Taking Cajun Identity on the Road: Vacation Stories from Terrebonne Parish"

By Shana Walton

Moise, a native of Terrebonne Parish, took his family on a well-deserved vacation to Disney World. The lines for the good rides were long, and people began chatting. Everybody said where they were from. When people found out that Moise and his family were from Louisiana, the first question was, "Are you real Cajuns?" Moise said he was a little surprised, but he said, "Yes, we are." Then another person in line asked, "Do you Cajuns really eat alligators?" Moise didn't miss a beat and responded this way: "I pretended to be shocked and I said, 'Why no! We keep alligators for pets. You wouldn't eat your dog, would you? '" He said everybody laughed, but nobody asked any more rude questions after that.

This story was told to me in 1990 one morning when I was sitting in Claude's Country Store in Montegut, Louisiana. Claude Bourg was the local raconteur, and I had been recording his stories and talking to him and his customers about accents and speech. It turned out that almost everybody who came in had what I learned to call "the Cajun vacation story." This basic story goes like this: you're from south Louisiana and you go on vacation to Disney World or Washington, D.C., or to see the fall leaves in New Hampshire and once people hear you talk and you mention Louisiana, they decide that you are "Cajun" and begin assuming various things. I heard vacation stories in which upstanding, middle-class Cajun people from Terrebonne Parish were asked if they lived in a swamp, if they had electricity, if they had cars or just boats, if they had been to school, and even if they understood the English spoken by other people. It goes on and on and can be a source of amusement for some vacationing Cajuns. Casie, the librarian in the little town of Bourg, remembered one vacation she and her husband took to Yellowstone National Park. Every night around the group campfire, the subject would turn to how they were "real Cajuns."

She remembered:

They said, "We heard you have crocodiles down there." We would tell them, "Oh yeah, they're all over. We have a pirogue. We have a bayou right in front of the house." Well, that set them off and they thought that we had to get in our pirogue to go to where we parked the car. We had fun with them. We really did. We told them we kept the pirogue tied to the back door and that if we wanted to go get groceries that we'd get in our pirogue and paddle down the bayou. And they'd say, "Hey, come see; these people are from Louisiana." And then we'd have to tell our story all over again. So we got better at telling our story as it progressed.

And then I asked her, "And your accents got heavier?" She said, "Definitely. I can really take it down the bayou if you want."

We can think of these vacation stories as ethnic performances. Cajuns are not just answering questions, but are really performing "Cajun" for non-Cajuns. The stories I heard had traits in common. First, the outsiders often display only a one-dimensional understanding of "Cajun." (Casie said, "I guess they think we go barefoot.") Second, the Cajuns seldom waste time trying to set people straight. (As one person explained, "Shouldn't waste energy trying to teach a pig to sing.") In fact, people often have some fun by exaggerating stereotypes. Third, the storytellers usually use three voices: what I'm calling normal speech, a "hypercorrect" English for the non-Cajuns, and a "down-the-bayou" voice for exaggerated Cajun English. Let's go back to Moise's story. Now, the fact is that Moise does occasionally eat alligator meat, usually at festivals.

But the folks in line at Disney World didn't ask him the best way to cook alligator meat or any question that would imply they were actually seeking real information. Their question was really another way of saying, "Cajuns are really weird and eat food that is taboo to most Americans. You aren't like us." Moise elegantly turned that idea back on them and reasserted himself as the "real" American and them as the cultural outsiders who would suggest eating a pet! I love this story because he displays several central Cajun values: (1) He keeps humor and cordiality central by never saying anything offensive and never getting defensive; and (2) He displays quick wit and cleverness, highly prized abilities, by taking their own offensive remark to a ridiculous level and so, laughing along with him, they see the light and are shamed by their display of ignorance. They built the road; Moise just makes them walk all the way down it. So while the outsiders were hoping to get condensed "Cajun" through the vicarious thrill of eating alligator meat, what they actually got was a true Cajun experience by becoming part of a traditional trickster tale, in which good wins out not by being richer or bigger but by being more clever.

An important part of these stories is not just what is told, but how it's told. I heard Moise's story, and others, as told to a circle of people who stopped at the local store to have morning coffee on their way to work at schools, at hospitals, in offices, at jobsites, on boats. Both performances, the one for outsiders and the later one for friends and neighbors, are important. The key to getting all the layers of meaning is the shifting voices. In the exaggerated voice, every "think" becomes "tink" and every "that" becomes "dat." The outsiders may or may not even pick up on the deepening accent, but they don't have to because the joke's on them. But everyone in Claude's store gets it. The storytellers are performing Cajun for the insiders. But in this performance the understandings are different. Now, as the storytellers shift voices, they are evoking the many worlds, multiple voices, and layered identities that middle-class Cajuns have. These stories become an opportunity to revel in the language, celebrate the nuances of being Cajun in a protected forum.

While national media have often portrayed Cajun characters and talked about "Cajun" almost to overkill, very little seen or heard on the national scene resonates with the lived experiences of the teachers and business people in Claude's store that morning. These are folks who are proud of their Cajun heritage but awfully tired of outsiders who see "Cajuns" as one-dimensional caricatures. They are Acadian, they are American, they are Southern, they are from Louisiana. Their language reflects their multiple identities. They speak hypercorrect standard English, they speak Southern English, they speak "normal" Cajun English, and they speak "down-the-bayou" English. Some of them speak French. They are complex people who, when they are away from home, have to constantly encounter a simplistic national media caricature. Shifting English becomes an elegant way of showing their dual desires to assert Cajun ethnicity but not to be seen as "backward," to be considered mainstream Americans but not to have to forfeit a cultural heritage that lends depth and meaning to their lives, to claim community but not be judged by the lack of outside understanding about the complexity of Cajun identity.

Shana Walton is a cultural anthropologist teaching at Nicholls State University. This essay was originally published by Louisiana Folk Roots in its publication Routes to Roots, Volume 2 in 2007.