Today is October 31st, Halloween for most Americans. A day to dress up like someone else, trick or treat, enjoy parties, and wonder about the “After life” or the “horrors of the past”. All be it, in many cultures and society something similar to the “Day of the Dead” will take place tomorrow, November 1st. The Day of the Dead also known as Dia de los Muertos a popular holiday in Mexico and Latin America, isn’t only celebrated south of the border.
(Photo: National Geographic)
The celebration Dia de los Muertos has deep roots in the Catholic faith and religion. Therefore, other Catholic cultures have something similar, including Louisiana. In Louisiana, “La Toussaint” is a day to honor the Saints and the dead. During this time, many families across Southern & Central Louisiana will visit the graves of loved ones and refurbish the beauty of the graves. Often times this tradition is celebrated within Catholic population. However, many Protestant church goers in Louisiana also participate during this celebration because of the strong Catholic culture of the region.
To learn more about Louisiana’s La Toussaint (All Hallows) Celebration CLICK HERE.
Here is a short video of All Saint’s Night in a small Creole community of LaCombe, Louisiana.
The Louisiana Creole music is a strong part of Louisiana life, especially in Southwest Louisiana. The Zydeco music (aka LaLa music) is an old folk music sung by many rural Creole communities. This genre is unique in the fact it has several multicultural influences, predominantly African, Native American, and French. The music historically was sung in Louisiana French and Louisiana Creole. All be it, today many musicians sing in English or a mix of English and Louisiana French. The music continues to evolve, with modern Hip Hop and R&B influences.
All be it, some musicians continue the original sounds and patterns of this unique genre. One of my favorite artists, not just in Zydeco, but in general is Cedric Watson. A native of Texas and now a South Louisiana resident, is very passionate about the Creole culture and music. He sings predominantly in Louisiana French and Louisiana Creole. He truly helps us to hear the Louisiana music as though it was sung 60 years ago in the 21st century. If you are a lover of Zydeco or music in general, you need to know Cedric Watson.
He has toured the world bringing the sounds of Louisiana to international stages. He has been working with his band for some years now, called Cedric & Bijou Creole. The band has put out several CDs all of which is of excellent quality, I’d recommend any of the albums.
Here is a clip of Cedric singing the song, Pa Janvier (For January)
LE TROUBADOUR CREOLE
In the future, we hope to hear more of Cedric Watson and more traditional sounds of Zydeco. Allons Danser!
To learn more about this artist who is keeping that old Creole spirit alive in Zydeco, CLICK HERE.
In the heart of Cajun Country there is a small outpost of Laos provided by Lanexang Village. The village was created in the early 1980s by refugees from the fighting in Southeast Asia, and today northern Iberia Parish is home to roughly 67 families. In the Laotian language, the village’s name means “million elephants”–Lane means “million” andxang means “elephant.” Approximately 2000 Laotians live in the Acadiana region. Lanexang Village continues to celebrate the Laotian New Year Songkran–their main traditional celebration–over Easter weekend.
Lanexang’s temple’s name is Wat Thammarattanaram.“Wat” is the Laotian word for temple, and“Thammarattanaram” refers to the chanting the monks perform. Laotians founded the temple, but it also serves the spiritual needs for Thai and Cambodian residents in the Lafayette and New Iberia area. In front of the temple is the small, three-street community that comprises Lanexang Village. The houses are Western in style and aside from the street names–Lungprabang Street, Suvanaket Street, Vientia Street, cities and provinces in Laos–and the residents’ shoes neatly placed by their front doors, one could not distinguish it from any other local neighborhood. At the back of the community, however, the Laotian presence becomes abundantly apparent. A brick wall runs roughly a hundred yards in front of the temple’s grounds, demarcating the temple from the village, and on top of the brick columns is the same teardrop design that can be seen on a Therevadan Buddhist cremation urn.
