Last weekend I volunteered at the Great Acadian Awakening, or, if you’re French, Le Grand Réveil Acadien. It’s a “grand” celebration of the Acadian people and their culture, history, language, and music. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Acadians arrival in Louisiana ten years after being expelled from the Canadian Maritime Provinces by the British in 1755. Lake Charles opened the festivities, and events continue in towns throughout southern Louisiana until Oct. 12. (For more information on this event, go to their website.)
As always, Lake Charles showed up. Attendance was good. People also came to the event from as far away as Canada. The enthusiasm and dedication of the Cajun people for their culture got me thinking a lot about ancestry and heritage, and how people identify with groups, either by birth or association.
Here in Lake Charles, the Cajun French culture permeates every facet of life, the threads intricately woven into the tapestry of our day to day experience. You learn an inkling of the French language by sheer osmosis. Several public schools have French Immersion programs where they speak only French in every subject. The restaurant menus (aside from the chains, which we try to avoid) are flavored with Cajun influence. You hear Cajun music played at the many festivals and on radio stations. Mardi Gras is a state-wide holiday. You can easily recognize the accent of a true Cajun – it’s thick, heavy, and sounds like it is muffled through a cotton filter. I enjoy listening to it because it tells the story of a people who have fought fiercely to preserve their culture and heritage. I admire and respect that.
This was one of those many things I was unprepared for when we moved here eight years ago. I’m embarrassed to admit, I knew nothing of the Cajun people or their history and culture prior to coming to Louisiana. In Pittsburgh, there are many ethnic groups and they each maintain their heritages in their own ways. But no one culture is pervasive, as the Cajun culture is here. There are pockets of neighborhoods that heavily lean to particular ethnic groups. But they tend to become diluted in the mass of a large city population.
My own genetic heritage is German, from both parents. But my ancestors came to America many generations ago. I regret not asking my grandparents more about their past and their parents and grandparents stories. I don’t think of myself as “German.” Although I would love to visit Germany one day to experience my roots. And I have often considered delving into genealogy. But I’ve heard it can become an obsession and I don’t have time for the distraction. Maybe later. But culturally, I just think of myself as an American. When I see the joy that comes from being a part of a cultural group with a shared heritage, as I witnessed this past weekend, I feel like I’m missing out on something.
A great thing about the Cajuns and their culture: they seem to welcome everyone and gladly bring them along. I had a delightful conversation yesterday with Mrs. Patricia Bulber, a dear lady well-known in Lake Charles music and McNeese University circles. Somehow the conversation turned to 'where I am from.’ (Apparently, people here think I have an accent. Imagine that! And I’m often asked, “Where you from?”)
I’m not sure of Mrs. Bulber’s heritage; I only know she is originally from New Orleans and came to Lake Charles in the 1950s to teach music at McNeese. She married her boss, Dr. Francis G. Bulber, but that’s another story.
Anyway, when I told her I’m from Pennsylvania and have lived in Lake Charles for eight years, she said, “Ah, you’re a Cajun now. You like gumbo, right?”
Indeed, I do.
What ethnic or cultural group do you identify with?