Cajun filmmaker Pat Mire recalls an epiphany of sorts he had at the age of 5 while watching the 1950s sitcom “Ozzie and Harriet” in the farmhouse where he grew up outside of Eunice.
He wondered aloud, “Why don’t they speak French?”
His mom laughed.
“The rest of the world is not like us,” she said.
Five decades later, despite all the modern forces that eat away at tradition and regional distinctiveness, south Louisiana is still different, thanks in large part to a group of Acadian exiles who arrived on the banks of Bayou Teche in 1765 — 250 years ago this year.
“It sounds like a long time, but it’s really not that long,” said Mire, who has spent his career exploring the region in thoughtful insider documentaries and fictional films. “It was just a unique culture to begin with, but it became even more so.”
The food alone sets the region apart, the product of two centuries of cross-cultural borrowing and innovation that has created a culinary world filled with gumbo, étouffée, fricassée, maque choux, boudin, chaudin, andouille and boiled crawfish.
People still know how to dance, which is unusual enough but even more so because the dancing is done to music often played on an instrument — the button accordion — that has long since fallen out of favor in mainstream American culture.
And the songs are still sung in French, a language that is no longer widespread in the region but has somehow managed to hang on 250 years after the arrival of French-speaking Acadians and more than a century after any other significant French immigration to the state.
“People always wonder, ‘Is there a future here for French?’ It’s a miracle there is any left at all,” said Barry Jean Ancelet, a folklorist and retired University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor who was worked for decades to document and preserve Cajun culture.
‘We didn’t come here to assimilate’
The people who would come to be known as Cajuns arrived in what is now Canada in the 1600s, part of a wave of early New World settlers from Europe.
They came as families, focused on learning how to survive and create a society in a strange new environment rather than on fighting, building new trade routes or expanding the boundaries of an empire.
“They arrived without power at stake,” Ancelet said. “The first thing they did was not build forts; they built homes.”
What’s more, he said, “They came in enough critical mass to maintain their identity.”
A cohesive and independent culture flourished in the New World before the Acadians — a name derived from the French colony of Acadia where they settled — found themselves under the authority of a hostile British government, which gained control of that section of eastern Canada in the early 1700s.
The British soon began working to subdue the settlers of French descent and, in 1755, ordered the deportation of all Acadians, dispersing the group among other English colonies or back across the Atlantic to England and France.
One group, led by Joseph “Beausoleil” Broussard, resisted but ultimately agreed to leave.
“We sought Louisiana as a refuge to continue the culture we had in Canada. We didn’t come here to assimilate,” said Warren Perrin, a Lafayette lawyer and cultural activist who attracted international attention in 2003 when he extracted an apology from the British government for the exile of the Acadians.
Broussard and a group of nearly 200 Acadian settlers eventually made their way to New Orleans — following a much smaller group that had arrived a few months before — and from there found their way to the banks of the Bayou Teche at a spot believed to be near present-day Loreauville.
They planned to re-create the life they had lost.
Over the next two decades, more than 2,000 Acadians from France and the Atlantic seaboard made their way to Louisiana.
They firmly settled in, and the continued prominence of such Acadian surnames as Broussard, Guidry, Hebert, Trahan and others shows how those families still help to define the region.
The early Acadian culture was influenced by the European, African and Native American cultures that mingled in Louisiana, but it is the French culture — Cajun and Creole — that has come to define the region, assimilating the German, Spanish, Irish and other immigrant groups that followed, rather than the other way around.
The accordions that found their way to Louisiana from Germany in the 1800s aren’t used to play polkas anymore, and French was the dominant language of the region.
“Anyone who moved to south Louisiana before World War I had to learn French to assimilate,” said David Cheramie, who oversees the Vermilionville folklife park in Lafayette and before that served as director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, often called CODOFIL.
‘Do I belong to that group?’
A push to make English the national language in the early 20th century had long-lasting implications, and the story of how Cajun children were punished for speaking French in school is well-known.
But other forces were quickly bringing America to south Louisiana: radios, telephones, record players, movies, cars, television and World War II, which took the Cajun youth of south Louisiana and pulled them into a global conflict.
By the 1950s, what Cajun historian Shane Bernard has called the “Americanization of people” was well underway.
For some, it was an awkward time.
