I gave a presentation in Spanish class today about the Isleños community in Saint Bernard Parish, and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I told my fellow classmates this morning.
Los Isleños are the descendants of Canary Islanders (Canarians) who came to the New World in the 18th century. Many settled in parts of the Caribbean and Venezuela, as well as Mississippi and Texas. They were instrumental in founding San Antonio, for example. But between 1778-1783 about 3,000 hardy Canarians (called “Isleños” or “islanders,” as opposed to “Penisulares,” which are people from the Spanish mainland) made the trek to Louisiana in order to build four colonies for the King of Spain in attempt to secure Spanish territory against possible British incursions into the region. The population grew from there and mostly in Saint Bernard Parish. Amazingly, they were able to maintain many of their cultural traditions, as well as their form of the Spanish language, throughout the next couple hundred years.
Perhaps the most important part of Isleños culture is their music. In particular, los Isleños sing songs called “décimas,” which were originally ten-lines long—hence the name. The singers, of course, are called “decimeros.” Décimas are about Canarian and Isleños history, interesting characters in the community, and the day-to-day working life of the people. The most famous decimero of late was Irván Pérez
(he passed away in 2008), a fierce protector and promoter of Isleños history and traditions. (You can hear Pérez singing the décima “El trabajo de Welfare” here
, and that’s a picture of him below.)
Every March Saint Bernard Parish throws a Los Isleños Festival that attracts visitors from all over, including quite a few musicians and other attendees from the Canary Islands, as well as other Spanish dignitaries…even the King and Queen of Spain if it is a particularly good year. Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society
, along with other Isleños groups, has done a good job maintaining strong bonds between the community in Louisiana and all the other places in the world touched by immigration from the Canary Islands. Though a bit dated, there is interesting documentary about los Isleños called Mosquitos and High Water: El mosco y el agua alta
that you can watch for free here
. The following is a trailer for the film, and it starts with Irván Pérez again!
Unfortunately, los Isleños have had a rough time of it over the past half decade. First, Hurricane Katrina ruined large portions of Saint Bernard Parish, and many feared that the population was going to have to effectively flee the area. Then, just as things were beginning to look up, the BP oil disaster last year contaminated much of the traditional fishing and hunting grounds of los Isleños. Historically the community has consisted primarily of trappers and fishermen, and they are particularly well known for the skills in hunting and trapping ducks, muskrats, and mink. With all the environmental destruction of the area, however, a lot of young Isleños have left. So, will the Isleños form of the Spanish language and the cultural traditions of the community live on during this new diaspora?