|Regions with significant populations|
|Louisiana (mainly Saint Bernard Parish, Valenzuela in Assumption Parish, & around Galvez in Ascension Parish)|
|American English • Spanish and also French|
|predominantly Roman Catholic.|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Spanish Americans, Canarians (Canarian Americans), Hispanos (Californios, Tejanos, Nuevomexicanos), Louisiana Creole people|
The Isleños of Louisiana are an ethnic group living in the U.S. state of Louisiana, consisting in people of primarily Canarian Spanish descent. Most of its members are descendants of settlers from the Canary Islands who settled in Spanish Louisiana during the 18th century, between 1778 and 1783. The term can also informally be applied to anyone of Canarian descent or to a Canarian immigrant living in Louisiana. This term is to be distinguished from the term "Isleños", which refers to people of Canarian descent now living in any country of the Americas.
The Isleños in Louisiana make up four communities that speak dialects of Spanish, these include the Isleños of Saint Bernard Parish who have managed to preserve their culture as well as their dialect of Canarian Spanish, although none of the younger generation speak more than a few words; the Brulis, who live in scattered households in southern Louisiana and speak a dialect with French loan words; and the Adaeseños in the Natchitoches and Sabine parishes who speak a very similar dialect with loan words from the Nahuatl language of Mexico. The Isleño communities of Saint Bernard parish have also preserved the Spanish Canarian dialect spoken from the 18th century to present times, although it is in danger of dying out with the last speakers among the elderly segment of the population.
The success of the Isleños in Louisiana and Texas in preserving their culture has led some historians and anthropologists, such as Jose Manuel Balbuena Castellano, to consider the Isleño American community a national heritage of both of the United States and the Canary Islands.
By the late 16th century vineyards covered much of Tenerife, and by the mid-1650s the export of its wines to England had become crucial to the economy of the Canary Islands. With the crisis occasioned by the collapse of the trade in the Canarian malvasia wine (called "malmsey" in England) in the 18th century, there was an increase in poverty. Beginning in the late 1700s, prickly pear cactuses were grown in the Canary Islands to serve as hosts plants for cochineal insects from which the dye carmine was made. It became a major export of the islands in its own right, but this trade collapsed in its turn after the dye began to be produced synthetically in Europe. Most of the affected people were farmers and laborers who had lost their jobs and whose only sustenance was in marginal activities like selling coal, mining, begging, etc. The lack of employment opportunities and a policy of inadequate land distribution led to popular uprisings. The mobilization of the army for service in Europe and America impinged negatively on the islands as well. The Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, desiring to populate the newly acquired territory, sought recruits from the Canary Islands (preferably married with children) to join the Spanish Army and be sent to Louisiana, offering them an opportunity to escape the subsistence economy and improve their situation. A few thousand chose to do so.
At the request of Governor Gálvez, the Spanish authorities authorized the transportation of Canary Islander soldiers and their families to the colony in 1778. Between November 1778 and July 1779, around 1600 Isleños arrived in New Orleans, and another group of about 300 came in 1783. In 1779 three Isleño communities were founded. About 400 of the immigrants were sent to the new settlement of Galveztown. Two hundred other Canarians settled at Valenzuela, while a third group settled St. Bernard in 1779. This colony was augmented by the 300 settlers who arrived in 1783. Many of the settlers, however, were relocated in Louisiana for different reasons: Barataria suffered two hurricanes in 1779 and in 1780, so it was abandoned and its population was distributed in other areas of Louisiana (although some of its settlers migrated to West Florida) and in 1782, a splinter group of the Canarian settlers of Saint Bernard emigrated to Valenzuela and intermarried with the Cajuns already living there. Later, in 1790 another group of settlers of Canarian and Mexican origin left the settlement at Galveston, Texas to escape the sudden floods and prolonged droughts of the area and settled in Galveztown, Louisiana, .
In 1782, during the American Revolution, Bernardo de Gálvez recruited Isleños from the three Canarian settlements of Louisiana and Galveztown to join the revolution. They participated in the three major military campaigns: (Baton Rouge, Mobile and Pensacola), which expelled the British from the Gulf Coast. In September 1814, the Isleños heard of a possible British invasion, leading them to organize three companies of a regiment, and on December 16, 1814, they fought against the British in one of the battles of the War of 1812 (which actually was fought 1812–15). Since then, different Isleño communities have had separate histories.
