by Riley Clare Valentine
The elders say that when you lose your language, you lose your culture, but when it comes to Cajuns, it is not quite that simple. My parents’ generation bore the brunt of Americanization—the process of attempting to force Cajuns to join Anglo-American culture and forsake their own unique culture and heritage. The process involved punishing children for speaking Cajun French and also shaming them for our cultural traditions. It was a process of attempted cultural genocide.
Americanization started informally after the Second World War with increased transportation and connectivity across America. However, prior to this in 1921 a new Louisiana constitution banned the speaking of French in schools and pushed for Cajun children to join standardized schools. This combination of formal and informal Americanization led to a struggle within the community in which Cajuns were systematically penalized for their culture, while also being encouraged socially to leave behind traditions. The systematic and social push to Americanize came with a historical shaming of Cajun identity. The Americanization of Cajuns is similar to that of multiple cultures of immigrants – such as European immigrants whose assimilation relied on them forgetting their languages. While our whiteness protected us from racially motivated violence, such as the reservation schools endured by indigenous peoples throughout North Americas, Cajuns responded to the attempts to systematically chip away at our culture by refusing to assimilate.
Mais, the Americains were not successful.
I hold onto my whisps of Cajun French. The language sits in the back of my mind, erupting occasionally. We don’t say “attends” which means wait when waiting for someone to finish speaking—no we say “esper” which means hope. We hope that you will find your thoughts and assemble them into words. The Cajun community held onto this hope for our language, and as a community we rejected assimilation. We rejected physical punishments for speaking our language and the shaming of Cajun culture, and the multi-generational processes of attempting to eradicate our culture. Cajuns, also known as Acadians, led a cultural revival in the 1960s with a complicated history of resisting cultural genocide and defining identity.
Acadians come from the forced deportation of thousands of people from Nova Scotia in July 1755. We call it le grand derangement. We settled in Southwestern Louisiana and became “Cajuns.” Our language changed to include words for the new world—cigale for a mosquito hawk or dragonfly. It drifted from standard French and became what we know today as Cajun French. Our food likewise adjusted to the new surroundings. Up until the 1960s Cajuns were known as white Creoles. After the Louisiana Purchase, to be Creole meant one needed to be native to Louisiana and French in culture. The term Cajun was derogatory up until the revival. The Attakapas Gazette 1856 described Cajuns as “lazy vagabonds, doing but little work, and spending much time in shooting, fishing and play.” Anglo-Americans were often the ones who utilized the term “Cajun” against Acadians in their derision. The seizure of the Cajun label from Anglo-Americans is markedly playful.
Likewise, in the decades after emancipation Afro-Creoles were subject to violence by Anglo-American culture, which sought to subsume Creole culture and language. Anglo-Americans approached both Creoles and Cajuns as people whose cultures needed to be changed to be made intelligible to Anglo-America. Anglo-Americans sought to produce and impose a version of whiteness particular to settler colonialism—a whiteness that conceives of Indigenous, foreign-born, and African-descended peoples as inferior and subservient to English-speaking whites. A predominantly poor, French-speaking settler community grounded in subsistence living was simply unthinkable to Anglo-American elites whose bottomless thirst for resources and de-peopled land led them to migrate west from Georgia and South Carolina. The attempt to Anglify Louisiana is illustrative of the usage of white supremacy to erase cultural differences and was largely rejected across Southern Louisiana.
The development of Cajun identity is complex. The term “Cajun” is often used interchangeably with Acadian/Cajun culture, but Cajun is a contested term—one which immigrants to Southwest Louisiana who participated in Cajun culture and often married into Acadian families also lay claim to. It is impossible to mention the Cajun ethnic revival without including our previous identification as white Creoles. French Louisiana’s Cajunization, as Trépanier terms the process, created an ethnic and racial separation that was relatively recent in Louisiana history. Creole identity consistently had a positive association among white and Black people in Louisiana; however, in the 1960s there was a push to separate ourselves from other Creoles. Even though Cajuns were considered white Creoles, maps of the 19th and 20th centuries use ‘Acadian’ to denote the Southwest Louisiana population, delineating Cajuns from other Creole populations. Despite our connection to Creoles through an original shared ethnicity, we departed from the Creole identity to cement ourselves as separate in a time in which Cajun culture was penalized. Our identity and separation from our Creoleness are often depicted in Cajun history as key to our survival in a world that wanted Acadians to be Americain.