The festival commenced around 10 a.m. on Friday on the temple grounds with an offering ceremony received by monks. The ceremony ends in early afternoon, at which time people return to their homes, most of which are walking distance from the temple. Later in the afternoon, they return to the temple’s covered, open-air building that serves as a dance floor and stage for the Miss Sankhara pageant, a beauty pageant for high school girls.
On Saturday morning, people begin arriving at the temple around 7 a.m.; many bring offerings of household goods for the monks. After the ceremony, traditional Laotian food is served to the monks and then the lay persons. At 1 p.m., a small parade winds its way through the village’s three streets before entering the temple grounds, where the revelry continues well into the morning. Sunday’s activities start closer to noon, and the day is spent in more leisurely shopping and eating at outdoor shops set up on the temple grounds.
Laos lies at the crossroads of the Asian continent, assimilating aspects of Indian and Sino/Chinese cultures. The mythic story behind Songkran embodies this point. This Hindu myth came to Laos from India. When Hinduism arrived, the indigenous people already practiced animism. Later, when most Laotians adopted Therevadan Buddhism, they did not dispel the Hindu or animistic beliefs and imagery in their myths. Now, early in the 21st century, Lanexang Village is adapting the festival to fit their lives in America. For example, according to the 2007 lunar calendar used in Laos, Songkran fell on April 13, 14, and 15. Lanexang community leaders changed the date of their festival to coincide with Easter, thereby giving the community members a long weekend in which to enjoy New Years. Despite the fact that Songkran at Lanexang’s temple is not held on the traditional three days, according to community leaders their Songkran festival is the largest Laotian festival of any kind held in the United States and the only Laotian Songkran festival in the United States. Mr. Somvang Somemangkshala, one of the festival’s planners, says that each year approximately “3 or 4000 people attend, and not all are members of the local community. Laotians come from Houston, Dallas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Washington, D.C., and California. Sometimes friends and family who have been separated since immigrating to America find each other at the festival.”
Like all groups who have immigrated to America, Laotians have brought their foodways with them, and Songkran is a time to enjoy traditional cuisine. On the temple grounds, booths are set up where people cook and serve food. They sell somtam (papaya salad with small crabs, tomatoes, dried shrimp, fish sauce, and sugar), plara (ground fish that is very salty), guaytial (noodle soup with meatballs of either beef or pork), and koatom (rice soup made with pork, chicken, or seafood). Laotian merchants from other states attend the Songkran festival to sell wares such as small mango trees and kaffir-lime plants, the leaves of which are used as a flavoring in curry dishes. These dishes, fruits, and vegetables are central to the traditional Laotian and Thai diet–there is much overlap in the two nations’ cuisines–and are difficult to find outside of meals in Laotian homes or at the temple after a ceremony. The food served in the temple in the morning is delicious and consists of a wider variety of dishes. There is, for instance, a dessert called tao-suan, made of green beans, sugar, coconut milk, water, salt, and potato flour. Tao-suan is very sweet with a taste and consistency of rice pudding. Outside the temple, food vendors, who are mainly Lanexang residents, offer choices ranging from grilled chicken to noodle soup. The most ubiquitous dish offered is kao-larm–sticky rice with black beans grilled inside of bamboo. While tao-suan is a common dessert that is cooked on regular occasions, kao-larm is a traditional Laotian holiday food.
At the 2007 celebration, women’s dress for the offering ceremonies on Friday and Saturday mornings was mainly traditional, which means a silk skirt and top. The men mainly wore western-style clothes–jeans or slacks–but at the offering ceremony most of the men wear a traditional sash of silk over their shirts. The sash is removed after the offering ceremonies. At Friday night’s dance the men wore western-style clothes, mainly suits for the older men and slacks or jeans for the younger men and teenagers. The middle-aged and older women wore traditional Laotian silk wrap-around skirts and blouses that are usually short-sleeve and match the color and pattern of the skirt. Or they wear contemporary dresses in the traditional style. The younger women and teenagers mainly wore western dresses, slacks, or jeans.
