When Joan Nunez Phillips, 81, was growing up in St. Bernard Parish, her parents occasionally conversed in an archaic form of Spanish that their ancestors had brought from the Canary Islands.
As children, she said Sunday, her parents “were punished when they spoke it in school.”
The language, so rare that linguists have described it as akin to English from the Middle Ages, is rarely heard today, but the culture of the Isleños, a group of settlers who arrived in Louisiana from the Canary Islands between 1778 and 1783, still thrives. It was on full display Sunday at the 38th annual Isleños Fiesta, held on Bayou Road in St. Bernard.
The event — featuring a colorful melange of history, music, nature and art — each year celebrates the traditions of the Isleños, who were fundamental in the establishment of the parish.
In 1778, the Spanish government, worried about aggression by the British along the Mississippi River, began dispatching families living in the Canary Islands to four settlements in Spanish-ruled Louisiana.
One of those was La Concepcion, which later became San Bernardo, and still later, St. Bernard.
“Almost two-thirds or more of the population of St. Bernard can trace its origins in part or whole to the Canary Islands,” said William Hyland, parish historian and manager of the Isleños Complex, where the festival was held.
Hyland said the Isleños culture evolved as the new immigrants interacted with Native Americans, French, Africans and other groups in southern Louisiana.
However, he said, its roots stayed strong.
The sprawling 20-acre museum complex, rebuilt after being damaged during Hurricane Katrina, features a number of houses built in the original style of the Isleños.
Inside, there are pictures of Isleños and a wide range of historical artifacts.
One of the houses is named the Estopinal House, after the ancestors of Jerry Estopinal, 56, who spent much of Sunday on the front porch of the home, chatting with passersby.
“We have people who represent the whole spectrum of occupations,” Estopinal said about his kin, though the Isleños who originally settled in St. Bernard worked primarily as farmers, fishermen and trappers.
“It’s a real unique community and a real unique culture,” he said.
Exploring their history was the allure for many of those at the festival, Estopinal said, though those in attendance also shimmied to live music, gobbled down paella, plantains and meat pies, and perused local artwork and other crafts.
One of the more eye-catching exhibits was a raft of colorful alligator skins, including both hot yellow and bright purple.
Holly Richardson, an employee of Wall’s Gator Farm in Springfield, was working at the booth, which featured a 9-month-old alligator on display in a tiny aquarium.
Though she’s not from the area, Richardson said she enjoys coming to the festival every year.
“The chargrilled oysters are the best I’ve ever had,” she said.
Although the culture of the Isleños was the main attraction, with some of the older members even dressing up in traditional garb, members of the Houma Nation also were on the grounds. The Native American tribe boasts about 300 members in the area, according to Rachel Billiot, 17.
Billiot and 12-year-old Aviendha DiMaggio spent the day inside one of the two palmetto-thatched huts that had been built on the grounds.
There, they talked about the history of their ancestors to those who popped into the huts after moving on from the music and the museum.
“We’re just spreading our culture as well,” Aviendha said.