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Communication student Josh Robin and history and English student Samatha Perez, both of St. Bernard Parish, show some of their work to William Robison, head of the Department of History and Political Science, and Karen Fontenot, interim dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
Unknown by most tourists, St. Bernard is a small community where everyone knows one
another, where nearly everyone owns a boat; a place geographically divided into what
the residents affectionately call ‘up the road and down the road.
(Excerpt from Louisiana’s Lost Treasure: The Islenos)
Though Samantha Perez and Josh Robin always knew their hometown of St. Bernard was special, it wasn’t until they began a documentary class at Southeastern that they realized a large part of Louisiana heritage, history and culture was at their front door.
In their original documentary “Louisiana’s Lost Treasure: The Islenos,” senior history and English major Perez and senior communication major Robin explored the cultural identity of the Islenos people, who migrated from Spain to the Canary Islands and later to southeast Louisiana in the late 1700s.
The 50-minute piece was produced last spring as part of a co-departmental independent study. The specialized course was developed and supervised by Interim Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Karen Fontenot and William Robison, head of the Department of History and Political Science.
Shown as part of the Fanfare ‘Then and Now Series,’ the documentary tells the story of the Spanish Islenos and their resiliency through many tribulations including the American Revolution, the Battle of New Orleans, the Civil War and Hurricane Katrina.
Robin said the short 1762-1800 Spanish rule of Louisiana is often overshadowed by Louisiana’s strong French influence most often associated with New Orleans culture, food and history.
“Most people only tend to remember French Louisiana, so I thought the Islenos would be something interesting that people could really latch on to,” he said. “We have something special in St. Bernard Parish that most people know nothing about.”
|Josh Robin, senior, communication major, and Samatha Perez, senior, history and English major|
“But to have students come in and say, ‘No, I want to do something harder,’ you usually say okay,” Robison said. “We really don’t deserve much credit for this. They came up with the subject, ran with it and produced a great piece of work.”
Although they migrated from the Canary Islands to four Louisiana settlements including Barataria, Valenzuela and Galveztown, the majority of the Spanish Islenos settled in St. Bernard after disease and smallpox outbreaks concentrated much of the area.
Perez and Robin said they used the documentary as an opportunity to learn more about their own Islenos background.
“We grew up with the culture but we never knew all of the historical facts,” Perez said. “It was the greatest thing listening to what our families have been through. The history has been retold in stories that have been passed along and engrained in our culture.”
Melding the two disciplines (communication and history), Fontenot said, really moves people by making the historical events meaningful.
“It surprised me how this documentary struck a chord in so many people,” Fontenot said.
“During the showing, I was looking around the room and everyone was so engrossed in it. Many people were there because it was their heritage, but afterward I had so many people tell me they learned new things.”
Perez and Robin also explored how the Islenos adapted to from island life in the Atlantic Ocean to the Louisiana marsh, where they learned to earn a living through fishing and animal trapping.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that the Islenos were responsible for the cuisine that made Louisiana famous in the 1920s,” Robin said. “They were the ones that supplied the fish and the game that let the New Orleans chefs experiment with food.”
Living off the land and resourcefulness, Perez said, is one of the strongest Isleno traits one that helped them survive numerous wars, diseases, hurricanes and floods.
Interviews with various Islenos specialists such as John Hickey of the Canary Islanders Heritage Society and St. Bernard Parish Historian Bill Hyland gave the students insight into St. Bernard political conflicts including the Trapper’s War and the intentional blowing of the levees at Caernarvon during the flood of 1927.
“The Islenos are very proud of everything they have gone through,” Perez said.
When asked how the community received the documentary, Perez and Robin said St. Bernard Islenos and historians were more than happy to share their stories.
“It took so much time and effort, but the response has been unbelievable,” she said.
Although over thousands of Islenos ancestors remain in Louisiana today, Perez said the heritage has been declining in recent years.
“I want to get my PhD in history and concentrate a lot of my time on local history,”
Perez said. “I love this university. My dream would be to come back here and teach.”
As for Robin, he is interested in pursuing a communications or property rights law degree and said his experience producing the documentary taught him a lot of new things.
“I learned that someone is always willing to tell you their story, and I learned how to make a documentary,” he said. “The Communication Department has everything a person needs to become a budding journalist.”
Robison said the students have received very positive reactions and that they are hoping to incorporate the documentary into more Southeastern local events, lectures and showings.
“The quality of their final product was very impressive and we are very proud of what they did,” Robison said. “I definitely want to do something like this again.”