One group of young women wearing traditional dresses were the contestants of the Miss Sankhara pageant at the dance Friday night. The Friday night dance began at approximately at 8 p.m. and went on until 2 a.m. In the past, the dance was held in New Iberia at a community center in the city’s park, but now the Lanexang villagers have built a covered stage and dance floor on the temple’s grounds. At 10:30 pm Friday night, the contestants emerged one by one from back of the stage dressed in bright silk dresses. There were seven contestants, all high school students from the various Laotian communities represented at the festival, who lined up across the front of the stage. At 11:15 p.m. the contestants returned in western evening gowns, and as they came out, they stopped at the microphone and gave information about themselves in Laotian, then again lined up. After this portion of the pageant, the politicking began, as friends and family members of the contestants tried to convince those around them for whom they should vote. On the bottom of the dance tickets were the numbers one through seven, each corresponding to the contestants, and people circled the number of the contestant they liked the best. Once that was done, people took their tickets to a large table that sat on the edge of the dance floor, and placed the tickets in a ballot box that was covered in festive paper and a large purple bow. The voting was a gradual process; people cast their choices into the box slowly over the next two hours. After hours of politicking by some revelers for their favorite contestant, the contestant from Texas was elected the winner.
On Saturday morning, people began arriving at the temple as early as 8 a.m., and around 10 a.m., the second of the festival’s offering ceremonies is held. This offering ceremony has many people, but less than Friday morning’s ceremony and for this reason Saturday morning’s ceremony is held inside the temple. Once the ceremony is finished, the monks are given the food that has been cooked by members of the community. The monks are fed first because they are not allowed to eat after noon. Once the monks have finished, more food is brought out on low tables and people begin gathering and enjoying a traditional Laotian lunch of sticky rice (the staple of Laotian cuisine) and numerous combinations of meats and vegetables, many of which may be too spicy for the average American palate. However, there are other dishes served such as grilled chicken, which is not spicy.
In 2007, Saturday was cloudy, windy, and cold. As the parade commenced a little after 1 p.m., so did sleet, tat-tat-tatting heads, caps, and umbrellas. In 2003, the parade had only three floats, but this year it had seven floats. Despite the small number of floats, this was no subdued affair, for every one in attendance was raucous. The first float in the 2007 parade (and in every year’s parade) carried three golden statues of Buddha; on the second float sat the Nang-Songkran pageant contestants. Over their ornate and brightly-colored traditional dresses they wore yellow sports jackets and held bamboo umbrellas due to the wet weather. The third float was Lanexang Village’s; the revelers wore bright red t-shirts announcing the year (2550) as the year of the Boar. The truck had speakers mounted in its bed and it played a Laotian song (melodic and bluesy) to which women in traditional dress (also bright red and trimmed in black) danced. Behind them were the revelers. Beers and bottles of cognac in hand, they exhorted, cheered, mimicked, and all around had a playful time as the parade progressed. The revelers’ big moment, along with that of the traditional dancers, occurred a few feet before they entered the temple grounds. They stopped on the street and danced for judges consisting of Laotian leaders and political figures in Iberia Parish. The traditional dance troop performed a choreographed dance for the judges, and behind them were most of the members of Lanexang Village having a high time. This continued with four other floats consisting of Laotians from other states.
hrowing water is the most well known aspect of Songkran–many westerners who have witnessed Songkran festivities in Laos simply call it the Water Festival. In Laos, the water-play is ubiquitous–everyone participates throughout the festival, but at Lanexang, the water-play is for the children, who use water guns to drench each other. While the water-play may seem to be simply a fun activity, it has a deeper symbolic meaning. In Laotian culture, water is the symbol of life for, without water, the main crop of rice could not grow and sustain the people. Therefore, unlike western cultures in which the sun is often seen as the most powerful force of nature, in Southeast Asia water holds the prominent rank. On a practical point, in Laos Songkran falls during the hottest season of the year, and drenching others with water, which is often chilled with ice, gives all a cooling break from the tropical heat. From the spiritual aspect, water is a purifier, washing away bad luck, sins, and infirmities.
