“They don’t like us,” a friend commented recently, referring to the northern part of the state.
Give them a break, I said, recalling our recent visit to Monroe, a city of cypress trees (who knew?), where we experienced the opposite.
At a statewide art contest/scholarship luncheon recently at the New Orleans Sheraton Hotel, I made the rounds of tables, meeting the sixteen finalists, their parents and art teachers. To my surprise, more than half of the room, both adults and students, visited New Orleans for the first time that weekend.
I learned from these Louisiana residents, many from the country, of our intimidating big city, its crowds, parking, expense and a Bourbon-street reputation. Without exception we defied their negative expectations, as New Orleans welcomed them with its history, culture and a good time.
Last year’s finalists joined us for an afternoon at the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge, a university city attracting people from all parts of the state. Admittedly, my spoiled lifestyle presents these opportunities often, and I looked on the day as any other, forgetting until I arrived the significance of our state capitol and its famous house.
Our guests wore their Sunday best, their hair coifed for the occasion, their cameras ready, as Mrs. Jindal greeted them at the door. All Louisianians, I thought to myself, as I listened to the excitement and pride humming between parents, students and educators, deserve and in some ways need this experience.
Shreveport struggles for state recognition due to its geographical location, often labeled by the southern part of the state as East Texas, as though that’s a bad thing. In reality, they eat crawfish, enjoy jazz music and fly LSU flags. The city defines an important aspect of Louisiana culture, as home to the Louisiana Hayride, Ducks Unlimited, and festival traditions such as the Red River Revel.
Although never mistaken for Texas, Acadiana also understands the connection, a result of not only geography, but also the shared interest in oil production. It is for me the most complex area of the state.
Cajun country is a wonderful mix of not only the French-Canadian descendents of the 1755 Grand Dérangement, but also an influx of many cultures, including the Lebanese, Italian, African American, Greek, Spanish and more.
Today the area, particularly the outlying cities, embraces its Cajun roots, while Lafayette makes a concerted effort towards the nouveau or the chic. In New Orleans people speak of Lafayette as though it is our hipper, smaller version. And in Lafayette, word is…
“We’re sometimes called a child of New Orleans, but we’re redefining the spirit and culture of New Orleans, not copying it.” -Robert Daigle, Founder of River Ranch, a neighborhood development in Lafayette, LA.
But not everyone buys it. A Lafayette native, a restaurateur heavily involved in the local music scene, relocated to New Orleans ten years ago. He claims that many of his friends, particularly those connected to Cajun art and music, left Lafayette to get the recognition they deserve.
“Lafayette wants to be so much more. It forgets what it has and tries to be something else, with one notable exception, the greatest cultural festival in the world, Festivals Acadiens.”
In Lake Charles I learned of Native American blended with Cajun roots. Many families, according to the Calcasieu Museum, settled in the area to raise cattle, providing beef for the big city of New Orleans.
Know Louisiana. For that matter, know New Orleans.
“You’re a reverse snob,” observed my friend Margo, when, other than for a few Wild Lotus Yoga classes, I ventured Uptown past the restaurant Houston’s last week for only the third time in two years.
Following Hurricane Katrina, I worked in the French Quarter and overheard visitors discussing the city. Delighted with the returning tourists, I made conversation:
“Thank you for visiting New Orleans! Where are you from?”
All too often they answered, quite seriously,
I recall a couple explaining their support of the city, their desire to better understand its society, its diversity and its culture. Prior to the storm, they said, they had not visited the French Quarter in years.
“Don’t mention that you’re from the West Bank,” warned my husband, as we attended a party in the Garden District. Confused, I shared my family roots in conversation and, young and newly married, struggled with the backlash. These days some of our closest friends live on Prytania Street, just a few blocks from ‘the incident’ and a house I avoid to this day, hoping to stifle the echoes of humiliation, not regarding the West Bank, but rather my failure at defying insolence, or at the very least, ignoring it.
Know Louisiana. Know your neighborhood.
This past weekend, we enjoyed the Faubourg Marigny Home Tour. We joined not only our neighbors, but also families from the North Shore, Metairie and Kenner. (George and I half-joke that we’ll buy a summer home in Kenner one day, because we spend so much time there). To our pleasant surprise, we met folks from Uptown, Mid-City, and the Lakefront, all hoping to better understand this unique neighborhood.
Today, as one part of Louisiana sacrifices itself for another, we must embrace our culture and empathize with our residents, treasuring the unique areas throughout our state.
In other words, it is more important now than ever that we know Louisiana.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
-Be sure and check out ‘KnowLA,” the new on-line Louisiana encyclopedia hosted by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities
-All paintings in this post by George Rodrigue
-This week I invite you to join me on twitter, as my sister and I visit Quebec City and Montreal
-And, Cheers! Enjoy a glass of rosé wine with “Pink Dog”