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|Acadian culture losing its flavor with young // Far-flung enclaves struggle to hold on to their traditions|
| WALTHAM, Mass. - Hundreds of
Acadians still pack the French-American Victory Club when retired machinist
Gerry Robichaud breaks out his fiddle on a Saturday night.
But Robichaud can remember when the crowds were bigger and many more knew the jigue and reels that set the dance hall crowd a-whirling.
"After my generation is gone, you won't hear so much French spoken here," he says matter-of-factly. "The younger generation doesn't pick it up. I guess it's natural."
Old-timers are saying the same thing in far-flung Acadian enclaves from Madawaska, Maine, to Lafayette, La., where the softer-sounding term "Cajun" is preferred.
Acadians, descendants of 17th-century French immigrants, have held fast to their language and traditions. But it's getting harder. Atlantic Canada, including Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where there are 300,000 Acadians, is the only stronghold where French has been passed to the under-30 generation.
There's a concerted effort under way to turn the tide.
More than 70,000 Acadians, two-thirds from the USA, gathered in New Brunswick for the just-ended first World Congress of Acadians, hoping to preserve their culture by linking communities in Canada, New England and Louisiana.
"Acadian societies are like twins separated at birth," says Carl Brasseaux, a history professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. "Establishing the contacts will generate tremendous excitement."
"It's a worldwide family reunion. We're meeting cousins we never knew we had," says New Brunswick native Anise Maillet, who lives in Waltham.
Acadians have withstood adversity since they arrived in Canada almost 400 years ago. After years of wandering, some eventually reached Louisiana. Economic necessity forced later generations to leave Canada for New England and grueling textile jobs.
Acadian culture - the fiddle-powered music and cayenne-charged cuisine (common only to Louisiana) - is being embraced by the world. Gumbo and crawdads are on menus in chic cafes, musicians are touring, and "Cajun" has been stamped on foods from hot sauce to frozen dinners.
But the hoopla doesn't reflect reality in Acadian communities. As the geographic and social isolation that once sheltered enclaves fades away, so do the old ways.
-- Although 500,000 people in Louisiana still call themselves Cajun, French-speakers under 40 are becoming scarce. They've abandoned old jobs - fishing, trapping, and sharecropping - for the oil industry.
-- Village life and the French language live on in Maine's St. John Valley, home to 25,000 Acadians. But their numbers have dwindled for decades for lack of jobs.
-- Most of the Acadians who flocked to New England mill towns were assimilated generations ago. Many started families with immigrants from Quebec, considered a separate culture in Canada.
Today 2.5 million New Englanders claim French descent, but for many, the Catholic faith is the only strong link to the past.
"Sometimes it seems we're absolutely invisible," says Denis LeDoux, a writer in Lisbon Falls, Maine.
Acadian culture still lingers in Waltham, a bustling Boston suburb, largely because immigrants were late arrivals. A 1950s construction boom lured thousands. You can still find a square dance most Saturday nights and hear Mass in French Sunday mornings.
Robichaud, who plays a fiddle style passed through his family for generations, sometimes hosts musical soirees on his back porch for younger Franco-Americans seeking to learn more of their ethnicity.
"My family is totally assimilated," says musician Donna Hebert. "I've had to reach back to find people who could teach me about French culture."
"For most families, the language may be lost, but we're seeing a resurgence through the arts," says Josee Vachon, host of a French cable TV show. "People are taking pride in what they have endured."
Maine and Louisiana are trying to preserve French culture with school programs and artist grants.
"We're people of the world now," said Weldon Granger, a Texas lawyer who grew up speaking French and picking cotton in Erath, La.
Copyright 1994, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co., Inc.