February 4, 2004
In the town of Eunice in St. Landry parish, the sun is shining, but it’s still unusually cold for a south Louisiana afternoon. Inside Ruby’s restaurant on Walnut Avenue, the lunch crowd is thinning out. There are a dozen small tables with white plastic tablecloths and blue oval placemats. The menu, written in marker on poster boards, hangs high on the wall behind the counter. Beneath the menu, Mitch Arnaud, Kalyer Boone, and Pat Reyzer are cleaning up for the next day’s diners and talking about Cajun French.
These folks aren’t involved with cultural preservation efforts or French immersion programs, but they are Cajuns, and Cajun French is part of their heritage. Living far outside Lafayette, in what some consider the epicenter of the Cajun Heartland, fewer and fewer locals know less and less Cajun French, but they continue to value the language as an important and integral part of their culture. The baby boomers appear to be the primary victims of efforts to eradicate French from the mouths of early century Cajun babes.
“I think our downfall,” says 45-year-old Arnaud, “was that our generation wasn’t taught it.”
Ironically, while fewer and fewer people speak and understand Cajun French, the value locals place on the language has not decreased, nor does the popularity of French-laden Cajun music appear to have waned.
Warren Perrin, president of CODOFIL, acknowledges the dichotomy. “We know that those who can’t speak a word of French are our most avid supporters,” he says. “It’s a query, a paradox. Why is that? I don’t know. I’ll leave that to others.” At the same time, he issues a warning: “We have to focus on the quality and maintain the integrity of the culture. We cannot allow it to become faux. It can’t become Cajun Disneyland. That, I think, will be the challenge.”
Back at Ruby’s, Arnaud is shining forks with a dish towel. He wears a T-shirt with “Old Navy” written across the chest and a blue jacket with a grey fleece lining. When it comes to Cajun French, he says, “I can understand it, more than I can speak it.” His twin 18-year-old sons took French classes in high school, but he says, “It’s not the same French we speak here. Some of it I could understand what they were saying.” While he’s glad his boys learned another language, he says, “They should have learned more than they did because we’re losing our French culture.”
Boone stands behind the counter wearing a grey sweatshirt. She says she can’t speak or understand Cajun French but that her father speaks it fluently, especially when he’s around family. Boone is 42, and she says her 20-year-old daughter took French classes in high school, “but it’s not the same.” Boone says she thinks most people in Eunice speak Cajun French, and she says it’s important. When asked why, she replies, “It’s a good thing to know another language.”
Pat Reyzer, 56, is the owner and cook at Ruby’s, “born and bred” in Eunice. Her brown curly hair is pulled back, and she leans on the counter as she smokes a cigarette. She says before she spoke English, she spoke French. “When I went to school,” she says, “the majority of us spoke it. I’m teaching my kids now. My grandchildren – they’re 3 and up – they can speak it with me.”
Reyzer says the more attention outsiders pay to the local culture, the more locals realize its importance, but she says it’s important to remain authentic, echoing Perrin’s sentiment. She says, “I wish Emeril Lagasse — with his ‘bam’ up there in New York, calling his food Cajun — I wish he would come down here in my kitchen and see that I don’t put no chili in my gravy.”
Reyzer says that Cajun music is the driving force keeping Cajun French alive. “People come from all over the world to hear our music,” she says. “I’m surprised at the young people who are playing Cajun music. Years ago, when we were younger, there were no young Cajun musicians singing in French. I think it’s better now.”
Two doors down from Ruby’s, inside Music Machine, Donny Sittig is buying a copy of Kevin Naquin & The Ossun Playboys latest CD, Bayou Groove. He can’t speak or understand Cajun French, but he says, “I like the music.”
Sittig is 28 years old and a correctional officer at the South Louisiana Correctional Center in Basile. “My grandma and them speak it. I can understand a little bit, [but] not much.” Most of the people he knows don’t speak, much less understand, Cajun French. Sittig listens mostly to Cajun music, “some zydeco, but not much,” and his 3-year-old daughter likes Cajun music as well. He says, “I don’t think she knows [Cajun French], but she likes to listen to it.” He too believes the language is being kept alive by Cajun music.
Grammy-nominated musician David Greely, of the Mamou Playboys, says it may be dangerous to buy whole-heartedly into the notion that Cajun French will thrive only in Cajun music. “If you don’t understand French, but you’re learning Cajun songs, you immediately start messing it up,” he says. “It’s amazing how quickly it degenerates. If the language doesn’t continue to live in conversation, it will not live in the music. The reason I learned French was because I was f—ing up the songs.”
But Greely doesn’t discount the importance of Cajun music in preserving Cajun French. “The music is the best way to learn it,” he says. “In that way, the music will save the language, but you have to learn to speak French.”
Greely says that those who don’t know Cajun French, but who value it, may be avoiding learning the language. “Learning French is hard,” he says. “It’s a lot of work. It can often be embarrassing.”
S&J’s Dollar Shop Plus is a small shop on Sixth Street in Mamou, just north of Eunice, in Evangeline Parish. Inside the shop, Sandra McDaniel and JoAnn Soileau sit behind the counter, watching a soap opera on a television. Eleven-year-old Francheska Fontenot, a fifth grade student at Mamou Elementary, sits with the women. McDaniel is a resident of Ville Platte, but travels to Mamou for work. Soileau, a native of New Orleans, resides in Mamou.
McDaniel, 49, says she understands Cajun French, but she doesn’t speak it. “The only reason I understand it is that it was how my grandmother talked. We had to learn it.” She says her own parents still speak Cajun French, but her three children don’t. “The older ones speak French, but the children are not learning it,” she says. “I think they should know it, to keep it from generation to generation.”
“The younger ones are not learning it,” Soileau chimes in. The 46-year-old doesn’t know how to speak the language either, but says she understands some of it.
Schoolgirl Fontenot says she doesn’t understand any of it, and the only French she hears is when some of her classmates recite the pledge of allegiance in the morning after it’s recited in English.
An elderly man wearing a black baseball cap and eyeglasses walks slowly into the store. He’s slightly hunched over and bundled up against the brisk wind outside. He walks to a shelf, retrieves two small figurines — one of a rooster and the other of a hen — and walks to the counter. He hands the women behind the counter a coffee mug filled with change. McDaniel counts out the correct amount for his purchase.
The man introduces himself as Herbert Guillory, 82 years old, and a “World War II veteran.” He says he still speaks Cajun French and that the language is alive and well, as evidenced by the Cajun French radio programs coming from KVPI in Ville Platte. He has two sons who speak Cajun French “a little bit, but they don’t practice it,” and three grandchildren who can’t understand a lick of it.
He says he thinks Cajun French will eventually die out, “but maybe not here in Mamou.”
Guillory smiles, and with his newly purchased chickens, walks out of the store onto Sixth Street.