Tag Archives: Cajun

Cajuns are fiercely proud of their culture, but they’re divided over the word ‘coonass’

Photo: Veronica Zaragovia

Photo: Veronica Zaragovia

Here’s a post from Veronica Zaragovia.

The town of Eunice, Louisiana is one of those places that lets you know exactly where in America you are.

“I’m the owner of KBON 101.1 FM down in Cajun Country,” says Paul Marx, whose station began broadcasting music in 1997.

Much of life in so-called Cajun Country involves the French language, and Marx is fluent in what he calls Cajun French.

“We do speak different French here, a little different from Canada or France but it’s still our language — French,” he explains.

Cajun culture and the French language weren’t always so valued, though. In fact, French as a spoken language nearly disappeared, but the language and culture have made a comeback.

Paul Marx, owner of KBON radio station in Eunice, LA, stands near a collection of autographed photos and a wall covered in signatures. His station mostly plays music by Louisiana musicians, including Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin’ Cajuns, whose song “Registered Coonass,” has not been received well by all Louisianans. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

Paul Marx, owner of KBON radio station in Eunice, LA, stands near a collection of autographed photos and a wall covered in signatures. His station mostly plays music by Louisiana musicians, including Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin’ Cajuns, whose song “Registered Coonass,” has not been received well by all Louisianans. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

“We do a variety of music with a Louisiana flavor,” Marx says about his radio station. “About 75 percent of our overall music is Louisiana record artists.”

Artists like Jamie Bergeron & the Kickin’ Cajuns. People from around here either love or hate one of Bergeron’s songs, called “Registered Coonass.”

You can hear the song on Marx’s radio station because he likes it. Not all Cajuns do.

“I kind of got a threat by an attorney that if I continued playing the song, there’d be a lawsuit,” Marx says. “Well, that made me put the song on the playlist.”

The attorney was Warren Perrin, who threatened to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission if KBON kept playing the song. Since then, the station now only plays it if a listener requests it, and DJs announce it not as “Registered Coonass” but “RCA.”

Warren Perrin’s law office is 40 miles away from Eunice in Lafayette, on a street called Rue de La France. Perrin regularly sends letters to people asking them to stop using the word “coonass.”

“We ask that the person voluntarily do so and that is usually the end of it,” Perrin says. “We have not had to institute any type of formal suit or claim with the Human Rights Commission or anything like that.”

Warren Perrin, an attorney in Lafayette, LA, has a stack of files documenting how The Council for the Defense of French in Louisiana has attempted to stop people from using the term “coonass” in certain instances. Perrin served as president of the state agency for 16 years. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

Warren Perrin, an attorney in Lafayette, LA, has a stack of files documenting how The Council for the Defense of French in Louisiana has attempted to stop people from using the term “coonass” in certain instances. Perrin served as president of the state agency for 16 years. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

For 16 years, Perrin served as president of an organization called the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

“That state agency is the only one in America existing, supported by the state of Louisiana, to promote the French language,” he says. “We have 30 French immersion schools — eminently successful. So we turned it around and we developed along the way pride in ourselves.”

Pride in your roots and the word “coonass” don’t go together, says Perrin, who’s part of a movement that has tried to stamp out the use of the word. The movement won a big victory back in 1981 when it got the Louisiana State Legislature to condemn the word as offensive. Legislators not only condemned it, they outlined the word’s etymology.

“In that concurrent resolution, the politicians in Baton Rouge wrote: The word coonass comes from the standard French word connasse, which means dirty whore or stupid person,” says local Cajun historian Shane Bernard, paraphrasing what’s in the 1981 resolution. “Cajun GIs were called this when they were in France during World War II. Anglo GIs were standing nearby, didn’t know what that meant, but said, ‘Sounds like coonass, so that’s what we’re gonna call you from now on.’”

1943 photograph of the C-47 Cajun Coonass, with enlarged inset. (Photo: Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Shane Bernard)

1943 photograph of the C-47 Cajun Coonass, with enlarged inset. (Photo: Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Shane Bernard)

That’s the official take on the origin of the word – a vulgar ethnic slur. But it’s not correct, Bernard says. He found a photo from the National Archives taken in April 1943 of a plane called the “Cajun Coonass.” The photo was taken before the allied invasion of France.

