How Sweet It Is: The Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair
By Cherry Levin
Since 1937, community leaders in the small town of New Iberia in southeast Louisiana have hosted the annual Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair. Set in September to anticipate the onset of the sugar cane harvesting season, this combination agricultural fair and harvest festival celebrates Louisiana sugar cane farming and the production of raw sugar. The three-day event includes activities that showcase sugar cane machinery and production equipment, and local museum exhibits emphasize the importance of sugar cane to the region. Other events highlight local agricultural production and livestock rearing, while art, garden, and cooking competitions feature the artistic and culinary talents of area residents. Carnival rides, a fais-do-do (dance), and several parades attract people of all ages to the New Iberia fairgrounds or to the downtown area. Moreover, appealing to tourists as well as local residents, the festival/fair generates significant tourism-related income. Mingling elements of local religious, economic, and social elements, the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair presents a microcosmic view of regional and community-based values. The importance of cane farming and sugar production is the underlying focus of the festival for this Iberia Parish town with a population of 32,000 people. Throughout its history, changes to the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair have revealed shifting political, social, economic, racial, and gendered values in the community. These changes also reflect trends of urbanization and demographic fluctuations, along with rapidly shifting changes in sugar production on the local, state and national level. However, the coronation of Queen Sugar on Saturday night is one aspect that remains central to this festival. A Sunday afternoon parade displaying King Sucrose and Queen Sugar in their symbolic regalia riding through the main street of New Iberia on decorated floats both highlights and culminates the three-day celebration.
In this essay, I describe the symbolic meanings of the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair and trace significant changes in the format and significance of the celebration. My research comprises interviews with both festival organizers and participants, including the first Queen Sugar who reigned at the earliest recorded sugar cane festival in New Iberia in 1937. I also draw on archival sources such as newspaper accounts and earlier festival programs which are supplemented by my own observations of the 2006 and 2011 festival and fair activities. As folklorist Roger Abrahams determines in "The Language of Festivals," the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair exemplifies a "sense of identification between 'the people' and their natural resources that marks festivals of increase throughout the world" (1982:166). According to Abrahams, festivals of increase are marked by:
dancing; by moving together in procession or parade; by drawing on objects and actions which are heavily layered with cultural and historical meanings; by tearing elements of the everyday world apart and then piecing and stitching them together in new forms but using old techniques; by using the times as occasions when social and economic inequalities may be given up, when gifts are given and ties are renewed, and community of spirit becomes more important than social structure. (1982:163)
Thus, when viewed in this context, the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair is a communal celebration of the plentitude of natural production and the fertility of the land in a festive weekend event that, "acknowledge[s] the power of nature and the place of humankind in enhancing that process, [by] seizing it and magnifying it" (Abrahams 1982:163).
In the early 1930s, a predecessor to the current festival was sponsored in the town of Plaquemine in Iberville Parish, a sugar parish located across the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge. According to an article appearing in the April 5, 1935, edition of Iberville South, members of the local Rotary group were planning a second spring Sugar Cane Festival for May 3 of the same year. At that festival, Miss Jane Talbot of Napoleonville was crowned Sucrosa.1 By 1937, meetings were held to determine the future of the Sugar Cane Festival in Plaquemine, where it had been held for the past three years (Iberville South 1937). A lack of funding in Plaquemine led organizers of the Sugar Cane Festival and Fair to relocate the event to the town of New Iberia; however, it was planned as a fall agricultural harvest fair. According to Alberta Nereaux, the first Queen Sugar elected in New Iberia, local businessmen there viewed the festival as an opportunity to develop local tourism. In a personal interview, she recalled, "Well, the business people were talking about having a festival. They'd had a vision, you know. Tourism. The beginning of tourism in New Iberia" (Nereaux 2006).
Following a brief hiatus during World War II, the Sugar Cane Festival and Fair resumed to stimulate post-war tourism in "Têche Country." A booklet designed for the 1946 Festival and Fair promotes New Iberia as "Louisiana's Garden of Eden" (Jackson 1946). Drawing heavily from the landscape portrayed in Longfellow's "Evangeline," the booklet's dedication to "those public-spirited business firms of the Sugar Belt whose advertising made it possible to tell the story of the Sugarland and its unique industry, and the festival designed to make it famous throughout the land" makes clear the firm roots in the business community. Jackson's description of New Iberia as a land of "languid enchantment" with "everything to attract the tourist" conjures up symbols of the region's plantation past by promising that "the scenery, the old Southern homes, the waving fields of cane and the great mills, the lush tropical growth of the beautiful gardens . . . the flavor of history and the past . . . all combine to offer infinite variety to this timeless land of the Têche" (1946:15).
