The heart of Cajun country is decidedly different from the rest of the US

A signpost in down town Lafayette. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Lafayette, Louisiana looks like an indistinct American city. Driving up from the east, the swampy lowlands of the Atchafalaya Basin give way to suburban ranch-style homes, historic Victorian two-stories, and, finally, a downtown shaped by boxy mid-century buildings and an imposing Romanesque cathedral. It’s pleasant, if a bit plain.

I was on the tail end of a road trip around the Deep South, and Lafayette, a city of around 125,000, couldn’t compare at first to other places I’d visited, especially its storied neighbour 135 miles east: it didn’t have anything approximating the cobbled streets, endless jazz, and candy-coloured Creole cottages of New Orleans’ French Quarter.

What it did have, I quickly noticed, was French. Street signs were in both English and French, parks had names like Parc Sans Souci, and shop windows declared, “Ici on parle francais.” (A reassurance, apparently, for those who’d rather stick to their mother tongue.)

These were the first signs of a city harbouring a culture separate from the rest of the U.S. Lafayette, it turns out, is the heart of Cajun country, or “Acadiana,” the part of Louisiana where a number of French colonists of Acadia, Canada’s present-day Maritime Provinces, settled after being exiled by the British in the mid-eighteenth century.

Like many stories born of exile, a distinct way of life emerged. Inside Lafayette’s unassuming buildings, a centuries-old culture is being preserved and—locals hope—revitalised.

“It’s a special kind of tourist who comes here,” said John Pastor, owner of The Duchess Downtown B&B, during his daily cocktail hour where he promotes his ancestors’ culture with a quick history lesson, travel tips, song, and dance.

I looked down at my drink sheepishly; I’d driven over on the offhand recommendation of a girl I’d met in a Florida hostel. Like most Americans, I knew almost nothing about the Cajuns and associated them primarily with two things: seasoning and crawfish.


That special kind of tourist, I came to realise, was probably someone who wants to see the preservation of a geopolitical anomaly in action, with the odd swamp tour thrown in. Lafayette has not one, but two recreations of historic villages—think old buildings, historical actors, and general stores—as well as an Acadian Cultural Center that shows a dramatised film on the Acadians’ persecution on the hour.

Though it turns out I wasn’t too far off on the cuisine front. Cajun country is a bona fide American foodie destination. Tourists and locals flock to Lafayette’s restaurants for crawfish by the pound, gumbo, blackened catfish, étouffée (a seafood dish smothered in a roux), and boudin balls (deep-fried spheres of pork and rice). One local institution, Prejean’s, greets visitors with a fourteen-foot taxidermied gator named Big Al.

Prejean’s and a number of other restaurants double as dance halls, some of which are open any given night of the week. While the vast majority of the country has long abandoned organised dance, Cajuns regularly frolic, two-stepping and waltzing to Cajun and Zydeco music. With dance cards and accordions, it’s a strange mix of Old Europe and American South, a bit of Jane Austen in raucous Louisiana.

Still, what makes the city and its region perhaps most distinct is what’s rapidly dying: Cajun French, an oral tradition with considerable differences from its European counterpart. It’s something like eighteenth-century French with an American accent, where apparently a truck is often just “un truck.”

Although you can still hear the older generations speaking French in Lafayette, it’s waned over the past century. As Pastor told me, it was quite literally beaten out of children in school. Today, only 5 per cent of the city’s population is fluent in French. In 2000, it was 11.1 per cent.

Despite decline, there are concerted efforts to revive the French language: Louisiana now has the largest French immersion program in the country for schoolchildren, and a free app called LearnCajun was developed last year. So far, the effects are unclear.

And yet there’s still something to be said for the presence of French in the city. I imagine that any first-time visitor would feel, as I did, like they’d stumbled upon a foreign part of the States just by seeing French. The persistence of the language is a statement. It upholds a place that no longer exists as it once did, while still trying to find a niche for it in the present—not just as a tourist town, but as the symbolic centre of an entire culture.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.