“Because there were no Cajuns in France or any Americans in France until June 6, 1944, which is D-Day, that means that if the connasse theory were true, it had to have been created sometime after D-Day because you had to have Cajuns in France to be called connasses,” Bernard says. “Presumably you had to have some extended period of time for the word to morph into coonass.”

Bernard says he’s found other references to the word predating D-Day, as well. As far as he’s concerned, no one can be sure where the expression came from.

Whatever its origins, coonass isn’t a slur these days to people like Angie Sonnier. I found Sonnier on a rainy afternoon taking shelter beneath a roof of a Shop Rite store in Duson, Louisiana. The store sells bumper stickers and T-shirts with a “Registered Coonass” logo on them. Sonnier doesn’t care about tracing the history of the term “coonass.”

“If it was meant being ugly when it first came out, it’s not ugly now,” Sonnier says. “Not unless you look at it that way, and some people may. I just don’t.”

Instead, “coonass” is shorthand for her rural Cajun identity.

“I was raised, you know, running crawfish traps with my dad, and working on a farm with my dad, and doing different other things — going fishing with my family and, you know, generally doing all this type of stuff that is around here,” Sonnier says. “It’s in your blood.”

At his radio station, Marx echoes that sentiment. He remembers when speaking French at school was really frowned upon.

“‘You tried to shame us but now you know what? There are a lot of people who want to be coonasses,’” Marx says. “It’s kind of our way of slapping them in the face and saying, ‘You didn’t accomplish anything. We’re still here. You’re just an American. We’re Cajun, baby! We’re coonasses!”

It seems that, for better or for worse, the expression will be sticking around for a while.


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The Language of New Orleans in One Word: Gumbo

New Orleans (Photo: Marco Werman)

New Orleans (Photo: Marco Werman)

A post from Big Show host Marco Werman

You might have heard me mention that I recently spent some time in New Orleans, as a guest of public radio station WWNO. And one of the things that struck me about the “Big Easy” is the language of the place. It’s a reflection of the diversity and wild history of the city.

Like the advice “LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL” or “laissez les bons temps rouler,” there’s a unique word-for-word english-to-cajun french construction that shouldn’t work but does.

It’s also interesting how the words that describe New Orleans’ two best known cultural contributions to America – music and food – express multiple layers of meaning in this city.

Think jazz.

Think gumbo.

And whenever new people come to New Orleans, the words and the music and the food evolve. When you listen to trumpeter Kermit Ruffins performing at the Bullet’s Sports Bar in the city’s seventh ward, it’s easy to forget that all this comes out of a few hundreds years of history.

“You know, it’s like “there’s no place quite like this place, so this must be the place”? There is no place in the United States quite like this place. Southern Louisiana,” says New Orleans food historian Jessica B. Harris. “This is a place that has been French, then Spanish, then French, then American. That’s a lot of stuff going on.”

Not to mention the native Americans who mixed with African slaves and set down the local creole flavor. Not to mention the entire Caribbean which New Orleans was the center of long before Miami assumed the mantle in the 20th century.

Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff going on.

“It is that place where things mix. People often have referred to the culture of New Orleans as a gumbo,” Harris says. Now you may know gumbo as a stew of various meats and some veg served over rice. It’s classic New Orleans. And yet the word gumbo refers to what used to be a key ingredient in the stew.

“If you go anywhere in the French speaking world today and want okra, you ask for gombo. The word “gombo” comes from the Bantu languages: “ochigombo” and “quibombo” which mean okra. So okra I think is intensely connected to this place,” says Harris.

And it’s not just because New Orleanians like their okra.

Okra, the origin of New Orleans gumbo (Photo: Marco Werman)

Okra, the origin of New Orleans gumbo (Photo: Marco Werman)

Gumbo reflects the diversity of the city. “It’s a case where these parts make an extraordinary whole without totally melting. You know, if you have a good gumbo, you can still see the okra, you still know that that was Andouille, you’re still aware of the fact that that was duck or chicken or what have you. It’s not just a brown stew. It’s something else.”