While the water-play at Lanexang is not as pervasive as it is in Laos, the water here, just as in Laos, is scented with perfume, so that the water not only cools one but also contains a good smell that is symbolic of good tidings for the coming year. In addition to water-play, it is customary in Laos to make a white powder with curcuma, an herb in the ginger family that is used in many important Laotian and Thai ceremonies such as weddings. The white powder is rubbed gently on peoples’ faces and is intended to bring good luck for them in the new year. In place of the powder, however, Lanexang vendors sell extra large bottles of shaving cream. Instead of rubbing powder on others’ faces, the children, when they are not soaking each other with water, spray shaving cream on each other. Lanexang’s residents, consciously or not, have altered Songkran’s traditional acts of throwing water and rubbing white powder on others’ faces, and these acts have become the domain of the children.
There are two temples on the grounds; the original one is a brick building, soft gray in color that resembles a ranch-style house. The only distinguishing feature is the powder-blue metal roof that has the peaks and pointed corners in the Southeast Asian style. The new temple sits closer to the street; the roof is four-stories high, and with the stylistic peaks, it makes for an impressive structure. Over the doorway is a sparkling painting of the Buddha sitting with some of his orange-robed disciples.
After the parade, the trucks that had pulled the parade floats parked on the temple grounds and continued blasting music, while people danced around their floats and under the covered dance floor where the Friday night dance was held. On the grounds near the old temple were vendors’ tents that sold food, Laotian and Thai CDs and DVDs, as well as traditional and non-traditional clothes. The food vendors were members of the local Laotian community, but the clothing and music vendors came from Texas, Georgia, and Illinois. Cajun and American influences on the festival were found at the tent nearest the ground’s entranceway. While the majority of the food vendors sold only Laotian food–the most common being papaya salad and barbecued chicken–this tent offered Cajun fare: crawfish boudin and cracklins.
One of the clothing tents specialized in t-shirts and, taking a cue from the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign, they offered shirts that begged the questions: “Got Rice?” and “Got Sticky Rice?” Rice, of course, is the staple of Laotian food, and sticky rice is a traditional Laotian delicacy. Here we see the merging of traditional foodways with American marketing strategies, and the newest t-shirt at this year’s festival combined Laos [and] Louisiana to proclaim: “Lao-weezeeana.”
Sunday was the final day of the festival, and people began arriving at Wat Thammarattanaram late in the morning. Around 4 or 5 p.m., those who wanted to help build the chedi, which traditionally was often a sand sculpture. There was not a strict schedule kept, so if people were having fun eating and mingling, the chedi was built later in the evening. Once it was built on the temple grounds, the monk leads the people in prayer around the sand sculpture. Chedis in Laos can be ornate structures, but this year in Lanexang the chedi was simply a mound of dirt that was decorated, primarily by older women and small children, with brightly colored flags. Traditionally, the chedi served a practical purpose of replenishing the dirt around a temple, because throughout the year the traffic of visitors to a temple would cause the ground around the temple to lower, so after the chedi was blessed, the sculpture was destroyed and its dirt spread around a temple. Lanexang’s original temple has concrete and asphalt parking lot on two sides and the newer temple has a concrete and asphalt parking in front of it, hence there is no need for distributing dirt at their bases. The building of Lanexang’s chedi was a traditional symbolic act.
After the chedi was decorated and blessed, usually around 6 p.m., the people who brought birds to release gathered and a monk led the people in prayer and then threw the birds into the air. This final merit-making act to improve one’s karma signaled the end of the festival.