This idyllic pastoral portrait of New Iberia, often termed "the Queen of the Têche," derives much of its appeal as a tourist destination from the annual Sugar Cane Festival and Fair. Seventy-five years after its inception, the festival has changed in many aspects but remains a crucial attraction for tourism monies. Recent figures reveal that local revenue in the amount of $264,000 has been derived from the weekend festival.2 One local resident whom I interviewed complained that the rush of tourists during the festival has diminished the small-town feel of the event and that only select businesses profit. He feels that the flavor of the festival has changed from a hometown event to a weekend overrun with numerous and extraneous visitors to New Iberia. However, other area businesses welcome the opportunity for tourist dollars by advertising in the festival guide published as a supplement to the local newspaper, the Daily Iberian.
The Importance of Sugar Cane Farming
For the residents of New Iberia, the meaning of the sugar cane festival lies mainly with connections to cane farming. Friday, the first full day of the festival weekend, is set aside as "Sugar Cane Growers' Day" or "Farmers' Day," when residents and visitors are encouraged to dress in farmer's attire. Festival programs from various years in the 1940s through the 1960s lack any suggestion of dressing in farm attire nor do they advise donning overalls, checked shirts, bandanas, and brogans which the more recent programs encourage festival attendees to do. This stylized emulation of farmers and their work clothes, while intended by the festival organizers to demonstrate community respect for cane farmers has recently come under scrutiny as a form of stereotyping. The 2002 Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair Guide quotes a farmer from Jeanerette, Louisiana, who acknowledges concerns about such stereotypes, but nevertheless accepts it within the frame of the festival:
I would hate to be stereotyped, but as part of the festival, I don't mind. It's fun and it feels good to be recognized and appreciated for what we do. We don't just grow food and bring in the money, we are also part of the culture and the traditions of the community. And once a year, it feels good to see someone cares. (2002:4)
The farmer's words express identification with the event as a festival, or a festive space which typically features playful role reversals and exaggerations rather than with the agricultural fair. Roger Abrahams, in defining the "language of festivals," suggests that "Festivals have always been moments of high display. . . . In them we extend ourselves by dressing up or by wearing an unaccustomed costume. . . . We rewrite the rules, giving special permission to turn things over" (1982: 171). As the Têche region shifts from rural agriculture to urbanization, community members, most of whom no longer farm for a living, temporarily assume the role of farmer by dressing like one; in doing so, they invert everyday reality. This communal role reversal allows the general public to participate in a celebration of agricultural production. While farmers themselves may joke about the clothing styles intended to represent them, they seem to feel honored by public recognition that they are the "backbone of the community," and appreciate the day set aside to honor their occupation.
In contrast to the etymological basis for festival—which is derived from Latin festius and interpreted by Alessandro Falassi as a space of "public joy, merriment, [and] revelry" (1987:1-2)—the agricultural fair, derived from the Latin word feria, denotes a slightly nuanced meaning. According to Falassi, the agricultural fair means "abstinence from work in honor of the gods" and suggests "a holiday or feast with the implication of people gathering to exchange, sell, or exhibit wares or farm products" (1987:2). From these distinctions, it is clear that festa became festival and feria became fair. Moreover, in his 1935 study of agricultural fairs, Wayne C. Neely suggests an etymological link between feria meaning holiday (Holy Day) and Festius or festal by connecting the German word for fair, messe with the Latin Missa meaning Mass. Thus, in Neely's view, not only do fairs emphasize the importance of springtime and harvest, but are also "critical seasons calling for the gathering of the devout for prayer and praise for a bountiful harvest" (1935:4).
For Catholic New Iberians, the Friday blessing of the cane crop remains an important opening frame for the festival. While the parish priest once blessed a different cane field each year, the blessing now takes place inside of the Sugar Cane Festival Building, located in the New Iberia City Park. Early on Friday morning, the priest sprinkles holy water and recites prayers over sugar cane stalks brought inside from the fields and placed on the stage. In our 2006 interview, Alberta Nereaux described the crop blessing, timed for the beginning of cane harvesting season, as "thanksgiving for a good crop." This blessing represents communal hope that "the cane will produce a lot of sucrose and so they'll get a lot of sugar" (Nereaux 2006). A Sunday Morning Mass is celebrated with King Sucrose, the newly crowned Queen Sugar and other "Festival Dignitaries" in attendance. This Mass is observed in the religious space of the local Catholic Church rather than the more secular space of the festival building in the New Iberia City Park.
