The States Project

Louisiana: A French Teacher Lives Among the Cajuns

By | September 2, 2015

An instrument and song book are displayed at the funeral of Jillian Johnson in Lafayette, Louisiana. (Paul Kieu/The Daily Advertiser/AP)

An instrument and song book are displayed at the funeral of Jillian Johnson in Lafayette, Louisiana. (Paul Kieu/The Daily Advertiser/AP)

“So, what do you think about moving to the Third World?” This was the first question that Lynn Blevins, the head of the upper school of the Episcopal School of Acadiana (ESA), asked me during a phone interview in April 2003 for a job as a French teacher at the small, independent day school located just outside Lafayette, Louisiana.

The question was a test. It was a test to see if a “Yankee” finishing up his senior year at a liberal arts school in Minnesota, viewed the Deep South as a cultural backwater and an economic dead zone.

Lafayette, of course, is far from the “Third World.” Recently rated the happiest city in the U.S., Lafayette is home to some 120,000 people. It is located a 120-mile drive west from New Orleans on I-10, the span of U.S. highway that has historically marked the boundary between Catholic and, until recently, Democratic South Louisiana and the rest of the state, which is predominantly Protestant and Republican. Ten years ago this summer, it also served as the evacuation route for tens of thousands of New Orleanians—18,000 of whom found temporary shelter in Lafayette’s “Cajundome.”

More recently, earlier this summer, this highway became part of America’s history of mass shootings, when it served as the likely route that a 59-year-old man took to travel to Lafayette where, in a crowded movie theater on July 23, he opened fire, killing two young women and wounding nine others.

Lafayette has always been a place where trials and triumph exist together just below or on the surface. It is the capital of Acadiana, the region of South Louisiana where, in the mid-eighteenth century, French-speaking Acadians who had been forced from their homes in Canada settled among the swamps and bayous. There, over the next two centuries the Acadians became “Cajuns,” overcoming geographic isolation, poverty, and antagonism from their non-French speaking neighbors, and developing one of the most unique linguistic, culinary, and musical cultures in the world.

Back in 2003, over the phone, I told Blevins that I knew about the important place that Lafayette occupies in the Francophone diaspora. And I told her that that I would be honored to be a “Yankee teaching French to the Cajuns,” and equally honored if the Cajuns would try to teach me how live, dance, speak, and eat as if I were Cajun, too.

I passed Blevins’ test. And I spent three years teaching and coaching cross-country and track at ESA. Located on a former sugarcane farm, most of the school’s classrooms are cottages, built on short stilts to account for the flood-prone region that stands just feet above sea level. Between classes students scamper across elevated wooden walkways that connect the school’s dozen buildings, canopied by massive, 100-year-old pecan and oak trees. More than one visitor has noted that the place looks more like a summer camp in Maine than an elite private school in Louisiana. And it does frequently send a handful of the fifty or so students it graduates each year north to the Ivy Leagues.

Though Acadiana is not the Third World, like many other French Catholic diasporas, Cajuns do live close to and off the land—land that is also surrounded by water in almost every direction. Many locals speak about how they are not just born into families. They are born out of the land and water of South Louisiana—the same land and water that nourishes the food in Cajun cuisine, that supplies the lyrics to Cajun music and that provides the setting for Cajun and Creole folklore. Caroline Helm, who also taught French at ESA and who co-founded “The Figs,” an all-female band, which Helm describes as “Americana with a Cajun spirit,” explained to me that the “adversity” created by the place—which has long been prone to hurricanes and floods and to the vagrancies of the oil industry—makes locals proud of their heritage rooted in overcoming hardship. It also makes them fiercely protective of their own.

 

THE IDENTIFICATION OF the Cajun people with place predates their ancestors’ arrival in South Louisiana. In what is often called “Le Grand Dérangement,” beginning in the 1750s, the English authorities in Canada expelled the Acadians from their homes. The English, then engaged in the Seven Years’ War with the French, believed that these French-speaking Acadians threated their colonization plans. More than 11,500 Acadians were deported, some ending up in other English colonies as faraway as the Falkland Islands or repatriated to French. By 1785, 6,000 had settled in South Louisiana.

After the U.S. acquired the area as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Americans left the Acadians alone to create, together with the region’s other cultural groups, a new ethnic community today known as the Cajuns. By the early twentieth century, the discovery of oil in the region brought more and more English-speaking Americans to the South Louisiana. As Cajun music scholar Ryan André Brasseux has explained, this influx of non-Cajuns, coupled with Progressive-era ideals that valued “Americanizing” regional communities, led to the stigmatization of the Cajuns as “off white.” It was thought they could be made “white” through compulsory public education. Starting in the 1910s, South Louisiana had “English-only schools” where the Cajuns’ “cultural annihilation was standard policy.”

