St. Bernard and a lesson in parade mechanics.
Thinking rationally, the concept of a parade makes little sense. A group of people walking from one location to another in celebration of something? How does a procession add to a celebration? Don’t ask questions. If we begin to question the logic of parades, we might begin to question the logic of the war on drugs, or the logic of spam. So for now, let us accept that parades exist and that they are a net positive.
In the Spring of 2007, I found myself in Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. I know what you’re thinking: “is Chalmette part of the New Orleans–Metairie, LA Metropolitan Statistical Area?” Answer: Yes! I’ve always been a fan of the statistical mapping of areas, so I knew I was going to have a toy chest of fun digging into the numbers.
St. Bernard parish is quite an anomaly. It is located southeast of New Orleans and, if you have little regard for your own life, you can ride a bicycle there from New Orleans across what appears to be a motor vehicle only bridge. Parish? Isn't that a church division? You are correct. Louisiana, charming lawless swamp that she is, decided that county divisions were too ‘statey’ and she wanted to go in a ‘churchier’ direction, so they do not have counties, but have parishes instead, 64 to be precise. St. Bernard is also home to a unique community knowns as the Isleños.
Isleños are descendants of emigrants from the Canary Islands, the majority of them descended from Canarian settlers who arrived in Louisiana between 1778 and 1783.
The St. Bernard settlement was first called La Concepción and Nueva Gálvez by the Spanish officials, but was later renamed Terre aux Boeufs by the French and Tierra de Bueyes by the Spanish settlers, both meaning "Land of Cattle" or more appetizingly, “Land of beef”. By the end of the 1780s, however, the name "St. Bernard", the patron saint of Bernardo de Gálvez, and liquor transporting dogs, was being used for the settlement in documents describing the area. The majority of the Isleño population was concentrated in St. Bernard Parish, where most of their traditional customs continued. Other Isleños settled throughout southeast Louisiana and around New Orleans.
The Chalmette battlefield is also the site of the Battle of New Orleans, the details of which are fascinating but for the sake of brevity can not be included in this post. While putting in perspective the strangeness of this place, it is worthwhile noting this: Jackson's army of 4,732 men comprised 968 US Army regulars, 58 US Marines, 106 seamen of the US Naval battalion, 1,060 Louisiana Militia and volunteers (including 462 free people of color), 1,352 Tennessee Militia, 986 Kentucky Militia, 150 Mississippi Militia and 52 Choctaw warriors, along with a force of the pirate Jean Lafitte's Baratarians. The sheer heterogeneity of that squadron speaks to how interesting the make up of Louisiana was at the time and lends credence to a quote by the great Helen Thomas: “War makes strange bedfellows”.
I am standing on a street in Chalmette. I see floats off in the distance ponder and the futility of the Doppler effect as the sound of Zydeco swells. As the first few floats arrive, the parade is predictable: Garishly dressed people smile and wave, throwing out the odd bead necklace. While I had not personally experienced the throwing or receiving of beads before, Louisiana tourism advertisements had prepared me for this eventuality. As time went on however, the parade took a decidedly stranger turn. The costumes got more interesting, and the items cast off from the floats got less predictable. The first indicator of this paradigm shift was a float of green, robot looking folks. They waved enthusiastically and the crowd cheered as though this was the most normal thing in the world(if they were attempting to be Transformers, it seems that they were concerned about potential litigation from Hasbro and had opted for something more generic). What they were throwing off the float however was not beads, nor confetti. They were throwing cabbages.This was unconventional but would prove to be one of the less interesting items I received that day. I have made a list of things I received from that parade, to better illustrate how boringly normal cabbage at a parade can be.
-Home sewing kit
-Thongs( Yellow, Green, and Purple)
-A three pack of titleist golf balls
-2 different brands of turkey basters
-Ball in a cup
-A Plastic baseball bat
-A terrifying mardi gras face mask
This list is likely incomplete but for me serves as the baseline against which I shall now measure all future parades. I found the Macy's thanksgiving parade that year to be an absolute bore. The word ‘parade’ was redefined to me that day in Chalmette. No longer did I think of it as a procession. I thought of it as fast moving carnival, a fast pitch big top, a travelling exhibition. They, like jazz, are designed to be singular experiences.
We often associate New Orleans with a certain gothic strangeness--it feels and smells like a bizarre mashup of European Bourgeois and American poverty. St. Bernard feels less European. It is less affluent than Orleans Parish but every bit as strange. That day in Chalmette I had to accept that weirdness does not discriminate. It doesn't necessarily march down cobblestoned streets past French architecture. It is perfectly comfortable marching down a major street in Chalmette past a Winn-Dixie. St. Bernard is every bit as strange as Orleans parish and that is why it deserves to be included in the ‘New Orleans–Metairie, LA Metropolitan Statistical area’.
1.F. Todd Smith (17 November 2014). Louisiana and the Gulf South Frontier, 1500-1821. LSU Press. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-8071-5712-1.
2. Gilbert C. Din (1 August 1999). The Canary Islanders of Louisiana. Louisiana State University Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-8071-2437-6.
3.Juan Manuel Santana Pérez; José Antonio Sánchez Suárez (1992). Emigración por reclutamientos: canarios en Luisiana [Emigration by Recruitment: Canary Islanders in Louisiana] (in Spanish). Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Servicio de Publicaciones. p. 133. ISBN 978-84-88412-62-1.