Perrin, who served as president of CODOFIL and helped start the Acadian Museum in Erath, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in rural Vermilion Parish.
His elders spoke French to one another but not to him, and he knew little of his heritage, even though he was surrounded by the rich culture it had produced.
In elementary school, he read a paragraph about the Acadians in a history book.
“I remember thinking, ‘Do I belong to that group?’ I didn’t have a clue,” he said.
Amanda LaFleur Giambrone, who helped develop Cajun French programs at LSU and has spent years teaching the language, said that when she was growing up in the 1960s in Ville Platte, being “Cajun” wasn’t something people talked about.
“We just lived it. It was still all there,” she said.
Everyone’s grandparents spoke French, and some children, like herself, developed a natural interest. “All the good scandals were told in French,” she said.
‘There are going to be more songs written in French’
The tenacity of Cajun culture has been attributed in part to the resilience and ingenuity of the original Acadian settlers and what many observers have called the ability “to swim in the mainstream” without drowning.
But there also has been a focused and conscious effort to preserve traditions in a Cajun renaissance that flourished in the context of a broader national movement in the 1960s and ’70s to celebrate the United States’ diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
In the years since, there has been sustained interest in scholarly treatment of Acadian history and genealogy that now better connects modern Cajuns to their past.
The first festival focusing on Cajun music was launched in 1974 — an event that evolved into the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles.
The festival seems to grow every year, and residents in the area around Lafayette also can tune into any number of Cajun music programs on KRVS public radio or locally owned commercial stations; attend camps to learn Cajun dancing, music and cooking; or pursue academic degrees focusing on the Cajun language, traditional music and folklore.
Perhaps most promising for the future of the French language was the start in the early 1980s of immersion schools where young students are taught almost exclusively in French.
CODOFIL was formed in 1968 to preserve and promote the French language, but early efforts focused on conventional language classes.
The immersion concept was introduced in 1983. “The results were day and night,” said CODOFIL Executive Director Charles Larroque.
The number of French immersion students in the state is still relatively small, but enrollment has grown from about 500 in the 1991-92 school year to more than 4,000 this year, according to the group.
Larroque said CODOFIL was formed to respond to “an urgent request to save French,” but he sees the organization evolving to better connect Louisiana with Francophone economies around the world.
“We are building a linguistically skilled workforce,” he said. “We have to get beyond thinking it’s just a question of linguistic preservation. It’s about linguistic application.”
Even beyond grade school immersion programs, locals young and old are still drawn to French, often going out of their way to learn the language.
Megan Brown, a Cajun musician who plays with the band T’Monde and hosts a radio show on KRVS that draws on music from UL-Lafayette’s Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore, grew up in the rural community of Tepetate surrounded by the French language and Cajun music.
Brown said she liked dancing but never gave the music and language much thought until she traveled to Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia, where her brother had enrolled in classes to hone his Cajun accordion skills.
Augusta is one of several out-of-state schools that teach intensive classes on regional music, including that of south Louisiana.
“Other people were going out of their way to learn about it,” she said. “Until I went to that camp, I wasn’t really aware that there were women and young people playing Cajun music.”
Brown developed an interest in singing Cajun music and soon realized she needed to learn French to do it convincingly.
She later traveled to the Université Sainte-Anne in Canada, which offers a summer immersion program that for several years has attracted south Louisiana residents, particularly musicians, trying to hone their French language skills.
When Brown looks to the next generation of students coming out of the state’s K-8 immersion programs fully fluent in French, she is hopeful the language has a future in local music.
“There are going to be more songs written in French,” she said. “They are really learning to express themselves in that language.”
‘Preserve the process that produces the product’
The obituary for Cajun culture has been written more than once.
There always have been questions about how long south Louisiana can hang onto its unique identity, and cultural preservation often involves walking a careful line.
Ancelet said the tricky part is keeping the culture relevant and vibrant, rather than creating what amounts to a museum exhibit, and perhaps what has defined Cajun culture most through the years has been innovation and adaptation.
Modern Cajun music and food — the two cultural trappings that outsiders are most familiar with — only faintly resemble what the Acadians brought with them to Louisiana 250 years ago.
If the culture is to remain relevant, Ancelet said, it must continue to evolve.
“We are not trying to preserve the product. We are trying to preserve the process that produces the product,” he said. “You don’t want a preservation hall. You want an innovation hall.”