersion in school and learned “the good French” (as opposed to the Cajun French dialect) from the teachers imported from Quebec and France. “But she doesn’t speak it; you have to keep it up or it doesn’t work,” Duplechin said.

She’s right about the need to give students reasons to speak French outside the classroom, said Dunn, the director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. He said the focus for too long had been just on the school immersion programs. It’s an artificial approach that won’t work without also showing young people that there are jobs where speaking French could help them make a living, he said.

Dunn said a good start would be tourism jobs. People from French-speaking countries come to Louisiana because it’s marketed as a French cultural experience, he said, but they find no services in French when they arrive. “French is important because the culture is carried in the French language. But we need to move that outside of the classroom setting, make it a social language, make it an economic language,” Dunn said.

The school immersion programs focus on standard French, though many teachers try to incorporate Cajun or other Louisiana dialects. French speaking in Louisiana goes far beyond the Cajuns. That includes Louisiana Creole speakers, a language with ties to the Caribbean. The Houma Indians are thought to be the largest French-speaking group in Louisiana, with an estimated 40 percent of tribal members still speaking French, Dunn said. For them it’s colonial French overlaid with a trade language once spoken among coastal Indians.

The Houma Indians are scattered throughout the southeastern coast of Louisiana in places such as Dulac, a region of worsening coastal erosion. It’s a hard place to make a living, pulling shrimp from the marshes and coastal waters. The Houma, who trace the beginning of their French to contact with the first explorers in the late 1600s, are working with the French consulate to start a tribal French-language immersion program. The goal is to get the young Houma speaking French, to spark the kind of language excitement seen in the modern oil and university town of Lafayette.

Efforts to sustain Louisiana French are particularly strong in Lafayette, a regional hub where old-timers and young professionals alike gather at cafes to speak French. Lafayette is a city of festivals and music. Popular young French-speaking bands such as the Lost Bayou Ramblers and the Pine Leaf Boys can be seen playing around town and around the world. Members of the band Feufollet, who sing only in French, learned the language as part of the first French-language immersion program classes in Lafayette Parish schools, and they now tour the nation.

The popularity of the Lafayette program is growing and there are waiting lists to get in, said Nicole LeBlanc, who leads a parents’ group called Les Amis de L’Immersion that provides support for the program. LeBlanc, who has three French-speaking children, said older people stopped kids in the grocery store, eyes lighting up, when they heard them speaking in French.

On a recent Monday a group of children, none of whose parents speak French at home, sat in a circle at an immersion summer camp at an elementary school in Lafayette, speaking the language of their grandparents. One of their teachers came from Paris, the other from Belgium.

Teacher Sabrina Benazzouz, who came to Lafayette from Paris eight years ago and decided to stay, asked the children in French, “When you think of a beach, what do you think of?”

A third-grader shouted a very Louisiana answer in French:

“Poisson-chat!”

Catfish.

Email: scockerham@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @seancockerham

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