Many years ago, I left the place that birthed and nurtured me, and made home in other parts of the world. I’ve been back a while, but this is the year I’ve determined to reconnect with my roots, and as T.S. Eliot observed, “…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive from where we started and know the place for the first time.” So far, it’s been eye-opening and heartwarming, but also at times heartbreaking.
Besides happily re-connecting with old friends, I’m learning new reasons to be proud of them, and learning about some astonishing collective history.
I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for those who settled in, and struggled for, existence in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, located a few miles downriver from New Orleans, where I spent my growing up years. It’s a place of hardy, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people.
In the early nineteen-hundreds, a number of the population were “Islenos” -- immigrants from the Canary Islands – who made their living principally by fishing and trapping. It was a bare and difficult life, made even more difficult in 1926 when Leander Perez, a powerful politician, tried to cheat them out of their fur-trapping lands. The trappers defended their means of livelihood in a situation that erupted into armed violence. They held their ground. (Their story is told in a documentary film called Delta Justice: The Islenos Trappers War.)
Then in 1927, residents of the area that included parts of St. Bernard and Plaquemine Parishes, suffered again when officials dynamited the Mississippi River levee, flooding all their land and displacing them, ostensibly (though wrongfully maintained), in order to save the city of New Orleans from flooding. The people’s objections were no match for federal, state, and city authorities. The order gave the residents only two and a half days to evacuate their homes and the area. (See “Rising Tide” by John M. Barry.) And although the victims had been “promised” in advance compensation for their losses, those promises were broken.
The great depression came to the country just a few years later, and in more recent years, these people have been beset by hurricanes. Yet, the Islenos, and other residents of lower St. Bernard and Plaquemine Parishes still survive. They are characterized by their hard work, close families, and ability to make music and enjoy their lives. Stalwarts.
If you visit the village of St. Bernard for the annual Islenos Festival, and join in their celebration with song and dance and good food, it’s easy to forget their struggles and trials, including the looming loss of their very land to the incursion of Gulf waters. Yet the people of St. Bernard are a proud part of the strong working fabric that defines our nation.