Left Coast Creole
Roland Davidson vividly remembers the day in 1956 when he tooled into town after a four-day drive from New Orleans and found his Louisiana Creole culture waiting for him in South-Central Los Angeles.
He heard the familiar dropped Rs of New Orleans’ 7th Ward along East 61st Street. And a short drive away, on a strip of Jefferson Avenue between Arlington and Crenshaw Boulevard, he found restaurants that served authentic crab etouffee and gumbo Creole-style, barbershops where news from New Orleans was discussed as if the patrons had never left there, and shops where a working man could buy a fried fish or shrimp Po’ boy on a crispy French roll.
“Everybody we hung around with was from New Orleans . . . [including] people who I went to school with in New Orleans,” Davidson recently recalled. “It was just like we all moved up here and got together again.”
Forty years later, Davidson can’t say the same.
Gone are many of the markets, barbershops and social halls that lined Jefferson Avenue during the 1940s and 1950s and catered to newly arrived Creoles.
Like other ethnic groups, many Creoles have abandoned their old neighborhoods for the suburbs. The Catholic churches around which Creole enclaves sprang up, once nearly all-Creole are now heavily Latino. The physical dispersion is accompanied by apathy among many younger Creoles toward a culture some consider outdated.
Davidson, a retired aerospace worker who still lives in South Los Angeles and a student of New Orleans Creole history for 20 years, says such demographic changes and even the ambivalent attitudes of the young were inevitable, given the different social circumstances that faced Creoles once they left their insular neighborhoods in New Orleans.
Arthe Anthony, an American studies professor at Occidental College who has studied Creoles in Los Angeles, agrees, likening the phenomenon to what eventually happens to most immigrant communities in the United States.
“You can maintain some of the features of the culture, but it changes significantly over time,” said Anthony, a Creole who came west from New Orleans as a child.
The culture’s standard-bearers--perhaps the last in Los Angeles--are natives of Louisiana who practice Creole traditions through social clubs, church activities and campaigns to promote a way of life that is older than the United States.
Inside St. John of Evangelist Catholic Church, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, Helen Bordenave, 52, stood watching six men march in a solemn procession out of the sanctuary, gingerly carrying a 3-foot statue of St. Joseph.
Followed by about 60 mostly Creole congregants who had just celebrated a morning Mass, they headed across Victoria Street, off Crenshaw Boulevard near 60th to the parish hall. There, the statue, inside an open-faced box, was placed on an altar already spilling over with red carnations and white Easter lilies, loaves of French bread, wine and ornately decorated fruit baskets.
After Father Melvin James blessed the altar, the bread was cut so that everyone had a piece to eat for good fortune.
Then a day of feasting began, at the end of which as many as 300 people would have been served free breakfast, a spaghetti lunch and a traditional New Orleans dinner of red beans and rice with spicy sausage.
Throughout, celebrants socialized, occasionally breaking into a joyously secular “second-line,” with dancers twirling brightly colored, tasseled satin umbrellas and waving handkerchiefs like celebrants at Mardi Gras.
But this was a celebration of St. Joseph’s Day. The rites were imported from New Orleans, where Creoles from the tightknit 6th and 7th wards, borrowed the ritual from nearby Italian immigrants and added their own elements.
The St. Joseph’s Day rites at St. John’s are sponsored annually by the Jefferson Council, one of several Creole social clubs in Los Angeles. In one of its main activities, the council raffles off the wine and fruit baskets from the altar to raise scholarship money to send youngsters to Catholic schools.
The Catholic Church, along with the social clubs and annual Creole festivals in Los Angeles and in Acton in the Antelope Valley, are the glue that holds together widely dispersed Southern California Creoles.
The annual festival in Acton, put on every summer by the Socialites, another social club, drew 4,500 people last year.
Bordenave, an officer in the Jefferson Council, said the explicit purpose of most of the clubs is to “carry on our culture from New Orleans and to give it to our kids born in L.A.”
In her family, she has begun a tradition of making the fancy umbrellas used by second-liners and passing them down to the children in her family, with the expectation that they will pass them on to their children.
She knows, however, that not many young people are involved in social clubs and that most members tend to be over 60.
Like Davidson, Bordenave, also a New Orleans native who came to Los Angeles in 1960 at age 16, wistfully remembers the close-knit Creole community created by refugees of the South’s racial wars and economic woes after World War II.
She can recall the trips to the now-defunct Big Loaf Bakery on Jefferson and Second Avenue to buy eclairs or the fresh French bread that is essential to the traditional Creole diet.
“I never ate sliced bread until I came to Los Angeles,” Bordenave said.
She remembers stores such as the long-gone St. Bernard’s market where she shopped for seafood, pickled pork and special spices, all imported from New Orleans.
For those who seek it, Creole culture still exists, though in scattered pockets.
Girard’s Louisiana Fish Market on Western is still a mecca for Creole cooks looking for authentic Zatarain’s crab meat boil or some other hard-to-find ingredient. Creole restaurants such as Harold and Belle’s on Jefferson and Gagnier’s in Crenshaw-Baldwin Hills Plaza draw Creoles and non-Creoles from all over the city.