1968 saw the creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, which was founded by Governor John MacKeithen, who was well aware of the mood shift in Louisiana in which the attempts to eradicate Acadian identity were becoming increasingly unpopular. Public figures increasingly announced their Cajun identity as essential to themselves, such as former Governor Edwin Edwards, and helped popularize the embrace of Cajun culture and heritage. It is important to note that the process of Americanization, the attempt to Anglify Cajuns and erase our culture, is discussed with disgust, scorn, and a deep-rooted trauma within the Cajun community.[i] Many of us hold the stories of our parents and grandparents being beaten for speaking Cajun French at school within us. The historical trauma of Americanization sits within my chest, even though I did not experience its violence.
During Americanization, Cajuns found ways to continue our traditions and culture. Much of that is rooted in our food and community cultures. Dance halls, which often serve food and have live music and a large floor for you to dance, are common. If you aren’t ready to dance, someone may come and get you to two-step. I remember going to my first fais do-do and learning how. The matriarch of the family held onto me and taught me how to move along to the accordion and fiddle. Step one. Step two. Move your hips. But our dancing doesn’t stop at the dance halls. If you attend a wedding, the afterparty often has a wedding march dance. My mother likes to say that dancing is as Cajun as the bayou. During COVID-19, Governor John Bel Edwards closed the dance halls. I remember my friends outside Louisiana being confused about the outcry over the closures. The closures of the dance halls took away places that generations mingle, and you can learn and pass on traditions. It aroused the trauma of Americanization within our communities.
COVID-19 limited other important facets of Cajun life besides dance halls. It also impacted how we care for the dead. I have been to many funerals, and they are always the same. There is a process for a good death. The first being that you do not die alone. It is important that family is there to sit with you as you pass away. After you die, your family should be the ones taking care of your body. My tantes usually dress the corpses and do their makeup and hair. You can tell the loving additions, whether it is the dead’s favorite rosary held in their hands or they wear their favorite lipstick shade. Someone usually leads the family in the rosary, first in Cajun French, then in English. We sit with the dead throughout the rosary. After the funeral itself, there is a gathering. It often becomes a small party. We drink. We laugh. We trade stories about the dead. We keep them alive.
Our culture thrives on oral tradition. I hold onto the stories of my family and place my own within them. It doesn’t matter if the story is true, so long as it is good. Cajuns are a story-telling people. It is how we have held onto ourselves despite the violence of the State and the threat of cultural genocide. Our prickliness towards outsiders who ask us to change our language, to make ourselves palatable for Anglo-Americans, comes from an abiding trauma.
It is not our care for dead, our dancing, our language, or our Mardi Gras that we’re best known for though—it is our food. I learned to judge a food’s readiness based upon taste. Gumbo’s heat should be at the back of your throat and tongue, light on the front of your tongue. Etouffee’s heat is a little different. I like the airy heat for that. A type of heat that slithers through your mouth and taps your lips, turning their color from the heat. I grew up in Georgia, but my parents safely guarded our home as Cajun. I remember the children I went to school with being uncomfortable with my food. It looked weird—and of course, it was too spicy. Thanks to the tourism industry and Emeril, Cajun food proliferates outside of Louisiana. Now, people from outside Louisiana are willing to try my food, and some like it but most disagree with the flavors. They do not know the difference of food across regions. How in Acadiana roux is made with oil and flour because it was easier to get than butter, but in New Orleans butter was easier to get and that is why you’ll get butter rouxs in New Orleans. Lord knows tourists are not aware of the great debate over rice or potato salad in gumbo.
Our food is sacred, and it is integral to our traditions. You see the waves of immigration into the bayou through the changes in food, though things we eat have not changed much since our pathway from Nova Scotia on down the riverways to Louisiana. Our foods are still peasant foods. Some of our spices have changed due to trading patterns and interacting with various peoples. But there is beauty in continuity. The same beauty I see in the quiet bayou waters.
Many tourists conflate Cajun and Creole identity—particularly through Mardi Gras. Cajun Mardi Gras is different. Many people are familiar with New Orleans’ floats, but in Cajun Country you will not find those floats. Instead, you will see people covered head to foot in tasseled clothing with fully covered faces. Our costumes have not changed since we arrived and the only shift in tradition is the addition of cars to riders on horseback and allowing both women and men to participate in the courrir. We have a leader of the parade, the king of Mardi Gras, often riding a horse. He goes up to a house and asks for ingredients for a gumbo. The other members of the march sing and beg for the ingredients, usually a chicken. It is a winding march through town. It was relatively unknown outside of Acadiana until Anthony Bourdain participated in the parade. The joy of Mardi Gras is an excess in food and alcohol and play. We are anonymized by our historical costumes—the joy of libidinal excess interwoven into old customs.