Isleños are descendants of emigrants from the Canary Islands, the majority of them descended from Canarian settlers who arrived in Louisiana between 1778 and 1783. According to the linguist Samuel G. Armistead, there are four small areas of the state where the Spanish language has been spoken since the 18th century, now in three different dialects. The main Isleño community in Louisiana is in St. Bernard Parish. Although most of its members, especially the younger people, speak only English, some of the older Isleños still speak a rustic and antiquated Canarian Spanish and maintain traditions like roasting pig and hunting small birds. The other communities of Canarian descent include the Brulis, who live in scattered households in southern Louisiana; they speak a Spanish dialect with French infusions, while the Adaeseños in Natchitoches and Sabine parishes speak a very similar dialect, with loan words from the Nahuatl language of Mexico. Recorded interviews have been conducted in these communities with the elderly residents, who still speak their dialect of the Spanish language on video and DVD. They are kept in the Museo Canario (Canarian Museum) in Saint Bernard to prevent the language and culture from being lost.
The Louisiana Isleños maintain contact with the Canary Islands, and have an annual Caldo festival, named for a native dish. Modern Canary Islanders travel to the United States to take part in the festivities; Canarian dancers, singers, and even the King and Queen of Spain have attended. After Hurricane Katrina, the Spanish government in the Canary Islands donated money to help repair the Canary Islander Museum and historical properties in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.
The St. Bernard settlement was first called La Concepción and Nueva Gálvez by the Spanish officials, but was later renamed Terre aux Boeufs by the French and Tierra de Bueyes by the Spanish settlers, both meaning "Land of Cattle". By the end of the 1780s, however, the name "St. Bernard", the patron saint of Bernardo de Gálvez, was being used for the settlement in documents describing the area. The majority of the Isleño population was long concentrated in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, where most of their traditional customs continued. Other Isleños settled throughout southeast Louisiana and around New Orleans.
Saint Bernard parish was populated by two groups of Canarian families in 1779 and 1783. The first group, called the el Primero Poblacin (the First Settlement), settled in 1779 in what became the villages of St. Bernard and Toca, while the second group, el Segundo Poblacin (the Second Settlement), were among the first to settle in a town they named in honor of their home village of Benchijigua on the island of La Gomera. Altogether, 85 families, made up of 393 Canary Islanders from Gomera, migrated to Louisiana.
With the arrival of French-speaking sugarcane planters in the region, the name of the village changed to Bencheque; it is now known as Bencheque-Reggio. After the colonists reached Saint Bernard the Spanish government gave land to each family, the amount depending on their size, and the colonists built their own houses. The Spanish Crown supplied money, food, tools and clothing annually to the Isleños until 1785, when the settlement was declared to be self-sufficient. Over the years, they intermarried with people of French and of Native American descent.
The Isleños, who were mostly farmers, harvested sugar cane and cut cypress trees. Although the area was settled by people from five of the Canary Islands (mostly by people from Tenerife (45%) and Gran Canaria (40%) and to a lesser extent by people from Lanzarote, La Palma and Gomera), it was the people of Tenerife who brought cattle to Saint Bernard. The traditional knowledge these rancher immigrants had of cattle raising was valued, and ranchers from Louisiana and eastern Texas sometimes brought herds to St. Bernard to be domesticated by the Canarians living there.
St. Bernard Church, founded in 1785, was the first parish church established south of New Orleans after the American Revolutionary War, while the first permanent church in Saint Bernard was built in 1787 in Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs. The Isleño cemetery began the same year; at first the dead were buried in the churchyard, but then the burial grounds were moved to a site facing the church. By 1790 sugarcane had replaced indigo as the most profitable crop in Louisiana. Wealthy planters purchased the Isleños' land, many of whom were left with little choice but to work on the plantations consolidated from their small farms. In addition, Saint Bernard supplied the market in New Orleans with much of the garlic, onions, beans, potatoes and poultry that the city consumed between the late 18th and early 19th century.
While many worked on the sugarcane plantations in the 19th century, duck hunting, gathering Spanish moss, horticulture, cattle breeding and carpentry were other occupations. Between 1800 and 1900 an important commerce developed in seafood and fish caught by Isleños fishermen and sold to New Orleans restaurants. In 1820, many Isleño farmers abandoned agriculture and settled in the eastern basin of Saint Bernard where a fishing community grew in Delacroix Island. There was a large trade in shrimp, fish and crabs that were sold in New Orleans.
In the early 19th century, some groups of Isleños emigrated to other areas of Louisiana. Many Isleños initially opposed the coming of the railroad to Saint Bernard parish in 1850, but it meant easier transportation of their sugarcane, harvested produce and dressed game animals to New Orleans. In the 1860s some of the Isleños fought in the American Civil War on the Confederate side. After the end of the war, there were food shortages throughout the South, including St. Bernard parish, and hunting became even more important to the Isleños, as it already was for the Cajuns around New Orleans. In the early 20th century, the state of Louisiana built roads into Saint Bernard, allowing its men to more easily reach the city to sell the seafood they harvested from the salt marshes, as well as otter and ermine pelts.