Enriching. Just like gumbo.

You can’t get away from that metaphor in New Orleans. “We all do things in a different way. But when we come together and put all those ideas together, it’s really enriching,” says Father Anthony Anala, also known as Father Tony. He’s a priest, from Ghana in West Africa who’s been leading the congregation at Our Lady Star of the Sea in New Orleans since 2008.

I wanted to meet him because having spent some time in Togo, Ghana’s neighbor, I wanted to hear a West African talk about how they saw the connection between New Orleans and their part of the world.

Now, when Father Tony got to New Orleans five years ago, imagine his surprise! He leaves the home of okra to arrive in the home of gumbo. Not only that, this past April, this Ghanaian priest got about as deep into New Orleans musical culture as you can get. He presided over the funeral of a Mardi Gras Indian, a Black Seminole named Cyril Big Six Chief Ironhorse Green.

“There was that mood of celebrating the achievements he has had. And so it was more uplifting, upbeat.”

Marco: “And the whole idea of a funeral being a moment of celebration, that’s something you find at funerals in northern Ghana and Togo. It’s a party time”

Chief says laughingly, “Exactly. All the families come for one funeral, then they all go to another funeral and you can celebrate funerals for like a month,”

And of course, wouldn’t you know it, the day I met Father Tony he had had a Ghanaian specialty for lunch: stewed goat. Although he says New Orleans food suits him just fine too. “There’s a bit of spiciness in the food, and the gumbo, it tastes like back home.”

“People gone be eatin’ gumbo. Now all of a sudden you may discover that there’re some other things goin into that gumbo. But that takes it from the culinary to the social metaphor, because there are other things going into the gumbo that are the city as well., says food historian Jessica Harris.

And sometimes those “other things” become the standard. That’s what happened with Vietnamese bakery Dong Phuong. Vietnam was hobbling back from war when the Tranh family left and came to New Orleans in 1980. Vietnam and New Orleans in fact share French influence. Madame Huong Tran’s family in Vietnam were bakers and they brought their trade here.

To accommodate local tastes, the Trans came up with a sandwich roll that worked for both their banh mi Vietnamese Sandwiches and American subs. “You know the French took over Vietnam 100 years. So we take some recipe from French, some American, also from my parents too. Three recipes in one,” so now you get that crunchy baguette outside.”

The Dong Phuong bakery is now the number one source in all of New Orleans for the bread for the city’s famed Po-Boy: that sub stuffed with fried oysters or shrimp.

Allen Toussaint (Photo: Marco Werman)

Allen Toussaint (Photo: Marco Werman)

This pleases pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint to no end when he returns home from touring. “Shrimp Po-Boy. Dressed. You have to say dressed!” We’re all “villains in a feeding frenzy. We do that a lot here. But everywhere I go, I’m always glad to get home, but when I leave New Orleans, I never go anywhere else looking for any part of New Orleans. I collect scraps and wishbones and feathers everywhere I go, and then I come home and try and produce a chicken. And it works, and the more extensive travel is, the more I have in my reservoir.”

Toussaint has a song that’s reflects the Big Easy.

“A yankee saw a crawfish called it a baby lobster
We laughed so hard we nearly busted our sides.

But when he tasted the difference he started raving so much he got a southern welcome arms open wide.

Imagine boudin cooking.
Imagine cracklins cracklin.
Almost enough cayenne to water your eyes.

But in the midst of all this fine southern cuisine, I’ll take the crawfish everyday, everytime.

Laissez laissez bons temps rouler.
Laissez laissez bons temps rouler.
Laissez laissez bons temps rouler.

I could eat crawfish everyday.
I could eat crawfish everyday.”

President Obama awarded the National Medal of the Arts last week to Allen Toussaint, capping my visit to New Orleans.


Thanks to Julia Kumari Drapkin and Kathleen Flynn for their help.



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