When I come together with other Cajuns, we often ask one another, “Do you know Cajun French?” If someone’s parents taught them, they are lucky. Now, due to the 1968 push to protect Cajun French, younger generations have access to the language. You can major in Cajun French at Louisiana State University. You can minor in Cajun French at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The official Louisiana Travel Website even holds its own Cajun French glossary. You can take online classes in Cajun French from cultural centers across Southwest Louisiana. There are numerous cultural museums dedicated to Acadian culture in which workers speak both Cajun French and English. We have bands such as Sweet Crude who sing in both Louisiana French and English. Likewise, Cajun bands such as Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys as well as the Lost Bayou Ramblers are known and respected for bringing Cajun music to a larger national stage. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Marc Savoy, a patriarch of Cajun music and a builder of Cajun accordions, held outdoor music circles.
Many of us lost our language. Many of us are children of those who stopped speaking Cajun French because of abuse. But we held onto our traditions. Cajuns faced cultural genocide, and we won. However, the victory was not without cost. Our culture has become highly commodified. Tourists seize onto Cajun culture, or they experience New Orleans’ unique Afro-Creole culture and declare it to be “Cajun.” The unique culture of Creoles and Cajuns is essentialized to the point where we are profitable as a specific set of things—from the words you will never hear outside of Louisiana to our food, what is not profitable is seen as something that can be eradicated to make room for tourists.
Our preservation of the language has made it academic. The victory is full of conflict and tension, much like the Cajun community itself—an ethnic identity rooted in a shared language, food, history, and customs rather than race. However, because of this victory I can see my cousins play Cajun accordion and fiddle. I can hear les enfants babble in a mixture of Cajun French and English. Because of it, I have the opportunity to learn the language that was almost lost. Even as I grew up with a nearly lost language, Cajun traditions were embedded in my life. My family and my understanding of my own ethnic identity and heritage comes from the refusal of assimilation. Nous ne sommes pas des Americains. We are American, but we are not Americain. The difference is subtle, but it remains deeply important to Cajun culture. It is the reason we continue to dance, to sing La Danse de Mardi Gras, to grieve for our dead with our entire body and selves, cook our food, and teach our language in schools. Occasionally, I am overwhelmed with grief for the language I lost and feel like an imposter of my own culture.
Americanization may have been unsuccessful. Yet we are left with the intergenerational trauma of Americanization. But, even with that trauma and the complexities of what it means to be Cajun, there is a revelry in the fact that our existence is a triumph.
See the Louisiana Trans Oral History Project to hear stories from transgender Louisianians about their histories.
Riley Clare Valentine is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Louisiana State University. Their research focuses on language, neoliberalism, and care ethics. They have been a street medic since Occupy and were trained in Occupy Atlanta. Since then, they traveled to protests across the country as a medic, participated in disaster response, and continue their work as a street medic. Beyond their grassroots organizing, they have also worked on campus changes at LSU for other LGBTQ+ individuals.
Bernard, Shane K. The Cajuns: Americanization of a people. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2003.
Brasseaux, Carl A. The founding of New Acadia: The beginnings of Acadian life in Louisiana, 1765-1803. LSU Press, 1987.
Burnett, John. “COVID-19 Hits Hard For South Louisiana’s Cajun Musicians.” NPR. November 28, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/11/28/938574647/covid-19-hits-hard-for-south-louisianas-cajun-musicians
Emoff, Ron. “A Cajun poetics of loss and longing.” Ethnomusicology 42, no. 2 (1998): 283-301.
Louisiana Travel. “How to Speak Cajun.” https://www.louisianatravel.com/articles/how-speak-cajun
Reilly, Timothy. “Early Acadiana through Anglo American Eyes.” Attakapas Gazette. https://archive.org/stream/AttakapasGazette/1977_Vol12_djvu.txt.
Trépanier, Cécyle. “The Cajunization of French Louisiana: forging a regional identity.” Geographical Journal (1991): 161-171.
[i] The term Americanization is used interchangeability with Anglofication.