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Keeping The Hispanic Culture With Los Isleños Heritage & Cultural Society

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Hispanidad In The South: Los Isleños Heritage & Cultural Society

Dedicated To Preserving The Spanish Language, Legends, Crafts, Customs, Folklore, Rituals, Music And History Of Its People

Los Isleños Museum [Courtesy/Los Isleños]

Every year for the past 42 years, thousands of people gather in St. Bernard, Louisiana for the Los Isleños Fiesta for a weekend of live entertainment and festive foods, and to celebrate Louisiana's Spanish heritage. Held at the Los Isleños Heritage & Cultural Society every spring, the fiesta is a way for proud Louisianians to share their culture and rich history with guests.

“I'm an 11th generation Louisianian,” said one of the center's founders Billy Hyland. “I'm very proud of my state and my community and our history. As a southerner, we are very proud of our culture and we like to share it. We like to welcome people. We want people to celebrate with us.”

That was the idea of the festival. But curious travelers can visit the Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society museum complex all year long. The multi-cultural village and museum are dedicated to preserving the Spanish language, legends, crafts, customs, folklore, rituals, music and history of the Isleños heritage. The hands-on experience helps visitors understand and appreciate the early Isleños and their way of life, as well as celebrate the history that followed.

The complex began to evolve in 1975, when the St. Bernard Parish Historian Emeritus Frank Fernandez and New Orleans Public Television Station WYES began to gather interviews for a documentary entitled “Louisiana's Disappearing Spanish Legacy.” The documentary, which aired later that year, generated “great enthusiasm in the St. Bernard Isleños Community.”

The origin of the area's Hispanic families in the 18th and 19th centuries were traced back to the Canary Islands. Fernandez's research found that political and economic upheaval in Spain following Napoleonic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula and “instability in every facet of Spanish life” during General Francisco Franco's leadership over Spain had led Spanish expatriates to head to New Orleans throughout the 1800s and 1900s.

There, they met Isleños trappers, fishermen and farmers in the French Market and settled in the Spanish speaking Isleños communities of the eastern St. Bernard Parish, which “reinforced the Spanish linguistic and cultural identity.”

Los Isleños Complex [Courtesy/Bernardo]

Now, said Hyland, the Los Isleños Society has sponsored many cultural programs apart from its annual fiesta. He said: “A flamenco-dancing troop from Jaen, Spain, performed before several audiences of thousands in 1978. The Society organized, in conjunction with the Cabildo Insular de Gran Canaria, 'Hispanidad '82, Canarian Cultural Journey' in October 1982. The Canarian folkloric group, Roque Nublo, performed five concerts for public school students and adults as part of Hispanidad. The distinguished Spanish historians, Antonio Rumeu de Armas and Antonio Betancourt Massieu, spoke about the role of the Canaries in developing the New World. Seven years later, in 1989, Los Sabandeños, a renowned choral folkloric group performed for audiences in St. Bernard Parish.”

The entertainment is more than just entertainment. It's education. It's about a proud culture and its heritage. That's what the complex stands for and it's why Hyland and other founders gathered the old structures and homes to create the village, why they spent time renovating and maintaining the center.

“We're still working on it to this day, since 1978,” he said. “I've always been very proud of our heritage and culture. This was something I always wanted to do. It's been very fulfilling, despite many challenges along the way. That includes complete destruction by Katrina. But we have rebuilt it since, and we're bigger and better than ever in many ways.”

It's that sense of pride and strong passion for their history that's kept Louisianians loyal to the project. It's why even Hurricane Katrina hasn't stopped them. While waiting for the museum complex to be re-built, the  Isleños Society met on the second Saturday of every month in the St. Bernard Parish drug court building, planning events and fundraisers year-round.

They've also begun to implement a 20-year master plan. Other ethnic groups who were resident in Louisiana when Isleños colonists first arrived, and ethnic groups who settled in Louisiana after Isleños colonization have been invited to establish a presence in the park. Said Hyland: “The Isleños identity in Louisiana evolved, in part, through its interaction with many different ethnic groups, which had made Louisiana their home. This cultural interaction is important to comprehending the Isleños.”

Inside Los Isleños Museum [Courtesy/Bernardo]

Just as the complex is ever-expanding, Hyland's knowledge of his past is always growing as well. He said he is “learning something new every day” and that learning about his culture is an “ongoing process.”

“One of the most interesting things about our history was the role of jazz clarinetist Alcide Nunez in the development of jazz, an important music tradition and art form,” he shared. “He was a direct descendent of Canary Islanders who founded this parish and were born in this complex in the 1880s. And he made the second-known recording of jazz music as a member of the Louisiana Five. That's something people can relate to – music, more than anything else.”

Music and food are both very important parts of the society's history. So it's no surprise that those are the two main offerings at the two-day fiesta. According to Hyland, the Louisianians “live to eat” so the homemade food at the fiesta is reason alone to stop by.

But if travelers can't make it to the festival in May, there's always rich history to be explored at the museum complex, a place where people can celebrate the culture and identity of the Isleños people, who may have otherwise been forgotten if the buildings hadn't been restored and moved to one site and made into a place where guests can come and explore.

“The houses, the complex... They're the visible and tangible symbols of our heritage,” he said Hyland. “That's something that can be felt, something that can be touched, smelled and seen... It's more than just a culture represented in a 230-year old document. It's something that is there now, that people can see and relate to.”


Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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