Most of Alfred Perez's life has been spent along the waterways of southeastern Louisiana, and the miniature fishing boats he crafts reflect his traditional Isleño upbringing. The Isleño arrived in Louisiana in the late eighteenth century, when Spain established a community of colonists from the Canary Islands in St. Bernard Parish. Most Isleños have continued to live close to the land, hunting for alligators and ducks, shrimping, crabbing, trapping muskrat, and gathering Spanish moss. Over many generations, they have maintained their distinctive form of the Spanish language and culture.
Alfred Perez was born in 1921 in the Spanish-speaking community of Delacroix Island, in marshy lower St. Bernard Parish. Mr. Perez can trace his Isleños heritage back many generations on both sides of his family. His paternal great- grandfather came to Louisiana from the Canary Islands, and his mother's family has been in Louisiana since the eighteenth century.
His father, Casimire Perez, made his living fishing and trapping, and also composed and performed the traditional story-songs called dècimas. Each November through February, the family moved to a trapping camp to trap muskrats. Although natural resources were plentiful, making a living was often difficult during the Depression years, and Mr. Perez remembers selling muskrats for only 17 cents each, and shrimp for as little as $2.75/barrel (with 210 pounds to a barrel.) Families had little money for luxuries, and the children had to be creative and make their own toys. Alfred Perez began making small wooden boats as a boy, as well as toy trucks and wagons, fashioning their wheels from bottle caps or sawed-off broomsticks.
He is dedicated to preserving his language, which resembles the Castillian Spanish spoken in the eighteenth century. Like many Isleños of his generation, Mr. Perez knew no English when he started school, and he recalls being punished by teachers for speaking his native language. He still considers Spanish his first language. However, many younger Isleños have grown up speaking only English.
Mr. Perez, who left Delacroix Island when he entered military service during World War II, is now retired and lives in Poydras with his wife Daisy. Over the years, he occasionally made miniature boats like those he created as a boy, as gifts for his grandchildren. In 1984, he was inspired by a beautiful boat he saw docked in the harbor and began building the carefully crafted and detailed replicas he is now known for. He recreates the graceful wooden boats he grew up with: oyster luggers, Biloxi double-rigged shrimp boats, and Louisiana luggers (also called canots.) He uses primarily balsa wood and tupelo, and his cabins are made of plywood panelling. The largest of his models measures 18 inches in length.
Proud of his Isleños heritage, Alfred Perez has travelled extensively throughout Louisiana and the United States to educate others about his culture. He has participated in festivals throughout Louisiana, demonstrating his model boat making and telling stories. He frequently takes part in school programs in St. Bernard and Orleans Parishes.