Songkran has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, and for Lanexang Village of Iberia Parish the festival is a way of maintaining Laotian culture in their new country, as well as a way to invite non-Laotians to their community. Lanexang Village’s Songkran celebration can be broken into constants and variants. The constants are the traditional clothing, traditional food, traditional music, traditional dance, language, the spirituality and rituals. The variants are the days the festival is held, shaving cream replacing the white powder, the water play being less frenetic and confined to children’s activities, the selling of Cajun boudin and cracklins, the t-shirts asking “Got Rice?” and proclaiming that this area, at least for this weekend, is Lao-weezeeana. The members of the greater Lanexang Laotian community are doing an excellent job of preserving their culture, while at the same time not turning their backs on American culture. They are neither stifled by their older culture, nor are they overrun by their new culture.
The culture of Louisiana has and continues to mimic the Caribbean-Latin experience more so than the traditional Southern experience. The main reason being Louisiana’s Latin heritage, a Francophone region with both French and Spanish ties. The culture parallels closely to Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands. Here are 5 reasons Louisiana is indeed a Caribbean state:
1. The Heritage Languages: French, Louisiana Creole, and Spanish are the heritage languages of Louisiana and still spoken by tens of thousands throughout the state.
2. The Catholic religion, Louisiana is widely a Christian state. With that being said, many towns and cities have large Catholic Christian populations. While there are many protestant followers in the state, historically Louisiana was a Catholic colony under the French and Spanish rule.
(replica of the church at Ft. St. Jean Baptiste in the first French settlement in Natchitoches in the Louisiana colony)
3. Carnival, often called Mardi Gras, is more than a 1 day celebration. This is a celebration lasting weeks, involving hundreds of festivities. The holiday is even a state holiday, many schools, universities, government offices, and business are closed on “Mardi Gras Day”. This celebration culturally is a Caribbean-Latin celebration celebrated in countries such as Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, etc.
4. The food: SEAFOOD, Louisiana couldn’t survive without seafood. What is more Caribbean than eating from the waters, Louisiana’s diet is strictly from the Gulf, a bayou, a lake, or from a river.
5. Our ancestors are cousins to those from the islands. The population of Louisiana is very diverse, our ancestors are from a number of different countries. Not to mention, thousands came from the Dominican Republic/Haiti, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to name a few places. We literally are related to many of the citizens in the islands. In fact, our music such as Zydeco is considered a cousin to Haitian Kompa and Dominican Merengue.
Brass Bands are to New Orleans like the Statue of Liberty is to New York City, Brass Bands are to New Orleans like the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco, Brass Bands are an *essential* piece to the New Orleans culture, heritage, and livelihood. If you have never heard a brass band live in the middle of a New Orleans street, surrounded by hundreds of people dancing and dozens of umbrellas and handkerchiefs moving, I am sorry, you are missing out on one of life’s best moments.
In saying this, there are many well known secondline/brass bands in New Orleans. The Rebirth Brass band is a personal favorite, not to mention there is the Treme Brass Band. However, we now have another brass band taking it to the streets. This brass band is a unique one in the fact, that it is an ALL FEMALE BRASS BAND. Yes indeed, you heard me, all female brass band. The Original Pinettes Brass Band is a New Orleans band that started in the 1990s by students at St. Mary’s Catholic School.
The band is truly transforming the way we look at New Orleans Brass Bands. But, don’t take my word for it, check ‘em out:
It is a worldwide celebration of creole peoples everywhere-from Louisiana, to the Caribbean, to Brazil and even Cape Verde. It is a cultural celebration.
On a Facebook post, my Louisiana Creole community posted a question:
“You know you are a Louisiana Creole if…”
Undoubtedly, one individual had to pounce on this as an opportunity to insinuate that all Creoles of Color simply do not which to identify as black.
As a lover of history and culture, I thought it my duty to share the difference between nationality, race and ethnicity.
Race is a social construct created by government agencies, based on physical features. (check your skin).
