The United States of America is a huge country and contains within its borders perhaps the greatest diversity of people and places on Earth. The options seem endless when deciding what kind of life you want to live here: the great cities of the Northeast, the beaches and bays of the East Coast, the rolling mountains of Appalachia, the Great Lakes, the amber waves of Midwestern grain, the buttes and canyons of the western deserts, the grasslands of California, and the vast temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. There’s something for everyone here, and most people cling tightly to their homes, natural or adopted, because they feel their homes reflect something about who they are. We’re no different: we’re lucky to have lived in South Louisiana.
Reasons abound as to why one feels lucky to live in South Louisiana: the food, music, and attitude of the people here are well-known to the outside world. But there are other, subtler reasons as well, reasons that also play a part in this region’s more famous attributes. Because the first European settlers in South Louisiana were French, not British, this region possesses a completely different history than the unilateral version of American history taught in schools. While the Continental Army battled the British, South Louisiana was populated by francophone fishermen, trappers, and traders. This different, yet concurrent, history continued on its own path for some time: until as recently as World War II, the people of rural South Louisiana were often more likely to fly the French tricolor than the American Flag. The Americanization of South Louisiana took nearly two hundred years.
Why is this important? Why does this make us lucky? This separate heritage created a separate culture, a unique identity in language, food, and way of life that, to this day, remains largely foreign to most Americans. Living in South Louisiana is a first, vital clue to the diversity of the United States and the world beyond. To live in South Louisiana is to learn a different way of looking at things, based on a history that, until 1812, was completely separate, and in the 200 years since then, it’s assimilated into American hegemony in its own unique way. Countless traditions were lost in the process, language being the biggest, but still the people of South Louisiana retain a larger awareness of their cultural individuality than most. Because the people of South Louisiana were not immigrants to America, but rather lived on land purchased by the United States, they felt less pressure to assimilate. The people of South Louisiana did not flee to opportunity in the United States, they fled to opportunity in New France. This place was home long before it was the United States of America.
So when we boil crawfish, eat gumbo, or make the veillée in South Louisiana, we don’t do it because we want to fit in, we do it because this is what people in this part of the country have been doing longer than this country has existed. These traditions are a part of who we are, and thus, they’ve continued to survive. Living in South Louisiana introduces a person to a different path by which we all arrived at the present and demonstrates that the history we’re taught in school is not the only history, and frankly, it’s not even the most important history. The history that matters most is the history of one’s own unique culture, and the culture that’s most significant is the one that carries the struggles and triumphs of one’s ancestors. More than most other places in the United States, South Louisiana has preserved a significant degree of unique identity, and understanding that identity teaches a great deal about what makes places special. Living that identity keeps this place special for our future generations.