Thenesoya Martin De la Nuez has learned that some traditions can't be changed by generations or distance.

A native of the Canary Islands, Nuez has been researching Louisiana connections to her home for the past five years with her photographer husband, Anibal Martel. Their findings have been shown in four exhibits.

The fourth and largest, "CISLANDERUS: Canary Islanders in the United States, Canarian Descendants of Louisiana" is showing through March 17 in the Capitol Park Museum in downtown Baton Rouge.

Traveling throughout south Louisiana, the couple interviewed and photographed the descendants of Canary Island immigrants, better known in Louisiana as Isleños, meaning “islander.” Their work aims to bring a forgotten chapter of Spanish American history to life.

And one of these descendants showed them that some of their traditions from back home are still alive and well in Louisiana today.

"After the interview, he said he was going to cook for us," Nuez said. "He made us banana fries. They were the same kind of banana fries that my family ate in the Canary Islands. I can't prove how this family got this tradition, but he cooked them the same, and it was a beautiful moment."

Nuez said she was surprised. She hadn't expected to find things in common with Louisiana Canarians.

"They've been living in the United States for so long, so their first identity is as Americans," she said. "But they're Americans who have this legacy."

Nuez is a native of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. She came to the United States as a doctoral student in Harvard University's Department of Romance Languages and Literature. She also is a scholarship professor at the university and currently teaches at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

While studying in Spain, she learned about Louisiana's Canary Island settlements.

"I read every book I could find on them," she said.

The first Canary Islanders arrived in Louisiana between 1778 and 1783, recruited by Gov. Bernardo de Gálvez to defend the Spanish colony from British attacks, she said.

"They needed the people for defense," Nuez said, "but they also wanted them to settle in the area."

Some 2,500 immigrants established communities in Galveztown, where Bayou Manchac meets the Amite River near Baton Rouge; Valenzuela, near the confluence of Bayou Lafourche and the Mississippi River; Barataria, near Lake Barataria; and La Concepción, now known as St. Bernard Parish.

Today, descendants of the Canarian settlers are dispersed throughout southeast Louisiana. Galveztown settlers, after weathering years of hurricanes and flooding, relocated to Baton Rouge, where they established Spanish Town.

The biggest and best known Canarian settlement is in St. Bernard Parish, where, in the 1970s, parish historian Frank Fernandez called attention to the region’s connection with the Canary Islands. His efforts created a cultural revival, resulting in the Los Isleños Fiesta to honor these settlers and preserve their cultural traditions.

Nuez said while academic books outlined the history of a people who came to Louisiana in search of a better way of life, they failed to put faces on this community, to show who these people really are, their traditions and how they live.

She and her husband, a documentary photographer who works for international press agencies, began their project by calling the Los Islenos Museum and Cultural Center in St. Bernard, which put them in touch with people in the community.

The couple began traveling to Louisiana to meet the Canarians here and earn their trust. 

"The books talked about them as poor people, but when I talked to them, they talked about what rich lives they had," Nuez said. "They talked about how they grew up on the bayous and hunting with their parents and the food they ate and the community they lived in. And today they work in all professions." 

She said the people they've met here "have become family to us."

Nuez and Martel titled their project "CISLANDERUS," a word that combines the cultures of Canary Islanders and the United States.

The bilingual exhibition includes large-scale projections, prints on fabric, immersive education space and a 16-foot panel on the history of the people, their landmarks and their names.

Also included are a traditional boat, trapping and hunting tools, the original baptismal record of the decedents of the Los Isleños community in St. Bernard Parish and artifacts uncovered by the LSU Department of Archaeology's dig at the early Galveztown settlement.

For more information, visit cislanderus.com.


CISLANDERUS: Canary Islanders in the United States, Canarian Descendants of Louisiana'

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 17. 

WHERE: Capitol Park Museum, 660 N. Fourth St.

ADMISSION: $7; $6, students, seniors, active military. Free for age 6 and younger. Groups of 15 or more with reservations get a 20% discount.

INFORMATION: (225) 342-5428 or louisianastatemuseum.org/museum/capitol-park-museum

Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com