Spicy Parties : Set Tone for : Creoles' Life in Southland

Officially Mardi Gras is Tuesday, but for the folks at Aubry's barber shop, it comes twice a week.

Barber Leon Aubry, his family and about 30 loyal customers have partied there regularly for the last 54 years, "just for the hell of it," they say.

Some of the group, mostly men over 50, meticulously cook spicy foods like alligator gumbo, hog-head cheese and red beans and rice on a stove in a back room of the barber shop.

Others dance like teen-agers out front, waving polka-dot umbrellas or white handkerchiefs, singing songs like "When the Saints Go Marching In," played on a wood and aluminum washboard.

They are from Louisiana and many of them are related--somehow--or their families have been friends for generations.

The Aubry clan consider themselves Creoles. Actually, they are descendants of Creoles--Frenchmen and Spaniards who settled in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, where they often bore children with black slaves, beginning in the late 1700s. (The term, which comes from the Spanish word criollo, meaning "native to the place," technically refers to the European settlers, but their mixed-race descendants have claimed it for their own.)

Second to New Orleans

It is estimated that Los Angeles has the second-largest community of Creole descendants in the country, after New Orleans. More than 15,000 migrated here after World War II, in search of better jobs and educations that were not available in the South, where the economy was stagnant and segregation was widespread.

But Creoles never severed the ties to their Southern homeland and culture--even though more of them are marrying people who are not Creoles and moving farther away from their parents. They have remained devoutly Roman Catholic and send their children to Catholic schools. They still enjoy zydeco music and dance a French polka at their La Las, a Creole term for parties.

"You can take the Creole out of Louisiana, but you can't take Louisiana out of the Creole," said Aubry, 72.

French and Spanish settlers ruled the south until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, said Prof. Mark T. Carlton, who specializes in Louisiana history at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He said the settlers began having children with slave women because there were few French and Spanish women in the territory.

"Later, after America bought the territory from the French, the French and American aristocracy kept black mistresses in the city and white wives out on their plantations," Carlton said.

Creoles, whose fair skin and light brown eyes distinguished them, were not completely accepted by whites and segregated themselves from blacks, often traveling dozens of miles to socialize. They spoke a French dialect and married their cousins to perpetuate their culture.

Marion Olivier Ferreira, 63, remembers those times.

As a child in Louisiana, she said, there was an unwritten rule that forbade her from attending the same social functions, churches or schools as blacks. Some of her relatives denied that they had any black ancestors.

"It was a social scourge," said Ferreira, who moved to Los Angeles in 1966 and works as an elementary school teacher. "To be black was to be nothing. You were half a man, and nobody wants to be half a man."

But no matter how strongly Creoles denied being black, they weren't white either.

"It didn't matter how light your skin was, or how blue your eyes were, the whites in the South knew where Creoles came from, and they victimized you like any other black man," said Bishop Carl Fisher, of the Los Angeles Diocese, who was raised in Pascagoula, Miss.

However, Marie Leday said that outside the South, Creoles could "pass for white" and get jobs, decent housing and an education. They moved to Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles.

"When we came out here, people couldn't tell if we were white or black," said Leday, 64, who has lived in Los Angeles for 45 years. "I was looking for a job and I passed a restaurant with a 'help wanted' sign in the window. The sign said, 'whites only apply,' but I walked right in anyway, and got the job."

The majority of Creoles who migrated to Los Angeles settled along Jefferson Boulevard between Arlington and 10th Avenue--an area they called Little New Orleans.

Its center was Holy Name Church, and several Creoles, like Aubry, opened businesses in the area. Besides the barber shop, there was the New Orleans Grotto, Merlin's Restaurant, the St. Bernard Market, Marine Cleaners and the Big Loaf Bakery--the only place in town to get New Orleans-style French bread.

Once in Los Angeles, some Creoles became fierce advocates for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s--most notably Dr. H. Claude Hudson, who started the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP.

Marrying people of different cultures also became more acceptable among Creoles.

Linda Hawkins 28, said, "My generation is a lot more open-minded, especially in California, where you see a lot of interracial relationships."

Today, Creole-Creole marriages are rare and most Creoles have moved out of Little New Orleans. But few Creoles seem concerned that the culture will die.

"We will never let go of our culture," said Meritta Angelain Hawkins, Linda's mother. "We try to bring people of other cultures in, but we never let go of our own heritage."

Creoles insist that their children learn trades or go to college and become professionals. Aubry said they take pride in being cultured "city people," unlike the Cajuns, who tended to live in the backwoods of Louisiana. The Cajuns' ancestors also came from France, by way of Canada.

Spicy foods are an important part of the Creole culture.

Spicy Fare

Al Honore, a manager at Harold and Belle's Creole restaurant on Jefferson Boulevard, said the food is a mixture of French, Spanish and black cuisines--with the main ingredients being chicken, spicy hot sausage and seafood.

Dance and music are also important parts of the Creole culture, said Meritta Hawkins, founder of the Jolly Jokers social club, a local Creole women's organization.

At La Las, zydeco bands, which generally consist of an accordion player, a violinist and someone playing the washboard and spoons, play their polka-type music.

To advertise Creole parties and restaurants, Louis Metoyer's family began publishing Bayou Talk, a monthly newspaper.

The first year's editions of "Bayou Talk" look and read like a family album, with photos of clan gatherings and stories about social clubs and profiles of prominent Creoles.

Creole businesses advertise in the paper, which also serves a bulletin board for upcoming social events--like the La Las held almost weekly in different Catholic churches.

But the most elaborate celebrations occur during Mardi Gras--"the last blast before the fast," said Bishop Fisher.

Mardi Gras, which means "Fat Tuesday" in French, is the final celebration for Catholics before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Some Los Angeles Creoles return to New Orleans for the rowdy gala, but others stay in town for the numerous parties here.

Aubry said, "I get a little homesick for New Orleans this time of year, but this is home to me now."

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