Louisiana's 'Islenos' Torn Apart by Katrina Of all the groups in the micro-melting pot of South Louisiana hit by Hurricane Katrina, it's hard to find a more close-knit community than the Islenos. The descendants of Spanish-speaking Canary Islanders who settled St. Bernard Parish more than 200 years ago are now struggling to restore a community that was dispersed by Katrina's winds and floods.
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Louisiana's 'Islenos' Torn Apart by Katrina

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Louisiana's 'Islenos' Torn Apart by Katrina

Louisiana's 'Islenos' Torn Apart by Katrina

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The communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina include one that survived in Louisiana for centuries. It's the descendants of Spanish-speaking people from the Canary Islands, and they're known as Islenos. More than 200 years ago, they came to St. Bernard Parish east of New Orleans, and they were still living in that blue-collar parish when it was completely flooded this year. Now nobody is sure when they'll return. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Drive deep into St. Bernard Parish and you notice the names on the mailboxes: Nunez, Marrero, Estopinal, Rodriguez, Gonzales, Perez. Two-thirds of the parish's 70,000 residents are Islenos. Like the population of French Cajuns farther west, Islenos came here when Louisiana was a European colony, they stayed, and today they're a cultural island. Irvan Perez is one of the few Islenos who still remembers the old Spanish folk songs called decimas. He once sang them in Carnegie Hall.

Mr. IRVAN PEREZ: (Singing in Spanish)

BURNETT: Perez has salt-and-pepper hair and a rugged face that looks younger than his 82 years. Singing "Lawar Fanita(ph)," he momentarily transports himself out of his flood-damaged kitchen, where he sits amid toppled furniture, dried muck and wall mold.

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing in Spanish)

That's the first song we learned down here. That song came from Canary Island of Spain.

BURNETT: The French get all the attention in south Louisiana, but the Islenos, literally Islanders, have just as rich a history and culture. The government of New Spain brought some 3,000 here from the Canary Islands between 1778 and 1783 to colonize the wild swamplands of St. Bernard Parish and serve as a frontier militia against British encroachment. For the next two centuries, they survived hurricanes and epidemics and became expert shrimpers, crabbers, oystermen, muskrat trappers and bootleggers. But then came Katrina. Irvan Perez stands beside his yellow brick house.

Mr. PEREZ: That's my house there. It's not as damaged as some of the other ones, of course. And I feel sorry for them poor rascals. But what you gonna do? We're gonna put it back together. We're gonna do that because it's home.

BURNETT: Home for the Islenos means making a traditional vegetable soup called caldo and jambalaya that tastes more like piaya. It means `a muted Mardi Gras, but a big All Saints Day.' It means knowing everybody by their nickname.

Mr. PEREZ: Vugi, you want some oranges or...

Mr. VUGI MELEREEN(ph): I'll come back one day and get it. Right now I've got company coming and they told me...

Mr. PEREZ: You'd better not wait too long.

Mr. MELEREEN: All right.

BURNETT: Irvan Perez visits with his first cousin, Vugi Melereen, in Perez's back yard amid orange, nectarine and persimmon trees. He's lucky he still has fruit trees and a house he can rebuild. If you drive down Bayou Road deep into the parish where the oldest Islenos communities are, there's almost nothing left.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

BURNETT: A 20-foot storm surge and high winds destroyed nearly every structure. The hurricane tore new lakes in the marsh, truck bumpers and boat sterns poke out of the dark waters of Bayou Terre-Aux-Boeuf. Jeanette Perez Alfonso(ph), Irvan's 58-year-old daughter, is at the wheel of a black Dodge pickup.

Ms. JEANETTE PEREZ ALFONSO: I can't see people coming back. Gosh, look at it. I can't believe it.

BURNETT: The Perez family grew up down here on Delacroix Island. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, they moved farther up the parish where they thought they'd be safe, but then Katrina put five feet of water in their homes. The extended Perez family now lives in FEMA trailers in a park in a neighboring state.

Ms. ALFONSO: I'm in Alabama right now and people ask me every day, `Why you want to go back home?' And I try to explain it to them. It's the fact that we were born and raised with our great-grandparents, and this is all we've ever known. Look at this canal. You can't--you could almost walk across it.

Mr. PEREZ: ...(Unintelligible).

Ms. ALFONSO: My God.

BURNETT: Despite their close-knit families and relative isolation, Islenos have been steadily assimilating into mainstream society since World War II. Today, few speak Spanish and remember the decimas. Hurricane Betsy was a blow to the culture 40 years ago. Now will Katrina, many times worse than Betsy, quicken their acculturation? For the near term, it comes down to the hard choice between homelands or work. No business in St. Bernard Parish has reopened and the region's economic engine, the city of New Orleans, is swamped. Jeanette wonders what will be left for young people.

Ms. ALFONSO: Karen, my younger sister, she won't be living here for a while, and we've never been separated, and my son's not coming back. He's gonna live in Mississippi.

BURNETT: St. Bernard Parish is in the same recovery twilight zone that New Orleans is in. Its residents cannot make any decisions until they get answers. Will local governments red zone low-lying areas? Will the federal government raise the levees? Even more importantly, what will become of St. Bernard Parish, already 80 percent water, which was disappearing at the rate of three and a half acres a day even before the storm?

Mr. WILLIAM HIGHLAND(ph) (Historian): Remember, it took 4,000 years to establish what we know as the St. Bernard delta. It's taken 60 years to destroy it.

BURNETT: William Highland is official historian of St. Bernard Parish. He's deeply troubled at how much more of the parish Katrina washed into the Gulf. Fewer and fewer Islenos make their living from the marsh with the decline of trapping, but the wetlands are still central to their identity.

Mr. HIGHLAND: In the long term, there needs to be something done to rebuild the wetlands. 'Cause if there's no community here, well, then the culture dies. But I don't see that happening. I hope it doesn't happen, and we're gonna do everything we can to see that it doesn't.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

BURNETT: On a recent afternoon, Charles Morales(ph) sits on the deck of a skiff while his brother washes the boat. It's been a good day. They caught 1,200 pounds of shrimp and a hundred and fifty pounds of blue crabs. Like nearly everyone else on Delacroix Island, his house was destroyed. Morales, too, worries about the future of these original communities and where the Islenos will go.

Mr. CHARLES MORALES: It'll never be as strong as it was. That's just my own opinion, you now. They're gonna move on. Some are gonna live 30 miles from here, some gonna live up across the lake over there, you know. I mean, get out of the line of fire, you know, from them hurricanes.

BURNETT: It will take time, but the Islenos say they're coming back. Some will rebuild, like Morales, away from the water. Some young people will inevitably scatter. But as Irvan Perez says, `This is home. Where else would we go?' John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

INSKEEP: You can hear songs of the Islenos and follow along with translations of their lyrics by going to npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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