The seasonal identification with the harvest brings to mind Roger Abrahams' assertion that "festivals encourage us to harmonize ourselves with the changes of the season, through identification with the seasonal passage itself" (1982:161). So, despite some variation during the early years of the festival, the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair is currently held on the third weekend of September, which marks the beginning of the cane harvest. La roulaison, a local term used to denote grinding or the process of rolling and crushing sugar cane stalks to extract the juice, may be carried out any time between the end of September and the end of December, largely depending on the weather and the level of sucrose measured in the cane before cutting.3
In previous years of the festival, the focus on agriculture appears more strongly marked. For example, the 1946 Sugar Cane Festival Program mentions a parade of farm equipment used in the sugar industry. Programs from 1958, 1959, and 1961 likewise denote the importance of many exhibits dedicated to sugar cane production. Displaying farming products and machinery at fairs such as this helps to educate and remind the community about the economic significance of agricultural production. However, the earlier agricultural parade has been replaced more recently by a boat parade down Bayou Têche on Friday night. The boat parade, open to public participation and often centered around an annual theme, carries members of various Sugar Cane Festival and Fair committees, along with King Sucrose and the candidates for Queen Sugar. The purpose of the boat parade appears to be twofold: first, to encourage family participation in the kick-off parade, and second, to remind the community that shipping was and continues to be an important method of transporting raw sugar to outlying markets.
The shift from parading farm implements to an event that encourages broader community participation is a result, in part, of the dwindling number of farms producing sugar cane in the years since 1963. While the number of sugar mills in the region has significantly decreased, the amount of raw sugar produced has risen due to improved technology and agricultural practices.4 Despite the trend away from a primary focus on agricultural production to other aspects of community life, features of the earlier agricultural fair are still evident. In the Silver Cup Sugar Cane competition, for example, judges select the highest-quality cane for exhibition. This event and the High Yield Award which is presented to top producers of sugar cane publically acknowledge agricultural achievement as an important local value.
Farm equipment, once paraded as an educational display to reflect the interests of a rural agricultural community, has been displaced by competitions in non-agricultural arenas where the achievements of local community members are also recognized in art, gardening, photography, and confectionery contests. When viewed as "agents of socialization," participation in these events reflects Neely's assertion that the "agricultural fair functions as a means of linking individuals and groups to the larger community" (1935:238)5. A contest for best decoration of homes and businesses, incorporating stalks or leaves of sugar cane as a local symbol, demonstrates community spirit. In an article written for The Daily Iberian on September 23, 2002, Jeff Moore claims that the art show, sponsored by L'Acadian Art Guild, is intended not only as a forum for local adult artists, but additionally aims to "encourage the youth to stay focused on the arts." Thus, art exhibits, flower and photography displays have been featured events at the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair since 1958 and exemplify Neely's claim that these public tributes make "the rural dweller conscious of his relationship to a larger social world" (1935:229). Certainly these events link participants as "contributors" to the community fair as well as honoring local residents whose skills artistically enhance or reflect aspects of community life. These talents include displays of locally-made cakes and sugar decorations sponsored by "Sweet Friends of the Têche" and the recent addition of the Bayou Girl Scout Bake-Off. Aside from presenting domestic and household skills, young people may also show off their farming skills through 4-H presentations of livestock in the Sugar Arena, where cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, and rabbits are exhibited and then sold at auction.
The main focal point for local youth is the Children's Parade on Saturday morning, one of three parades during the weekend festivities. The children's parade includes a large number of local school children, as young festival "royalty" are featured along with a local dance group called the Sugar Lumps, supplemented with additional students from area dance schools, Boy and Girl Scout troops, school marching bands, and various community and religious children's groups. The parade, featuring elaborately decorated floats and themed costumes, often enacts historical events thought to be foundational to the community. Two favorites are depictions of the Evangeline story, based on Longfellow's 19th century poem describing the forced exile of the French from Canada's Acadie in 1755, and Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase of 1803. As Neely points out, active participation, rather than passive spectatorship, broadens the appeal of the community fair. Moreover, he claims that joint participation by children and their parents reflects the importance of group socialization and the value of family interaction that promotes the "purposeful process of making a person a participant in the institutional life of society" (1935:132). Many local children and their parents work hard throughout the year to make the Children's Parade a highly visible marker of community involvement. Therefore, community goals and the values of cooperation and the effects of socialization are impressed upon children at an early age through their participation in the festival. Moreover, several past Sugar Queens have affirmed that their dream of becoming the festival queen began with their early involvement in the Children's Parade.
