Wildfowl carver and dècima singer Irvan Perez is considered Louisiana's foremost representative of traditional Isleño culture. The Isleños are descendants of Canary Islanders who arrived in Louisiana by way of Cuba in the late eighteenth century and settled in five communities in St. Bernard Parish. There they have maintained their distinctive Hispanic language and culture over many generations. Most Isleños have tended to remain small farmers, fishermen and trappers. Irvan Perez is no exception, having grown up in the isolated community of Delacroix Island where nearly all spoke Spanish in his youth. Like his father, Irvan worked hard fishing and trapping much of his life. Now retired, Mr. Perez lives in Poydras with his wife, Louise.
He is a self-taught carver who began whittling wooden ducks at the age often. Today, he creates realistically textured wildfowl and songbirds from cypress roots. He paints his work with oil pigments that he mixes himself, because this lets him get closer to the birds' natural colors. It takes him about twelve hours to paint each piece, and much longer to carve them. "If you can make two a month, you're doing good," he says.
Irvan is perhaps the only singer still performing the traditional Isleños ballads known as dècimas. These songs, characterized by ten-line stanzas, are sung a capella and are considered to be the oldest Spanish language form. They were once a regular part of social gatherings on Delacroix Island. On Saturday nights, families gathered at one of the island's four dance halls, and men took turns singing the dècimas after the band stopped playing. Many were composed on the spot as humorous commentary on local history and people, and others were handed down from generation to generation.
Irvan Perez, who started singing dècimas in his early teens, learned the songs and singing style from his father, Serafino Perez, and other older men in the community. He has a large repertoire of dècimas, which range from the fifteenth-century "Fernando" (about a nobleman returning from the Crusades) to more recent and topical songs about fishing in the month of February in St. Bernard. The dècima, Mr. Perez says, reinforce pride in the old ways, a love of tradition, and hope for the future. He has recorded an album called Spanish Dècimas from St. Bernard Parish.
He is also a skilled storyteller, whether he is talking about Isleñohistory, folk cures, or his boyhood on Delacroix Island.
Mr. Perez has been widely recognized for his role in preserving and promoting his culture. He received a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship and was inducted into the Louisiana Hall of Master Folk Artists. He has performed his dècimas in Carnegie Hall, and has participated as a singer and master craftsman in the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife, the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival, the Louisiana Folklife Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and many other events. He has also been as a source for many scholars studying the Isleño language and culture.