On September 29, 1915, a hurricane devastated Saint Bernard Parish, leaving almost three hundred dead, many of them Isleño fishermen, hunters and trappers. The Spanish flu then spread among the survivors and decimated the population. In 1927, the Mississippi River flooded, and on April 15, 15 inches (380 mm) of rain fell on New Orleans and more than 40 inches (1.0 m) of water covered the streets of the city. The level of neighboring Lake Pontchartrain rose, but there was no serious flooding. Local politicians, pressured by the bankers of the city, then took a drastic step, and opened holes in the dike on the west side of the lake. They placed about thirty tons of dynamite and blew up the levee without evacuating the population. St. Bernard parish was flooded and hundreds drowned, leaving the survivors without livelihoods.
Afterwards it was discovered that the flood predicted before the levee was breached had been a false alarm and the Mississippi River did not reach a high enough level to flood New Orleans, but the damage was done and many Isleños and black sharecroppers suffered the consequences, while the bankers' investments remained intact. The Isleños also fought in the World Wars; after World War II, the returning Isleño soldiers looked for work in the suburban areas of New Orleans that had developed along the Mississippi River, and many of them left Saint Bernard Parish in the 1940s and 1950s. Their children were raised in areas where English was the majority language and consequently they did not learn to speak Spanish.
On the other hand, schools were also built in Saint Bernard, and these forced all students to speak only English. Teachers punished anyone who spoke the native language. Hispanics were even forced not to speak Spanish in public. All this caused use of the Spanish language (which had been spoken in the area since the 18th century) to drop precipitously among the younger people of the St. Bernard community. In the 1960s several Isleño men fought in the Vietnam War. In 2005, many Isleños were evacuated before the landing of Hurricane Katrina, although some refused to leave their homes. Consequently, five hundred people lost their lives in Saint Bernard.
Most of the Isleños of Saint Bernard can now speak only English, except those that were over 50 years old in 1990, who may speak the same Canarian Spanish dialect spoken in the Canary Islands in the 18th century, although with significant French and Peninsular Spanish influences because of recent migrations in the 20th century. The trend was reinforced with compulsory education and English-only language instruction in the schools, as well as laws passed in the 20th century by the Louisiana legislature forcing parents to speak exclusively English at home. Even so, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Hispanic culture of the Isleños was reinforced by immigration from peninsular Spain: mainly from Andalusia, Santander, Galicia and Catalonia (most of the Isleños in Saint Bernard are of mixed Canarian and peninsular Spanish descent), but also from the Canary Islands. Although many Isleños moved to New Orleans, most returned to Saint Bernard Parish because they were unable to adapt to city life.
Since the 19th century, many people from other countries including Italy, Germany and Ireland have also emigrated and intermarried with the local population in certain areas, but some of the Isleños are solely descended from Canarians, such as many Isleños in Delacroix Island, Yscloskey, Shell Beach, Reggio, Poydras and Violet. Whether fully or partially descended from Canarians, the Isleño community acts as one. Depending on the season, the Isleños are water rat trappers, hunters of alligators, oysters and crabs, and fishermen. The Isleños of Louisiana are very family oriented and, like their ancestors, profess Roman Catholicism.
Traditionally, Isleño families had a patriarch, the oldest male in the household. The celebration of religious festivals was an important cohesive element in society among the Isleños of Saint Bernard parish, and were the occasion of celebrations with dancing and home-prepared food. Although the Isleños have lived in Louisiana for many generations, there are still a few of the older people in Saint Bernard who consider themselves Canarians rather than Americans. The "Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society" was founded in 1979 with the collaboration of institutions in the Canary Islands to preserve Isleño culture and history.
The Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society has promoted the concept of Isleño cultural identity for many years. In addition to establishing a museum, Canarian traditional festivals have been preserved and attendance increases each year. The museum organizes annual events to acquaint students with their ancestry and the lifestyle led of settlers in the territory during its early years as well as later. This institution has also published monographs, traditional Isleña cookbooks and three videos that reflect past events. It also tries to maintain and cultivate interest in the Spanish language, culture, customs, music, crafts and history of the Isleños of Louisiana. Another Isleño association is the Asociación de descendientes de las Islas Canarias, de San Bernardo (St. Bernard Association of Canaraian Descendants).