Meeting Queen Sugar of 1937
On a clear, crisp fall morning in 2006, I left Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for the seventy-five mile drive to New Iberia. Passing acres of cane fields whose windrows undulated gently in the breeze, I realized the magnitude of cane farming in the region. Once I left Interstate 10 for Highway 167 South and diverted onto Highway 90 East, it seemed that every available plot of land was planted in sugar cane. As I was driving, I played a Waylon Thibodeaux CD to set the mood. Although he is from south Louisiana's coastal wetlands, not Iberia Parish, the lively Cajun tunes seemed to echo the heritage of this traditionally Louisiana French and historically Spanish area. I met Becky Owens who was responsible for the exhibit on sugar cane for the 2006 Festival and we drove to the home of Mrs. Alberta Francis Mestayer Nereaux, Queen Sugar of 1937. "Miss Alberta" (by Southern custom) greeted me in her immaculate home. At the time of our interview, she was in her mid-eighties and spoke with a soft southeastern French Louisiana accent. Tall and gracious, she wore a small American flag pin on her lapel. Born in the small community of nearby Loreauville, Louisiana, she lived in New Iberia for most of her life. When her father died soon after she graduated from high school, she took a job with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, or the Triple A as it was termed then. Her proximity to the Farm Bureau and the county agents led to her involvement with the Sugar Cane Festival and Fair. She recalled that young women who wanted to run for Queen Sugar were instructed to give their names to local businessmen. She commented in our interview that "store owners and merchants in town were delighted about that, you know. And the Chamber of Commerce was involved also" (2006). Voting barrels were placed in front of City Hall for community members to cast their ballots for Queen Sugar.
Miss Alberta won with an overwhelming majority of the vote, but she recalled that she "politicked" by asking people to vote for her. In our interview, she commented, "they must have said yes. Some of them didn't vote for me, but a lot of them said yes and held to their commitment." She showed me a photograph taken just after the election where she is centered in a group of ten young women in front of the New Iberia City Hall, which was bedecked all around with stalks of sugar cane. A board on the right-hand side of the photograph disclosed that Miss Alberta had almost 450 votes and that the runner-up had close to 200. She humorously added, "My politics worked, I guess." Her landslide election speaks to the high regard the local community held for Miss Alberta and her family, as her father was a Deputy Clerk of the Courts for Iberia Parish. And, while she spoke with confidence about her "politicking," Miss Alberta expressed humility about her position as New Iberia's first Queen Sugar. After the third year of the festival, she says, the selection of a queen became a beauty contest, but this was not the case in 1937.
During Miss Alberta's participation in the Queen Sugar competition, all of the contestants were from New Iberia. Several years after the first festival, the selection protocol changed as other sugar-producing parishes were invited to participate in the festival. In 2006, thirteen of the seventeen sugar parishes participated by sending a contestant to the Queen Sugar competition. As a result, there were eleven finalists that year. Madeline Kessler, current Iberville Parish Director of the Queen Sugar contest, describes the process by which each parish chooses a representative. Kessler sends a letter to parish schools, announcing the contest and inviting interested applicants to tea. Contestants must be at least 18 years old, unmarried, childless and a resident of Iberia Parish. Applicants fill out a questionnaire with background information, talents, hobbies, employment with space for listing special interests or training. Most contestants are college students from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette or Louisiana State University (Kessler 2006).
At the tea, selected judges interview each contestant using a specific list that ranges from questions about the young woman's educational goals to her knowledge of the sugar industry. The judges rate each contestant on poise, personality, intelligence, and beauty, although organizers are quick to refute the idea that the contest is a beauty competition. After tabulating points, judges announce contestants to represent each participating parish in the final Queen Sugar contest, which takes place in New Iberia during the festival. The final competition is similar to the local process: contestants are evaluated on a scale of points relating to personal presentation but attention is also given to community connections. The new Queen Sugar is announced and crowned at the Coronation which is held on Saturday evening, the midpoint of the festival.