Members of the Socialites club, some of whom come from as far away as Ventura County, meet regularly at Gagnier’s.
But even in those enclaves, the Creole influence is sometimes flagging--as is Southern California’s Creole population, estimated to be about 5,000.
When a singer broke into a spirited version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” at a recent Mardi Gras celebration at La Louisanne, a popular Creole nightclub in southwest Los Angeles, only three or four people in the young professional crowd joined in the second line.
Along Jefferson Avenue, two popular gathering places for Creole men, both barber shops--Des Vignes and Aubry’s--have changed ownership and are now run by non-Creoles.
Bordenave hopes that younger people, without the benefit of easy access to other Creoles, will carry on the work of preserving the culture.
But Louis Metoyer isn’t leaving that to chance.
The 46-year-old West Covina resident is originally from Natchitoches, an old settlement on the Cane River, 300 miles north of New Orleans that, like New Orleans, has a rich Creole heritage. He was a teenager when his parents migrated to Los Angeles.
Metoyer publishes Bayou Talk, a Creole newspaper founded by his family. The paper’s motto: “Keep the culture alive.”
Metoyer also has mounted Creole history exhibits at local libraries and lobbied states around the country to establish a Creole Heritage Day. In January, at his urging, the U.S. Postal Service commemorated Creole migration from Louisiana to California with simultaneous stamp cancellations at post offices in Los Angeles and Melrose, La.
He hopes to persuade the U.S. Census Bureau to create an ethnic classification for what he calls French Creoles.
“I don’t want my children and their children to go through what I have gone through in order to know who I am,” he said.
What Metoyer has gone through is years of tracing his family’s history back to what he believes were some of Louisiana’s first Creoles of color, the offspring of French settlers who had liaisons with New World Africans--some slave, some free--and Native Americans and Spanish.
Metoyer said he is determined that Creole culture be distinguished from traditional African American culture, a stand that has generated some controversy and criticism, some of it from Creoles.
Metoyer, however, is undeterred, using Bayou Talk as a platform for his views and as a sort of community bulletin board.
The paper is filled with birth, death and wedding notices of Creoles, news from Louisiana, recruitment ads placed by Catholic schools and notices of events such as parties and festivals put on by social clubs like Les Bon Temps and Caramel Ladies. (The latter is something of an anomaly because its members--in their 20s and 30s--are young compared to those in more established organizations.)
Metoyer’s paper is financially supported by ads from Creole business owners and $15 annual subscriptions from about 2,000 readers, Metoyer said. Some 3,000 copies are distributed free each month at Southern California restaurants, fish markets and other places frequented by Creoles.
Each issue features a long historical or analytical article by Metoyer. One recent topic: why Creoles should not adopt the term “African American.”
“If you’re a Creole, you’re considered black,” Metoyer said in a recent interview. “But how can I sit here and deny my Native American grandmothers on both sides, or the French?”
Mark Broyard of Leimert Park, who is also Creole and at 36 a decade younger than Metoyer, dismisses such assertions as elitist and detrimental to black unity--a perhaps subconscious desire to reject black heritage.
His view is widespread among Creoles who came of age in the “black is beautiful” 1960s and 1970s.
“In the broadest sense of the term, all of [black] people in the Americas are creolized, in that we’re all mixed with something” other than African, Broyard said.
The thought sent him searching for something he thinks illustrates the absurdity of separating Creoles from other blacks.
He finally found what he was looking for--a birth announcement in Bayou Talk for a set of twins born to a Creole couple. One twin is very light-skinned, the other dark.
“You’re going to have to say a prayer for that child,” Broyard said solemnly, pointing to the darker-skinned twin and pausing dramatically, “to the saint of lost causes.”
He was joking.
The line is from “Inside the Creole Mafia,” a satirical performance piece Broyard co-wrote in the early ‘90s with an actor friend, Roger Guenveur Smith, sending up what he believes is an obsession some Creoles, as well as other blacks, have with light skin and straight hair.
In the play, Creole characters have finely honed color caste system rituals. In one scene, Broyard and Smith affirm their Creoleness by passing a fine-toothed comb through their hair and placing their faces beside a brown paper bag to prove their skin is lighter-colored.
In another scene, Broyard and Smith comically demonstrate how the human body would be carved up according to outmoded terms used to describe mixed-race people--octoroon, one-eighth black; quadroon, one-quarter black; and mulatto, one-half black.
Broyard and Smith have performed the play at communities across the country, including recently at the Ashton Shatto, a social hall on Slauson that is a favorite for Creole wedding receptions, birthday parties and other events. The audience there responded positively, Broyard said.
“They enjoyed hearing the [Creole] terms and the references to New Orleans,” he said. “They reveled in the fact that the word ‘Creole’ was out there because it was theirs.”
Anthony, the American studies professor at Occidental, believes older Creoles who maintain the traditions are the last vestiges of the culture.
“I know a lot of older Creoles through my parents and their peers and I see them at funerals, weddings, dear people I grew up with,” Anthony said. But otherwise, despite her research, her personal contact is minimal. “My world is larger than that.”