The community also built the Isleño Museum in the 1980s to preserve the Canarian culture in St. Bernard parish. It offers a scholarship to a student of Isleños descent to study all these issues. "Museum Days", an event that runs three days and allows visitors to obtain first-hand knowledge about the pioneer Isleños and their way of life, are also held. "Isleños Christmas" is another major annual event that arranges for Christmas carols around a monumental bonfire on the grounds surrounding The Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society's museum. Children who attend receive a visit from Santa Claus and can ride on "The Isleños Express". They are then presented with apple punch and sweets. The festivals usually arranged by the Isleño community of St. Bernard are: Festival of the Isleños (19–20 March), Canary Isleños' Day (May), the feast of San Bernardo (August 14), Bass Tournament (September), All Saints (November 1), Pow Mow (November) and the aforementioned Christmas Isleños and Bonfire (December). In addition, Isleños travel to the Canary Islands every year, in order not to forget their roots and to keep in touch with the land of their ancestors.
However, in 2005, the Hurricane Katrina destroyed many of the houses of the Isleños, and the Isleños Museum, and most of them migrated to other places in the U.S. during the hurricane. Over time, many Isleños who left the area eventually returned to Saint Bernard to build homes there. But in all, more than half of the population emigrated to other areas of Louisiana (where they had family) or to other areas of the United States still live there and the Isleño community continues to decline. Thus, of the near of 40,000 Isleños that, according to different estimates, Saint Bernard had in the year 2000, now only some 19,826 remain. Moreover, after Hurricane Katrina, the Spanish government in the Canary Islands donated money to help repair the Canary Islander Museum and historical properties in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. So, over time, the Isleños museum has been reconstructed. Currently, thousands of descendants of Isleños live in urban New Orleans.
Traditional Isleño communities in St. Bernard include:
After the arrival of the Canarian colonists at Barataria, this site suffered two hurricanes in 1779 and in 1780, so it was abandoned and its population was distributed in other parts of Louisiana.
Governor Gálvez had chosen the site for the original settlement, referred to as Valenzuela dans La Fourche, 60 miles northwest of New Orleans along the Bayou Lafourche on the west bank of the Mississippi River; it is now part of the Belle Alliance Plantation. Isleño settlers from St. Bernard Parish founded Valenzuela in 1782. The Isleños of Valenzuela, along with the other Isleños of Louisiana, fought in the American Revolutionary War after being recruited in 1782 by Gálvez, as well as against the British when they invaded Louisiana in 1814–1815. The census of 1784 indicated that Valenzuela had a population of 174 people, of whom 154 were of Canarian origin. In 1785, seven ships brought 800 Acadian settlers to Bayou Lafourche, where 353 people already lived, so that by 1788 there were over 1,500 people living in the area. Contacts between the Canary Islanders and the Acadians were frequent, and there was much intermarriage between the two groups.
The Isleño settlers of Valenzuela were strongly influenced by the French settlers who surrounded their community, and began to speak French and adopted French names or Frenchified versions of their Spanish names. Some, however, retained a Canarian accent. The Canarian dialect of these people evolved differently from those in the Saint Bernard and Galvestown communities. Their "Bruli" dialect, from the French brulé (burned), was named for the patches of woods and marshes they cleared by fire to make room for their houses and farmland. Their descendants are scattered around present-day Ascension, Iberville and Assumption Parishes.
To distinguish the Bruli-speaking descendants of Canarian settlers from the Saint Bernard Isleños, (the only ones who really call themselves "Isleños"), Samuel G. Armistead, a prominent ethnographer, linguist, folklorist, and historian who did field work among the Isleño communities, prefers to call the people themselves "Brulis". Originally they were mostly truck farmers, and they later found work on the large sugarcane plantations that formed in the 1860s, which meant the end of small farming in marginal areas. Some of the inhabitants of the eastern region emigrated to Cuba, where they founded Nuevitas.
The French influence was so strong in this area that over time that many Brulis forgot their Canarian origin (although they remembered their Spanish origin). The Isleño Frank Fernandez, who served as Historian Emeritus of Saint Bernard Parish, confirmed that the people of the Isleño and Bruli communities were descendants of settlers from the Canary Islands and that their dialects and culture originated in the 18th century. He also explained that it would be possible to recover their Canary Islander heritage and establish relations with their brother Canarians across the Atlantic, which he did.
This caused many of the Brulis with French surnames, who until then had not claimed or recognized their Canarian identity, to embrace their neglected or long-forgotten Canarian heritage. They began to celebrate Canarian holidays, traced their genealogies, and established local heritage museums. This is remarkable for Valenzuela (although it also occurred in St. Bernard, where the Canarian culture, however, was always more important than in the Bruli areas, so that the words of Fernandez were not so influential in St. Bernard as in Valenzuela). The Brulis also created organizations to try to preserve their Canary Islands culture. The Bruli dialect is in danger of extinction, as only a few dozen mostly elderly persons still speak it. Bruli speakers have formed associations such as "The Canary Islanders" in Baton Rouge and the "Canary Islands Descendants Association", the latter founded in 1994, which created an interpretive museum in Caenarvon.