However, by the 1950s this anti-Cajun campaign fell out of favor as Cajun music and Cajun food became increasingly popular outside of South Louisiana. According to Barry Jean Ancelet, the dean of Cajun scholars, the bicentennial of Le Grand Dérangement in 1955 “mildly politicized” the survival of Cajun ethnicity and ushered in what became the “Louisiana French renaissance movement.” In 1968, with the backing of Cajun politicians, the State of Louisiana established the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), with a mandate to “do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana.” CODOFIL’s biggest presence is felt in education. Today, the grandchildren of Cajuns, who were sometimes beaten by their teachers for speaking French, can now choose to attend 26 public schools in which every subject except English is taught in French.

This renaissance of French and Cajun heritage can be heard almost everywhere in Acadiana—from conversations in French (or a French dialect) on the streets of Lafayette to the local public radio station. Every April, Lafayette hosts Le Festival International de Louisiane, which brings in the best musicians from Louisiana (the Figs have performed at Festival) and throughout the Francophone world and beyond, and which now boasts an annual attendance of more than 300,000 visitors.

 

I FIRST VISITED Lafayette the week after the Festival International during my campus visit to ESA. After she picked me up from the airport, Blevins drove me through Lafayette’s compact downtown where the festival is held, as trash crews tidied up the streets. With the festival banners printed in both French and English still hanging from the lampposts, we talked about how, for a French teacher, there is no place in the country where French is more relevant and alive than in South Louisiana.

That was true, but my tenure was not without its difficulties. Because of the intricacies of culture, Helm says she recognizes that moving to Acadiana for many can be “intimidating.” In a place where the rituals of music, food, and dance are revered like religious rites—and the rules of engagements are often mysterious to the uninitiated—a cultural misstep becomes more than a faux pas. “I had a friend from New York who once said that she was in more culture shock [in Lafayette] than in France,” Helm says.

The place can be hard for outsiders to navigate. As one of my former ESA students, Michael Barron, explained to me, because “families in Lafayette have been there forever and tend not to leave,” and because these families are so interconnected through blood or marriage, “people tend to really invest in each other’s lives.” But such investments take decades, even generations, to be established. This means that it’s hard for transients to feel at home in a city where the familial webs are so intertwined. “If you don’t know someone personally, you’ve got a cousin who does,” said Barron, who went to Harvard College before settling outside of New York City. Save for his younger sister currently in Baton Rouge attending LSU, the rest of his family still lives in Lafayette.

According to Barron, these familial webs don’t end at the city limits, but “spread to all corners of the region and state.” And ten years ago this summer, these webs were activated as many in Lafayette hosted family and friends retreating from the flooded streets of New Orleans for the relatively higher ground of their country cousins in Acadiana. I was starting my third year teaching at ESA when Katrina (and her less remembered sister storm, Rita) devastated the Gulf Coast. While the storm and the waters affected almost everyone in New Orleans, the storm was no great equalizer, as has now been well documented. Instead, Katrina mapped New Orleans’ preexisting economic and racial disparities onto the cities to which New Orleanians evacuated—including Lafayette.

Just days after the storm made landfall, wealthy and white families—most with family connections in the area—began showing up at ESA and other private schools around Acadiana to enroll their children in school. I remember talking to one new student about joining the cross country team while her father wrote out check for a full-year’s tuition at the same time he was on the phone with a realtor negotiating to buy a house sight unseen in River Ranch, one of Lafayette’s most expensive new developments. In the days to follow, mostly poor and black families—most with no connection to Lafayette—began arriving by the busload to the Cajundome, Lafayette’s aging sports arena, designed to host the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajun men’s basketball games, not mass evacuations. With little guidance from the state, FEMA, and even the Red Cross, the Cajundome staff and volunteers took charge themselves, triaging arriving evacuees as well as donated goods.

Those evacuees who showed up to the Cajundome brought with them little more than the clothes on their backs. But the fears of violence, which had dominated the media coverage in New Orleans, did follow the evacuees to Lafayette. Before entering the Cajundome, new arrivals had to pass through a metal detector manned by armed guards in camouflage. Racially tinged rumors of young men leaving the Cajundome to rob residents spread throughout the city. In response, for a few days in early September, some parents pulled their children from school and local sporting goods stores saw a spike in firearm sales.

The rumors were unfounded. In the 58 days that the Cajundome remained open as a “mega shelter,” and in the months and years that followed, Lafayette experienced no significant increase in the crime rate related to people displaced by Katrina. While the increased population put a strain on municipal and educational resources, it was a temporary one. Most of the Cajundome evacuees did not stay in the area. Of the 4,600 new students who enrolled in Lafayette public schools in the weeks after the storm, by the end of the 2005-2006 school year, only a few hundred remained.

