April 02, 2016

The Day I Became a Cajun Lady

Cajun:

a member of any of the largely self-contained communities in the bayou areas of southern Louisiana formed by descendants of French Canadians, speaking an archaic form of French.

That's the "official" definition.  Here's how it breaks down.  Hundreds of years ago in France, there was some dissension.  The French government cracked down on a large portion of it's population for things that were barely criminal, such as not being able to pay your taxes.  Many of these people were expelled and sent to Nova Scotia Canada, once known as Acadia.  From Nova Scotia they migrated down to Louisiana and settled in the lower central region and spread to the coast.  There are what is called "Prairie Cajuns", "Bayou Cajuns", and just...Cajuns but they are all Acadians.  

Being Cajun is a fairly big thing here.  Contrary to popular belief simply being from Louisiana does not mean someone is Cajun.  There's a fair mix of people from other places around the US and the globe.  Everything from Africans, Haitians, Spanish, Mexican, to Irish, Scottish, and a bit of German.  Where you fall within the state is typically the tell-tale sign of what your ancestry is.  If you meet another Louisianian outside the state there's little "where ya from" dance that occurs to verify authenticity.  I'm originally from the north eastern part of the state which is considered country, red neck, if you will.  The food and lifestyles are completely different from anything in the southern areas.  There are still dry counties and towns in the northern parishes, something that is few and far between once you cross the central region.  There's one parish that bridges that gap between Cajun country and North Louisiana.  That's Natchitoches parish.  Don't try to pronounce it...it'll just frustrate you.  Natchitoches is the oldest permanent settlement in the state and hosts both French and Spanish ancestry.  Like New Orleans, Natchitoches has been burned, rebuilt, claimed by the French, claimed by the Spanish, and always occupied by Native Americans.  That's where my people come from.

I moved to South Louisiana a little over 20 years ago.  While I've lived in many different places, I've never moved back up state.  When I wanted to move back to what I called home...South Louisiana was it.  But remember that authenticity dance I mentioned?  I told Honey last night, when I meet someone new here or get into the "so who's your family" talk I always feel like a character from one of my favorite movies.  In Dangerous Beauty, the lady Veronica Franco is in love with Marco Vinier... a Senators son.  When he tells her that they cannot marry she says, "but my people are true citizens 700 years back"... he tells her that her pedigree does not equate the dowry it would take to marry him.  Because my mothers family were two of the founding families of the Black Lake community in Natchitoches parish I have 18th century French and Spanish ancestry.  While we are not Cajun...we are of the "correct" blood lines.  It sounds silly and archaic in today's society, but here blood lines are still significant.  Honey's grandmother gave me the nod of approval the instant I told her my mothers family is from Natchitoches...following the side eye when I told her my father was from Alabama.  Even in Ex's family, I made sure to stress my mothers side.  His family can (like many here) trace their lineage straight back to Canada and the south of France.  

I have married two French men, and have one little 3/4 French child.  She's Cajun and she's proud of her heritage.  Having lived in a couple different places here in South Louisiana I've gotten handfuls of the different stories on how the little towns or settlements came about.  I know a little bit about the local customs and why they exist.  A good friend of mine taught me about why the men ride through the community on Mardi Gras dressed up in wild, home made costumes and chase chickens.  I understand why crawfish are such a big deal.  When the Acadians first came here, they were not exactly welcome...they were looked down on as being inferior.  They were told they could have the little mudbugs at the bottom of the rice fields if they could catch them...that's what they were told to eat.  Easter meals became what could be fished or trapped.  Today they are a seasonal delicacy that folks dive for after the first ones hit the pot.  It took me a few years to learn to eat them.  In North Louisiana they aren't as plentiful and can be a lot more expensive.  I'd had fish many many times but crawfish was never something we did simply due to cost.  These days I'm happy to have them once or twice a season, it stays a treat and makes me feel like it's something to be enjoyed.  

I don't know when I was officially indoctrinated or assimilated or whatever you want to call it.  All I know is that after so many years being immersed in the lifestyles here I became a part of it all...or rather it became a part of me.  Can I nail down a specific day that I "became Cajun"...no.  But I do know that I have always been very proud to tell people that I'm from Louisiana.  I've never felt a veil of shame from my southern accent or even the South Louisiana twang that takes over when I'm tired or having a good time.  I'm not Betty Crocker, but I'm more than capable of cooking most of the traditional faires and do a pretty good job.  When I lived out of state I loved hearing the misconceptions people had about us and had a tendency to set folks straight. I never understood why Ex was so quiet about his heritage or so defensive about being called 'coon-ass' vs Cajun.  It took him a long time to reconcile his appreciation and now he gets to play southern charm in a yankee state.  I suppose it agrees with him but I'll take the real deal. 

 I'll take the Cajun Virgin Islands, the Registered Coon-ass stickers, Tabasco, Fleur de Lis', and four poster beds with rice plants carved on the posts.  I'll take endless bags of Mardi Gras beads, streetcars in New Orleans, plantation houses, and rice fields.  I love seeing beautiful people that you look at and can't tell if they're black, white, or Hispanic.  I love our crooked politicians, our riverboat casinos, and drive through daiquiri shops.  I wouldn't have it any other way.  



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