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The Isleños of St. Bernard Parish

The following notes are from Swapping Stories Folktales from Louisiana and supplied by Samuel G. Armistead, who also transcribed and translated all the book's Isleño texts.


The Isleños live in six small communities in lower St. Bernard Parish, about thirty-five miles southeast of New Orleans: Delacroix ("The Island"), Woods Lake, Reggio, Yscloskey, Shell Beach, and Hopedale. They are descendants of colonists from the Canary Islands, who arrived in Louisiana in 1778, as part of a colonization initiative supported by the Spanish governor, Bernardo Gálvez. Traditionally, they have been trappers, fishermen, duck hunters, shrimp trawlers, oystermen, crabbers, and alligator hunters. The Isleños are intensely and justifiably proud of their Hispanic heritage. Having lived in relative isolation from the dominant French- and English-speaking communities of Louisiana for more than two hundred years and, at the same time, having never completely broken their ties with the Canary Islands and with other Spanish-speaking areas, the Isleños have kept, down to the present day, the distinctive Louisiana-Spanish dialect that developed in their Delta communities. Isleño Spanish has retained many of its original Canarian characteristics, in both lexicon and phonology, but it has also borrowed a substantial vocabulary from American Spanish, from Cajun French, and from English, as well as from Portuguese, by way of the numerous Portuguese loanwords in Canarian Spanish. Isleño folklore is similarly eclectic, combining ancestral Canarian items with others borrowed from other Hispanic areas: Andalusia, Castile, Asturias, Catalonia, Spanish Caribbean islands, Mexico, and the American Southwest. There are also certain limited influences from the Cajun French song repertoire and, more recently, even from country and western music. A distinctively local and specifically Isleño creation are the satirical narrative poems, known as décimas, which allude to events in local history and to the perils and travails of local activities. The décimas also poke fun at the weaknesses and foibles of local individuals, but others may re-create centuries-old themes, having their origins in the medieval ballads (romances) of Spanish tradition. Together with these poetic narratives, the Isleños also have a well-developed repertoire of traditional folktales.

The décima was originally characterized by a ten-verse stanza, embodying a complex consonantal rhyme scheme (typically: abba-ac-cddc) and having octosyllabic verses, but in St. Bernard Parish, while the term décima has survived, the songs themselves now usually consist of anisosyllabic (predominantly octosyllabic) quatrains, with assonant rhyme in every second verse, reflecting the influence of Spanish ballad meter and of the corrido of Mexico, Central America, and the U.S. Southwest.

Irvan Perez, who lives in Poydras (St. Bernard Parish), is a great singer of traditional décimas and is the foremost authority on Isleño language and folklore. His unflagging enthusiasm and devotion to his ancestral heritage have contributed incalculably to the current revival of local and international interest in Isleño popular culture. His superb knowledge of the Isleño dialect includes total control of an exhaustive lexicon covering every animal, bird, reptile, fish, insect, plant, and tree native to the local marshlands (la plería), as well as every detail of the traditional material culture of the Isleño community. In 1991, Irvan Perez was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, from the National Endowment for the Arts, in recognition of his artistry and his dedication to maintaining the traditional culture of the Isleño people. The four décimas included here were sung by Irvan Perez in 1989 and can be heard on the cassette recording, Spanish Décimas from St. Bernard Parish, produced by the Louisiana Folklife Center, at Northwestern State University, in Natchitoches.


National Endowment for the Arts.

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