Becoming Cajun

A shuttle ride in Houston sets a young teen on the course to learn his culture


I remember the day I started becoming Cajun. One would think I was born Cajun, but I was not; I had to become one. Even though I can trace my Acadian roots back to the 1785 arrival of Acadian refugees; even though my parents and grandparents spoke French as their first and sometimes only language; and even though we lived in south Louisiana, I was not yet Cajun. It started around my 13th birthday when my parents brought me to Astroworld in Houston. We were in the shuttle bus on our way from our hotel to the amusement park. I was sitting next to them as they were speaking French to each other, probably talking about something they did not want me to know about as usual. I paid them no mind because they did it all the time, as did most adults then; I was too excited about all the fun rides I was going on to care.  

I did notice when my mother began speaking in English to some other riders on the shuttle, friendly chitchat between strangers on vacation. She told them, and I remember it as clear as if we were still sitting there, “We’re from Louisiana. We’re Cajuns.” I thought to myself, “So that’s what we are.” Edwin Edwards was in his first term, so I was familiar with the word. But for some reason, I only then understood that it applied to me. Until that time, I always thought of myself as just an American, maybe a little different from the rest of America I only knew from TV, but American nonetheless. That moment began my inexorable journey to becoming Cajun.

It was a long process that later brought me to learn my ancestors’ language and then to appreciate and even revel in the music I once dismissed, like so many others, as nothing but “chanky-chank.” The cooking part I already had down pat, having been raised on gumbo and jambalaya, red beans and sausage, white beans and fried fish, foods I later learned were called “ethnic” by some. At school, the cafeteria ladies who spoke only French prepared meals that would have brought Anthony Bourdain to tears. By choice, I came to assume the mantle of my culture, one that I could have easily rejected as many of my peers had. In that way, I did not become less American, but an American with a little lagniappe.

Learning to love my Cajun culture has been a wild roller coaster ride. Navigating through the bayous, fighting coastal erosion, speaking French, despairing about it, singing “Jolie Blonde,” and stirring flour and oil to the correct shade of roux all ground me in this culture of which I am as much a product as a producer. All because one a little boy overheard his mother say he is Cajun.