Tuesday was St. Patrick’s Day, a day when those of Irish descent celebrate their heritage. And people without a drop of Irish blood in them, no matter what their color or creed, also take part, even if only as a license to drink a lot and steal kisses from redheads.
But South Louisiana, as we all know, dances to the beat of a different drummer. So while the rest of the world is sleeping off their Tuesday excesses, we’re gearing up for another party — the celebration of St. Joseph’s Day on Thursday, which has its roots in the large Sicilian immigration into Louisiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Last week I wrote about cultural assimilation and the controversy over “hyphenated Americans” — Irish-, Italian- and African-Americans, for example. There are some who think it’s wrong to emphasize your cultural roots that way and that everyone should just dissolve into the great melting pot.
The problem I have with that view is that no one has said what a fully assimilated American is supposed to be — like the amiable but drab characters in such 1950s TV shows as “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Father Knows Best,” maybe?
It seems cruel and pointless to criticize people for not assimilating if you can’t give them a model of what an assimilated American should be.
I once heard someone describe the American populace not as a melting pot, but more like a salad. Maybe in Louisiana, where our tastes run toward heartier foods, a better metaphor would be a dish like jambalaya. It is a creation in which each ingredient maintains most of its own character — the sausage, the chicken, the seafood, the rice (but definitely not tomato in the Cajun version!) — while also contributing to the overall flavor.
As this mid-Lenten holiday week attests, American culture is more like that than it is a vessel where everything dissolves and merges into one big liquefied glop. Besides our Irish and Italian celebrations, just a couple of weeks ago local Vietnamese communities celebrated Tet and Jews took part in the Mardi Gras-like Purim holiday.
Next month, Lafayette will be holding its Festival International de Louisiane, which bills itself as the “largest outdoor, free Francophone event” in the country. In October, the same city will host the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles. Across the state, there’s a Greek Festival, several Hispanic celebrations, Oktoberfests, Islenos festivities, Mardi Gras Indian marches and more.
Louisiana seems less inclined toward assimilation and more toward cultural accommodation — celebrating the diversity of its population. That’s not to say some assimilation hasn’t happened and helped sand down the distinctions between the various groups. As I wrote last week, I probably heard only a handful of Italian words growing up. (I neglected to reveal that more than half of those words shouldn’t be spoken in the polite company of those who can understand them.)
That’s actually a hallmark of the New Orleans Italian community that differentiates it from places like Chicago, New York and New Jersey. Here, the major influx of mostly Sicilian and southern Italians was between 1880 and 1910, when their presence in New Orleans quadrupled.
In northern cities, you’re more likely to find the influx occurred in the early to mid-20th century. So Louisiana immigrants had a head start on being assimilated and losing some of their culture and language.
But as this week shows, elements of that culture — as well as the multiplicity of other cultures that make up America — live on, clinging tenaciously to the edge of the melting pot, trying hard not to be dissolved into it.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.