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Katrina may be death knell for Creole culture

Louisiana native Wilda Little speaks to a reporter at the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church on Saturday in Los Angeles. At 80, Little is one of the last standard-bearers of the once-vibrant Louisiana Creole community in Los Angeles.Jae C. Hong / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wilda Little speaks Creole with her cousin two or three times a week and listens to her favorite zydeco bands on aging vinyl records, but that’s about as close as the Louisiana transplant gets these days to the Creole culture of her youth.

“My children never learned Creole,” said Little, 80. “They were never interested in that.”

Her culture has been in a long decline here, as zydeco dance halls shut down and native Creole speakers died. And now, Hurricane Katrina has dealt these remote outposts of shrimp gumbo and the zydeco two-step a devastating blow.

Creoles who live thousands of miles from the bayous of southern Louisiana suddenly find themselves uncertain ambassadors for a city — and a way of life — that is endangered.

“We’re a part of that culture of New Orleans, and now it’s gone,” said Norwood Clark Jr., the owner of Uncle Darrow’s Creole and Cajun restaurant in Marina del Rey.

Lolita Domingue, 51, already felt that her parents’ Creole culture was slipping through her fingers before the hurricane. Now, she says, watching the city drown is like watching a loved one die.

“I feel like I’m stumbling in a dark room with nothing to do. We all feel like we don’t know which way to turn,” said Domingue, who moved to Los Angeles in 1955 with her family.

Westward from New Orleans
Louisiana Creoles — loosely defined as people of mixed African, French and American Indian heritage who share a melange of French and African culture — contributed much to the distinctive flavor of New Orleans.

Thousands of Creoles left Louisiana after World War II to escape racism and find better jobs. Many passed through Houston and eastern Texas and wound up settling there; other significant pockets are in Chicago and Detroit.

But many pushed on to Los Angeles; perhaps 15,000 make the city their home.

The transplants brought their language and their music — the upbeat pulse of zydeco tunes played on accordions and “rub boards” from the Louisiana flatlands, and jazz from New Orleans.

The first arrivals settled in Central Los Angeles, and soon the nearby Roman Catholic parish was holding hopping zydeco concerts featuring Louisiana legends such as Clifton Chenier, the “King of Zydeco,” that would draw 600 people a night.

Crenshaw Avenue was dotted with Creole-owned restaurants and barber shops, and zydeco dances were held almost every weekend around Southern California.

Eroding heritage
But those who love the music and language say the old traditions started fading two decades ago, as the elderly Creoles born in Louisiana began dying without passing on their heritage.

Now, zydeco dances are held once a month at an Elks Lodge in Gardena, and it’s hard to find a fluent Creole speaker.

Marion Ferreria founded the Los Angeles-based Association for the Preservation of Creole Cultural Heritage in 2003. Ferreria now holds a Creole picnic in Los Angeles every year and has tried to educate her children and grandchildren about their heritage.

“I look at the devastation and cry because New Orleans is a very special place to all of us. We are losing the culture, and we need to get people back together,” said Ferreria, 79, among whose ancestors is a slave woman who had nine children with a French colonist.

Lolita Domingue regrets that she never visited the graves of her ancestors in Louisiana. She doesn’t know if her Auntie Carmen’s house — the house where her father was born — is still standing. Her husband hadn’t visited New Orleans yet, and her nieces and nephews will never play in the bayou humidity as she did on childhood visits.

Even before the hurricane, Domingue’s family was trying to rediscover its Creole heritage with an annual family reunion in Southern California. Domingue videotaped her mother making file gumbo before she died last year so the recipe wouldn’t be lost — a tape later digitized and titled “The Domingue Family Tradition.”

Hope for stronger bonds
“As the generation above us is dying, we’re recognizing how important it is to maintain our traditions and those connections for our children,” said Domingue, a family and marriage therapist who lives in LaVerne. “That was the source of our cohesiveness ... and that’s something my sister’s kids will never know.”

Some hope the hurricane will drive transplanted Creoles to seek each other out, to rekindle the culture that connects them to each other and to their wasted city.

B.J. Deculus, the founder of the Los Angeles-based Bonne Musique Zydeco Band, is among those hopefuls — although he’s also pragmatic.

“The parents who moved here have all passed on, and the kids of these families did not keep up the traditions,” said Deculus, who learned Creole at home in Eunice, La., before he learned English. “But there are a whole lot of people living here from Louisiana who have a connection to Creole culture. Katrina will have an impact on bringing those people closer together.”