Of the many ethnic groups who came and settled in Louisiana, the Isleños have to be one of the most interesting. This little book by Samantha Perez tracks the history of this group from Spain’s Canary Islands (they were islanders, isleños in Spanish) who settled at four places in Louisiana in the late 18th century.
“For a place known best for its French legacy - beignets, Bourbon Street and Vieux Carré - it is difficult to imagine Louisiana with an undeniable Spanish past, but for a short time in the late 1700s, after a secret deal with the French, parts of Louisiana territory fell under Spanish control,” Perez writes. You might be skeptical, but consider this: what is called the French Quarter in New Orleans burned during the Spanish period and was rebuilt by the Spanish using the hallmarks of Spanish architecture: courtyards, balconies, iron railings.
Architecture is not all the Spanish left. Perez is living proof. She’s a descendant of an Isleños family that settled in San Bernado (now St. Bernard Parish), one of the four areas the immigrants selected. The other three were at Galveztown, right on Bayou Manchac in Ascension Parish where East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes also meet; at Barataria on the West Bank of New Orleans; and at Valenzuela on Bayou Lafourche. Perez interviews Isleños descendants in several places in Louisiana, but only in St. Bernard is the Isleños presence strong enough to still be visible. There’s a church there that the Isleños founded and a Isleños heritage center where songs and traditions of the Canary Islanders are performed. On festival days, locals sometimes dress in distinctive Isleños costumes.
Galveztown has disappeared beneath fields and suburban lawns, but it is the site of an archaeological dig being led by LSU professor Rob Mann. Artifacts from the Spanish period are being recovered at a steady rate. Barataria didn’t last either, and the site has been swallowed by New Orleans. In fact, neither settlement lasted too long. Floods, storms and disease (malaria, yellow fever, etc.) laid waste to them. Most of the Isleños settlers abandoned the unwelcoming sites and merged into the larger French and American populations in places like Baton Rouge and Donaldsonville. Valenzuela was a different story. Like St. Bernard, it survived.
“By 1794, only six years from the end of the Spanish period, the Isleños suffered damaged homes and fields when a hurricane hit the area. Commandant Verret begged for assistance from the Spanish government, but Governor Carondelet refused. Valenzuela, it became clear, was on its own. The Isleños had to recover by themselves. The time of rations and support was over.
“Luckily the Canary Islanders on Bayou Lafourche were able to survive and even thrive. With Galveztown and Barataria already struggling by the 1780s, the success of Valenzuela was a much-needed victory for the Isleño colonists. Without their survival and those in their sister colony called St. Bernard, the Canary Islanders in Louisiana might not be here today.”
And while they are still here, many adopted the French culture and language of their neighbors. Even in St. Bernard Parish, the area strongest in Isleño tradition, life in the New World changed the Canary Islanders and their culture. Most of the immigrants were farmers, but the location along the bayous and waters of the Gulf invited a change to more maritime pursuits. Fishing and shrimping remain very important to present day Isleños.
Those activities have been heavily impacted by the last two major events to hit the St. Bernard area: Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Perez says history argues for the survival of the culture.
“In crisis after crisis, the Isleños across southeast Louisiana continued to prove what the original immigrants exemplified best: their ability to adapt and persevere. They adapted from the beaches and mountains of the Canary Islands to the swampy marsh of Louisiana, they learned to fish, farm and trap and use the area’s natural resources to their own advantage. They adapted to the new world that Hurricane Katrina washed upon their shores in 2005 and have maintained a sense of tradition and custom for more than two centuries of change.”
Perez’s book is short and accessible to most readers. It’s written in clear, understandable language and contains information that will interest all Louisianians, especially those who are Isleño descendants.