Queen contestants attend a cluster of luncheons and teas throughout the festival weekend, offering opportunities for socializing and socialization. Past queens are often honored at these events. In Time After Time, Alessandro Falassi writes that in such "rites of competition," where "the parts or roles are assigned at the beginning to the personae as equals or undifferentiated contestants, hopefuls, or candidates," a distinct hierarchy of femininity is created (1987:5). He argues that by "singling out its outstanding members and giving them prizes, the group implicitly affirms some of its most important values" (1987:5). In the final competition for queen, the values of poise, personality, intelligence, articulation and beauty are demarcated, as Falassi claims, as "metaphors for the emergence of power" (1987:6). In her study of American debutantes, Karal Ann Marling both supports and extends this metaphor of power as "a dream of being almost royalty, a paragon of good taste and elegance, a . . . collective family dream . . ." (2004:7). Marling's concept of a collective family dream seemingly reflects a sense of an unarticulated social hierarchy that is part of social and economic power display in an agricultural community. It is interesting to note here that almost all of the queen contestants are connected to the sugar industry through their fathers or, in some cases, their mothers. Having a daughter selected as Queen Sugar is a valued achievement for "sugar families."
The gowns worn by Queen Sugar contestants have grown more elaborate over time. In her 2006 interview, Miss Alberta recalled that when she was elected, she tried to convince her mother that she needed a white dress. Her mother, who was "conservative," pointed out that she had two "very nice" choices: the red velvet dress she had worn to her Junior/Senior Prom, and her graduation dress:
I said, "'Oh, Ma, I think I'd like to have a white dress or something, just in case." And she said, "I don't believe. You'll wear one of the two you have." And so I wore the red velvet one. And just appreciated the fact that she was conservative because I inherited some of her traits as the years went by - I was . . . exactly like that. (Nereaux 2006)
In a photograph taken at her coronation, Miss Alberta sits regally on her throne beside King Sucrose, Earl. K. Long, Governor of Louisiana at the time. Wearing her red velvet dress, a crown, an ermine cape, and holding a scepter, Miss Alberta appropriates the familiar symbols of "generic" royalty that commonly appear in conjunction to southeastern Louisiana carnival krewes.
The "conservative" traits espoused by Miss Alberta and her mother have been displaced by the modern practice of purchasing a special gown, shoes, and jewelry for the competition. Festival guides from the late 1950s show Queen Sugar in a lustrous white gown and an interview with Sugar Cane Festival and Fair Board Member Madeline Kessler reveals that current festival queens wear white bridal gowns. The symbols of their royal status, however, have become more festival specific. Past Queens pass down a crown of red and green "jewels" designed to resemble stalks of sugar cane. These colors are elaborated in a sequined, bejeweled, and feathered "ruff" that the Queen wears along with a flowing gold cape, heavily embroidered with sugar cane stalks in green and white. She carries a long, golden scepter whose end is a crystal, with a green gem in its center. Thus, the Queen is covered by symbols of sugar cane, which may be read as marking her youthful female body with signs of fertility and abundance.
These regalia are presented to the new Queen Sugar in a crowning ceremony that takes place in the Sugar Cane Festival and Fair Building. For anthropologist Christine Yano, this crowning ceremony is a rite of passage for the new queen, as she is laden with "glittering, feminized signposts of a position devoid of actual power but instead holding symbolic prestige in representing the group" (2006:14). As Yano concludes from her work on Hawaiian festivals, the symbols work as a "showcase" for "for women to climb the social ladder whether furthering a career or marrying up" (2006:15) At the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair, interested spectators must purchase tickets for the coronation and the subsequent reception that honors all of the festival royalty following the queen's crowning, which suggests that the public space of the festival is in some sense privatized.
In "the Language of Festivals," Roger Abrahams suggests that the power of the crown, the scepter, the cape and other festive objects lies in their annual display. He observes, "As objects made and used with care and abandon, they will contain a vital spirit and a crafted ingenuity that encourage us to look at them, to appreciate them in and of themselves. But . . . they were not made just to be looked at. Their power arises from being used and then put away" (1982: 161). In the case of Queen Sugar regalia, these symbolic objects remain significant and are passed from one generation to the next, although specific items may be replaced by newer versions. In our interview, Miss Alberta mentioned that her crown and scepter were recently requested for display in a New Iberia museum exhibit.