Nationality is your country of birth and/or where you have citizenship. (check your paperwork)
Ethnicity is a cultural identity based on language, religion, and/or a shared history/ancestry. (check with your people)
So, if you want to label me, here are my boxes:
Ethnicity: Louisiana Creole
Ignorant people are unable to make the distinctions between these classification systems. They, often tend to shout the loudest, not knowing they are only making a fool of themselves. Race, nationality and ethnicity are not mutually exclusive. In other words, one label does not determine the other. My race does not change if I renounce my American citizenship and become British. Being American doesn’t automatically make me black. Claiming my Creole heritage does not mean I am not a proud black woman.
Some might ask, well what is the best way to identify? Identity is a mixture of where you were born/reside (nationality), how other people view you (race), and who your people are (ethnicity).
Why I think more people should identify by ethnicity:
America is an extremely racialized society. Since, our country is this way. Many assume other nations are this way as well. Race was created as a means to belittle and control people on government terms. It is a way to manipulate people by creating a permanent class system. It also assumes that because people share physical features they are more closely related biologically otherwise. We know this is false.
Nationality is an extremely broad category. The US, like most modern countries is a multiethnic melting pot (or tossed salad). In a country with over 300 million people, we are as diverse as they come. Traveling from one state to another is similar to traveling between small countries elsewhere. Each region has its on flavor. So by identifying solely as an American, fails to show the diversity in our experiences. Being American is different for a Texan vs. New Englander.
Ethnicity is about finding your kinfolk. It is the closest link to other human beings after blood relatives. It is based on a shared history and often a shared ancestry. (Is my history more closely related to a white Louisiana Creole or to a black Kikuyu Kenyan? Even though our skin color is different, we have more in common with a white Louisiana Creole. A Kikuyu speaks a different language, has a different religion, has no link to America and biologically are extremely different form my ancestors from Central and West Africa.)
Identifying as Creole is about acknowledging our of shared cultural history. It is about community-building, not race-baiting.
Louisiana has been losing residents by the thousands for decades, equaling to hundreds of thousands of individuals who have left in a pursuit for a better life. The reasons are normally the same: economical issues, educational opportunities, and even at times political corruption.
According to a Louisiana.gov study the state had the first positive net migration in 2008-2009 since 1981. In fact, during the 2000s decade, Louisiana led the nation in net migration loss, this does include Hurricane Katrina numbers. However, families have been leaving the bayous of Louisiana for a long time. During the years of 1985-1990 alone an estimated 250,000-300,000 Louisiana residents left the state. Because of this, Louisiana even lost representation during the 2010 election.
In saying this, people left for different reasons. Many of our families had their reasons for leaving, listed below are some examples of why people left Louisiana:
1930s-1950s: Racism, loss of agricultural jobs in the south, Industrialization in larger cities, especially in the north, educational opportunities, the Great Migration
1960s-Present: Better paying jobs, loss of agricultural life in the south, lack of educational opportunities, natural disasters (During the past century, hurricanes have flooded New Orleans six times: in 1915, 1940, 1947, 1965, 1969 and 2005 -history.com)
The reasons are numerous and many reasons aren’t even listed. However, recent data explains the young, educated, and talent of Louisiana are leaving because of the difference in pay. In 2008 a Louisiana resident on average would expect wages of $37,529 compared to others who left of $45,949.
With that said, Louisiana realizes people leaving is a major problem. The loss of talent hurts industries and makes it harder to find qualified individuals for certain jobs. Not to mention, the people that know Louisiana best are those whose roots are in Louisiana. A new campaign that is quickly gaining momentum is asking for Louisiana’s children to “Come Home”. The Come Home, Louisiana campaign highlights that Louisiana provides a “Work. Life. Balance.” atmosphere.
The following are a few campaign ADs calling the children of Louisiana home:
“They say everything is bigger in Texas…but bigger is not always better” -Reginald Belizaire
“I love New York, but I always did what I could to keep Louisiana with me…” -Alix Gonsoulin
Miss home? Born and raised in Louisiana and want to return home? Is your family from Louisiana and you consider it to be your home? CLICK HEREto start the process of returning home.