Adaeseños in the Natchatoches and Sabine parishes speak a very similar Spanish dialect with loan words from the Nahuatl language of Mexico. Traditional "Adaeseño" communities are in Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Natchitoches, and Sabine Parishes. This Adaeseño communities include:
The Isleño communities in Louisiana of settler origin have kept alive their Spanish musical folklore and Canarian romance ballads, décima, and lyric songs of their ancestors. They also preserve in their oral traditions a wide variety of songs, nursery rhymes, riddles, proverbs, and folk tales, and still use common Isleño names for numerous animals, including birds, fish, and reptiles, as well as insects and trees. Some Isleños still practice traditional Canarian folk medicine, prayer healing, and witchcraft rituals.
Isleño traditional folklore in Louisiana is varied. There are Canarian Décimas and even Corridas Mexicanas, romances and ballads and pan-Hispanic songs, some of which date back many years, even to medieval times. The Isleños are known as a people who love to sing and will adopt almost any song regardless of origin, making it their own over time, (e.g., the Mexican songs Cielito Lindo and La Paloma), and especially Texan and Mexican songs, even in Saint Bernard Parish. The Isleños of Saint Bernard Parish have narrative songs in their repertoire that, according to the student of Isleño culture Samuel G. Armistead, were not described and recognized as a specific subtype of Hispanic ballad until their discovery in this Isleño community.
These songs are known as décimas, but unlike the ten-line Spanish décima of the 16th century, a form widespread throughout Hispanic America, the décima of the Isleños of Louisiana is usually composed in couplets using four half-lines of verse, the even verses being assonant rhymes. They appear to have been composed as recently as the 1920s–1940s and feature themes relating to local history, the hazards encountered by Isleño people in such occupations as shrimping, crabbing, and trapping, the misadventures of local personalities, and humorously exaggerated tales of fishing exploits. The Isleños, at least those of Saint Bernard Parish, sing two types of décimas: traditional décimas and improvised décimas, composed while they are being sung. The Isleño singer Irvan Perez is one of the most famous décima singers. Almost all the Coplas have been transmitted, more or less unaltered from generation to generation, from the time of the original emigrants from Spain, mostly from the Canary Islands, in the 18th century. Canarian Coplas were probably reinvigorated with the arrival of Spanish colonists from Andalusia to the islands in the early 19th century.
Some Isleño children's ballads are El Piojo y La Pulga (The Louse and the Flea), La Mosca (The Fly), and El Pretendiente Maldito (The Cursed Pretender). Isleño riddles are posed in descriptive, narrative, mathematical, or interrogative form. Descriptive riddles are defined as "descriptions of objects in a way that suggests something completely different". Some descriptive guessing also incorporates word games. The narrative form usually involves a story of an "event known only by the person who poses the riddle." Literary puzzles are often more complicated, abstract, and arcane than those in the canon of tradition. Proverbs and folk tales are also part of typical Isleño community traditions.
The Canarian dialect is gradually disappearing in Texas and Louisiana. By 1984, researchers of Isleño communities in the southern United States had recorded 82 hours of native speakers sharing information about them: (57 hours by Isleños, 10 hours by Brulis, 10 hours by speakers in East Texas and 5 hours by Adaeseños from Los Adaes). In the case of the Brulis, Adaeseños and speakers in Texas, the material is mostly linguistic. On the other hand, interviews with the Isleños bear witness to a rich diversity of language samples, folk and popular literature. These communities have a wide variety of songs, nursery rhymes, riddles, proverbs, folk tales, folk medicine, prayer healing, witchcraft, and many Isleño names for birds, fish, reptiles, insects and trees.
Books were also published containing information gathered from this recorded material, such as The Spanish Tradition in Louisiana, written by Samuel G. Armistead to ensure its preservation over time. This Isleño material relates not only to the Canary Islands, but also to several other regions of Spain and perhaps Portugal, as immigrants from these places have been coming to Louisiana since the 19th century and mixing with the Isleño communities.
Isleños travel to the Canary Islands every year to remember their roots and keep in touch with the land of their ancestors. In 1980, the Saint Bernard Isleño community built the Isleños Museum to preserve local Canarian culture. It was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina and subsequently demolished, but has since been completely restored and reopened.
|Lists of Americans|
|By U.S. state|
|By ethnicity or nationality|