As previously noted, the first King Sucrose was then- Governor of Louisiana, Earl K. Long, whose presence lent credence and political value to the newly established festival and fair. However, early kings, while certainly influential male figures, were not always politically renowned. Now, King Sucrose is a prominent community member who raises sugar cane or is connected in some way to sugar production in one of the twenty-four sugar parishes. This shift symbolizes, I argue, the figurative connection of King Sucrose to agriculture and the land. Recent kings have been members of the American Sugar Cane League, the Louisiana Farm Bureau, agricultural consultants, Rotary Club or Lion's Club members, pioneers of agricultural mechanization, or large-scale farmers. For example, Brana Beyt, King Sucrose in 1958, was hailed as a pioneer in the use of mechanics and the first to use a mechanical cane cutter in the St. Martinsville area. Charles Savoie, King Sucrose for 1959, was credited with installing the first turbine to drive a sugar mill. Jackie Theriot, King Sucrose in 2002, was the General Manager of the Louisiana Sugar Cane Cooperative, Calvin Viator, King Sucrose in 2006 was a well-known consultant on plant pathology. Most recently, Buckley Kessler, King Sucrose LXX, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Cora Texas Manufacturing Company, a family-owned "sugar house" located near the town of White Castle.
Each of these men was or is prominent in the community and in the sugar industry, thereby contributing in some way to the success of the agricultural community. In a sense, as ruler over a land of abundance, King Sucrose is typically an older man, politically and socially adroit, who acts as a social and political ambassador for the sugar-producing community, thus strengthening local connections to regional, state and sometimes federal officials. King Sucrose is selected by a committee of Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair organizers. He is announced on Thursday evening before the festival, given his kingly robes, crown and scepter, and honored in a "by invitation only" reception termed "Top of the Stalk" with past kings. He takes part in the boat parade on Friday evening, is present at the coronation of Queen Sugar on Saturday evening, and appears with other festival dignitaries at the Sunday Mass.
As a closing frame and highlight of the festival, Queen Sugar and King Sucrose parade down the main street of New Iberia on elaborate floats. During this Sunday afternoon parade, Queen Sugar is seated on her throne next to King Sucrose. The Queen's maids are positioned at the base of the float, while former Sugar Queens ride on a separate float. The parade is, according to Abrahams, "our most dramatic technique for announcing . . . some major form of celebration. . . . But the increase it has come to celebrate often reflects the technological as much as the agricultural side of the economy. . . . Festive intensification in such cases is rendered gigantically, with the immense floats, [and] the amplified sizes and sounds of the marching bands" (1982:175). This is certainly the case with the Louisiana Sugar Parade, which takes over the main street of town to publicly display, for the admiration of local and tourist viewers, a symbolic king and queen of the harvest.
This rite of conspicuous display is, according to Falassi, designed to "permit the most important symbolic elements of the community to be seen" (1987:4). Frank de Caro and Tom Ireland, writing about elite New Orleans Carnival krewes, state that festival kings and queens are "providing—noblesse oblige—a spectacle to entertain the masses" (de Caro and Ireland 2003:30).6 Yet the presence of this royal pair, King Sucrose and Queen Sugar, although certainly conflated with images derived from the area Mardi Gras, resonates more with the symbolism of springtime celebrations of plenty. Like the King and Queen of May, King Sucrose and Queen Sugar are elevated above the crowd for all to see. As another signifier of the magnitude of festival change, Miss Alberta commented in our interview that as Queen Sugar she rode in a convertible. Today, King Sucrose and Queen Sugar ride on a float that is ornately decorated and high off the ground to facilitate public display. However, open-roofed cars, symbolic of freedom and economic prosperity, are still used in the current festival parades but only to transport and showcase parade organizers.
During her year-long reign, Queen Sugar becomes a public envoy of the Louisiana sugar industry. These days, as an agricultural ambassador, she represents the sugar cane industry at Washington, D.C.'s Mardi Gras Ball. Her presence in the nation's capitol reflects an industry trend away from local concerns toward an awareness of federal involvement, in terms of government tariffs and global sugar production. Past Sugar Queens have also attended Advertising Club-sponsored meetings in New York, and on occasion, have assumed the role of sugar "caller" for a day at the New York Stock Exchange. Present-day Sugar Queens also attend many different events associated with the Louisiana Board of Education in order to raise public awareness of the importance of the sugar industry. From our interview, it was clear that Miss Alberta saw herself as a community mentor. Although she did not want to seem "uncooperative," she generally resisted being part of the annual festival. In part, she had little spare time; she confided, "I'm a busy somebody." She did attend the festival for some years after her reign, and then told people who urged her, "If you all stop asking, I'll come to the 25th [annual festival]." She did attend the Silver Anniversary of her crowning when she was forty-two years old. She told an anecdote from her experience in overhearing a young policeman commenting to her husband, who was escorting her, that he had one of the "old ones." Her husband replied, "Of course, she was the first Sugar Queen." The embarrassed policeman apologized profusely, and Miss Alberta told him, "Don't let it bother you one bit. I've got to be older if I was the first one, right?"
