The Isleños in Louisiana
The Isleños in Louisiana are an ethnic group living in Louisiana consisting primarily of people of Canarian Spanish descent. Most of the members in this group are descendants of people from the Canary Islands who settled in Spanish Louisiana between 1778 and 1783. The Isleños in Louisiana are broken up into four Spanish speaking communities with different dialects. The Isleños of St. Bernard Parish have managed to preserve their Canarian Spanish dialect and their culture, even though none of the younger generations speak more than just a few words.
The St. Bernard settlement was originally called La Concepción and Nueva Gálvez by Spanish officials, but was then later called Terre aux Boeufs by the French and Tierra de Bueyes by the Spanish. Both of these names translate into “Land of Cattle.” By the end of the 1780s, the name “St. Bernard” was being used in documents describing the area. Most of the Isleños population was concentrated in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, but others settled around New Orleans and throughout southeast Louisiana.
St. Bernard Parish was home to two groups of Canarian families in 1779 and 1783. The first group was called El Primero Poblacion (translates to the First Settlement). This group settled in 1779 in what would later become the villages of St. Bernard and Toca. The second group was called El Segundo Poblacion (translated to the Second Settlement), and they settled into a town they named in honor of their home village of Benchijigua, La Gomera. All in all, 85 families, which consisted of 393 Canary Islanders from Gomera, migrated to Louisiana.
The name of the village was later changed to Bencheque with the arrival of French-speaking sugarcane planters. When the colonists came to Saint Bernard, the Spanish government gave land to each family, and the colonists built their own houses. The Spanish Crown supplied food, tools, money, and clothing to the Isleños each year until 1785, when the settlement was able to take care of itself. Over time the Isleños intermarried with the people of French and Native American descent.
St. Bernard Church was founded in 1785 and was the first parish church established south of New Orleans after the American Revolutionary War. The first permanent church in St. Bernard was built in 1787 in Bayou Terre aux Boeufs. The Isleños cemetery was also established in 1787. At first the deceased were buried in the churchyard, but the burial grounds were then moved to a site facing the church.
By 1790, sugarcane replaced indigo as Louisiana’s most profitable crop. Wealthy planters purchased the Isleños’ lands, and many Isleños were left with limited options and ended up working on the plantations. St. Bernard also supplied New Orleans with garlic, beans, onions, potatoes, and poultry during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
In 1915, a hurricane devastated St. Bernard Parish and left nearly 300 people dead, many of whom were Isleño fishermen and hunters. The Spanish flu then spread among the hurricane’s survivors and destroyed much of the population.
Schools were also built in St. Bernard that forced all the students to speak on English. Teachers would punish anyone speaking the native language, causing the Spanish language to die out among the younger people of the St. Bernard community.