Katrina was a trial for Lafayette, but one that, some have argued, left the city in better shape than before. Many of those who did stay in the area not only bought houses or condominiums, but also relocated their businesses, leading to an expansion of the local economy and tax base. As part of its ten-year anniversary coverage, in a not-so-subtle juxtaposition with the failures of the state and federal agencies, Lafayette’s daily newspaper, The Daily Advertiser, described the ingenuity and professionalism exhibited by those who ran and volunteered at the Cajundome as setting a new “standard” for how to best respond to future, large-scale disasters. The paper also published a report praising the brave actions of the “Cajun Navy,” some three to four hundred fishermen from Lafayette and surrounding communities who took their boats—which they normally use to fish and hunt in the bayous and basins of South Louisiana—to the flooded streets of New Orleans, where they rescued scores of people trapped on their roofs.

 

THIS SEASON, as Lafayette joins the rest of Louisiana in marking the ten-year anniversary of Katrina, the city is also grappling with another tragedy. My former ESA colleague Caroline Helm lost her bandmate Jillian Johnson, who sang and played ukulele in the Figs in the Lafayette theater shooting on July 23. Johnson, 33, was killed alongside Mayci Breaux, 21, a local college student. ESA’s most prominent benefactor Dwight “Bo” Ramsey and his wife Gerry were also shot at the theater, though they are both expected to survive.

Theodicy fails us in the wake of shootings. Lafayette’s State Representative Terry Landry, Sr., has called for more gun control legislation, especially in relation to the mentally ill. Yet, aware of the intractability of the politics, Caroline Helm has told me, “Jillian’s family are focused less on guns and more on shining a light on the life that she lived.”

What I found striking, and particularly true to the culture of South Louisiana is how the family and friends of Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson chose to “shine this light” not only on the lives that they lived, but how their virtues reflected the particular place they called home. In the Advertiser’s remembrance of Mayci Breaux, mourners pointed to the fact that, as the carnival queen for her high school in Franklin, Louisiana, she represented the school community in the town’s Mardi Gras celebration. Mayci’s mother, Dondie Breaux, spoke about plans that her daughter had to marry her longtime boyfriend, Matthew Rodriguez, who was also wounded in the shooting and who like Mayci came form another family who has been in the area for generations.

The remembrances that have been offered for Jillian Johnson are similarly moving and self-referential. In perhaps the most circulated obituary, in the Lafayette-based Independent, Christiaan Mader wrote that Johnson “adopted Lafayette, but reminded us of what was best about us: our self-effacing self-aggrandizement, our love of swamp pop and plate lunches. She sold Lafayette to Lafayettians. And she succeeded because she probably knew this place better than any born native did.”

Caroline Helm told me that actually Johnson didn’t need to adopt the city, because she was a native-born Louisianan, with deep family roots in Cajun Country (Perhaps Jillian’s not-so-Cajun last name was the source of the confusion about her true origins). While she did grow up in Nashville, she returned to Lafayette for college. After earning an art degree, Johnson became a central figure in the art and music scene in Lafayette. She did the art design for prominent Louisiana musical acts, including the Red Stick Ramblers (who were featured on HBO’s Treme) as well as her own band, the Figs. With her husband, Jason Brown, she owned Red Arrow Workshop with locations in Lafayette’s River Ranch and in New Orleans, which sells Louisiana-themed gifts, including a line of apparel produced by Parish Ink, which Jillian ran with her brother. Friends said her most popular t-shirt design was a silk-screen of the I-10 logo. “This is our little tribute to the beautiful ribbon of highway that stretches from sea to shining sea,” reads the Parish Ink description. “It just so happens to run though our very favorite place, south Louisiana.” Helm told the Advertiser for that Johnson helped create the “brand” that is Lafayette. “There are politicians and people that sit around and talk about what they can do for Lafayette. Jillian just did it with her creativity. We are all better for it.”

The morning after Johnson’s death, Helm, still in tears from a night spent reeling after the loss of her dear friend, was in her car, waiting in the drive-thru line at Community Coffee, the Baton-Rouge based coffee chain. “I don’t know if the person in front of me knew me or saw me crying,” she told me, “but I approached the window and my coffee was already paid for.”

It was a small gesture, but for Helm it signifies something particular to her hometown. In Lafayette, Helm explains, “People do allow tragedies to change them. All the time, I notice most everyone being nicer and more giving. Of course, this will fade into the new norm, but I believe we are forever changed as a community.”

Still, this new norm will not include the one-time carnival queen from Franklin, on the cusp of her building her own Louisiana life. Nor will it include the “Nurturing Queen of Lafayette,” as Helm described her friend Jillian, deep-voiced, “tall and powerful.” A new norm perhaps. But without Mayci and Jillian, who loved their South Louisiana home and whose South Louisiana home loved them back, it’s not necessarily a better one.

Long live Queen Mayci. Long live Queen Jillian.

Max Perry Mueller is a contributing editor to Religion & Politics.

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