As this story demonstrates, in taking part in an event that celebrates youthful female beauty Miss Alberta graciously accepted the impact of feminine aging. In our interview, she stated that the lessons she gained from being Queen Sugar were "joyous moments." As the first Queen Sugar, Miss Alberta marks the beginning of a tradition. Not only is she a symbol of a new tradition, but she is also a marker of origin. She provides nostalgic value to her community through the creation and perpetuation of a festival that generates tourism, celebrates fellowship and community goodwill, showcases sugar as an agricultural product, and commemorates New Iberia with a strong sense of place. When I asked her how she felt about being a local celebrity, she responded with a twinkle in her eye, "It's nice."
Racial Dynamics and the Brown Sugar Festival
The Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair also highlights racial tensions among residents of New Iberia and its environs, and thus comments on those who have historically been excluded. For the most part, King Sucrose, Queen Sugar and the majority of the festival organizers are white. In response to exclusion from the predominately white festival, African- American residents of New Iberia formed their own sugar parade in 1950. For close to a decade, the Brown Sugar Parade, featuring the Grambling University Marching Band, local high school bands, and a Brown Sugar King and Queen along with their Sugar Maids and Pages, paraded in the streets of New Iberia's West End area, a traditionally African-American neighborhood. Festival programs from 1958 and 1959 include references to the Saturday afternoon "Negro Parade," along with photographs of lovely young women wearing white evening gowns. Queen Brown Sugar, easily detected by the trappings of royalty, wears a crown and cape while holding a scepter. In a 2006 telephone interview, Mrs. Berry Lou Bernard Polk, a former first runner-up for Queen Brown Sugar, described taking part in the 1960 New Iberia parade, which culminated with her coronation at West End Park Pavilion. A college freshman at the time, she wore her white prom dress, and says the parade was an exciting moment for her. But by 1961, there is no reference to the Brown Sugar parade in local newspapers. No one I asked was able to tell me why the Brown Sugar Parade was discontinued. Perhaps it no longer seemed important or appropriate during the Civil Rights era. To me, the loss of a parade that showcased the African American communal values seems sad, a silencing of the town's energy and creativity of a traditionally black neighborhood. However, residents of that neighborhood may view this differently.
African Americans currently participate in the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair by attending parades and public dances, which the festival calls fais do-dos (a word once used to describe French Louisiana house dances, and now traditional dances in general). In recent years, the Friday and Saturday night festival street dances have often led to fights, thought by some to be racially motivated. In 2006, on Sunday evening following the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival Parade, local police used tear gas on a group of West End black residents. Iberville Parish Sheriff Sid Hebert is quoted as stating that "a history of confrontations on Sunday nights has been a sort of unofficial closing ceremony to the annual festival" (Courreges 2006). In response, the mayor of New Iberia launched an investigation into alleged improper use of force by police in the presence of young children.
However, a 2011 post on the Daily Iberian's Reader's Forum suggests that racial tensions have increased since 2006. The contributor writes, "I say to the people of New Iberia if we can't get alone [sic] and party together they will stop all of the activities uptown and then what?" (Daily Iberian Reader's Forum, October 10, 2011). In light of the changing demographics of New Iberia between 2000 and 2010, which reflect an upward trend in African-American residents, one may only wonder how these tensions will be resolved.
As a combination harvest festival and agricultural fair, the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair has moved from displays of agricultural mechanization to more diverse opportunities for community participation, perhaps due to increased pressure to generate tourism income. The dual nature of the festival and fair portions of the event both serve and support distinct characteristics of the community of New Iberia. The festival aspect offers opportunities for community enrichment and entertainment, while the fair portion highlights the continued importance of agricultural production for the region. Changes in the role of festive royalty reflect shifting social values and concepts of community social prestige. The heightened importance of beauty in the selection of Queen Sugar embodies local values and reflects changing attitudes toward women who emblematically represent the community and the local sugar industry.
Pageant organizers speak of the diminished crowds at the coronation of Queen Sugar, as more and more contestants and audience members are removed from the agricultural issues so important to the area. Not only is it an expensive plan for a small agrarian sugar parish to spend in the area of $10,000 to send a candidate for Queen Sugar, but it is also an enormous commitment for a young woman to dedicate her time as a yearlong representative of the local sugar industry. Moreover, there have been no African-American contenders for Queen Sugar or her Court. Thus, by charting the changes in the festival over time we may determine how the community of New Iberia views itself and how that vision has changed over seven decades. This discovery leads to additional questions: What central values of the community will be reflected in future festivals? How will the community resolve the racial tensions that appear in conjunction with the festival? Will there be any more Sugar Festivals in New Iberia? According to a recent news report, the Sugarcane League has proposed moving the festival to the town of Franklin in St. Mary Parish (Daily Iberian Readers' Forum 2012). Only time will provide the answers.
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Conrad, Glenn R. and Ray F. Lucas. 1995. White Gold: A Brief History of the Louisiana Sugar Industry 1795-1995. Louisiana Life Series 8. Lafayette, LA: The Center for Louisiana Studies at University of Southwestern Louisiana.
Courreges, Patrick. September 2006. New Iberia's Sugar Cane Festival ends with clash between police, crowd. The Daily Iberian. Daily Iberian Reader's Forum. October 10, 2011. http://www.iberianet.com/forum/hopkins-street-mainstreet-sugar-cane-festival/article.
___. May 8, 2012. Sugarcane Festival Leaving New Iberia. http://222.iberianet.com/forum/sugarcane-festival-leavingnew-iberia/article.
de Caro, Frank and Tom Ireland. 2003. Every Man a King: Worldview, Social Tension, and Carnival in New Orleans. In Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Readings in Louisiana Culture, ed. Marcia Gaudet and James C. McDonald, pp. 26-41. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Duplessis, Alicia. 2006. Since 1937, Sugar Cane Festival Ranks as One of the Best. Guide to the 2006 Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair, The Daily Iberian, September 18.
Falassi, Alessandro. 1987. Festival: Definition and Morphology. In Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi, pp. 1-12. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Farmers Day. 2006. The 61st Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair. Daily Iberian, September 23. Iberville South, Plaquemines, La, 1935-1937.
Jackson, Ab, Jr., ed. 1946. In the Land of Sugar Cane: Review and pictorial of the Fifth Annual Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival, September 27-29.
Kessler, Madeline. 2006. Interview with the author. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. September.
Landry, Steven K. 2006. "Iberia's #1 status means sweet money for the area." Guide to the 2006 Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair. Supplement to The Daily Iberian, September 18.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. 1847. Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Nimbus Publishing Ltd.
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Moore, Jeff. Artists Abound at Art Show: The 61st Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair. Daily Iberian, September 23.
Neely, Wayne C. 1935. The Agricultural Fair. Columbia University Studies in the History of American Agriculture 8. New York: Columbia University Press.
Nereaux, Alberta. September 2006. Interview with author. New Iberia, Louisiana.
Polk, Berry Lou Bernard. September 2006. Telephone Interview with author.
Robinson, Pat. 1959. Charles Savoie. . . King Sucrose. Daily Iberian, September 19.
St. Clair, Justin. 2002. Festival Begins with a Blessing: The 61st Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair. Daily Iberian, September 23.
Yano, Christine P. 2006. Crowning the Nice Girl: Gender, Ethnicity and Culture in Hawai'i's Cherry Blossom Festival. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 22 (2012): 89-99.
1. My thanks to Mr. Tony Fama, a local historian of Plaquemine, for bringing this information to my attention.
2. These figures are based on Steven K. Landry's article "Iberia's #1 status means sweet money for area," in the 2006 Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair Guide.
3. For more on the process of sugar production, see Glenn R. Conrad and Ray F. Lucas, White Gold.
4. Statistics from the American Sugar Cane League reveal that over 450,000 acres of sugar cane and planted and harvested in twenty-four Louisiana parishes. Louisiana produces about 20% of the sugar grown in the United States. Although the number of farms has decreased since 1963, the number of acres under cultivation has increased as larger farms reflect the amount of acreage planted in cane.
5. Neely provides four characteristics of the medieval market fair. These are: religious, commercial, educational and exhibitive (1935:3).
6. For more on the concept of noblesse oblige, see Frank De Caro and Tom Ireland, "Every Man a King: Worldview, Social Tension and Carnival in New Orleans," in Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco, ed. Marcia Gaudet and James C. McDonald.
7. For a discussion of possible origins for this usage, see Josh Caffery's "The Folk Etymology of the Fais Do-Do: A Note," in the 2012 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.