Coconut Island Barroom

Parish: St. Bernard

Location: St. Bernard

Dayna Bowker Lee: “There were a couple of halls in the Isleno community in St. Bernard Parish. One was the Coconut Island Barroom, destroyed by Katrina but replicated now on the Isleno cultural park property.”

From http://www.losislenos.org/museum.html :
“The Society moved the Coconut Island Barroom, a 1920 cypress board and batten structure, and the Estopinal House and kitchen, dated circa 1800 to the museum grounds as part of a plan for a master complex. The Coconut Island Barroom was one of the last board and batten commercial structures remaining in St. Bernard Parish. In the past, barrooms like the Coconut Island were centers of commerce and community gathering places.”

From http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/islenos.html#tab14 written by Sara Ann Harris:

“At the turn of the 20th century good fortune visited the Isleños. When the trend to wear fur escalated among Americans, Mom and Pop Traders profited tremendously… Most important to their cultural lives, they built dance halls in each village. The halls cultivated décima singing, dancing, traditional cooking, and speaking Spanish. Dance halls also strengthened their survival skills: strong family ties and community reciprocity. The Isleño experience of their identity was heightened during the Dance Hall Era.

Every Saturday night, parents, children, teenagers, grandparents, infants – everyone – went to the dance. Dance contests were open to all ages and proud winners showed off their prizes. New Orleans bands played at the dance halls until midnight, then the community sat down for a meal…

After dinner the singing began. The décimeros might go after anyone: an unfaithful aunt or a neighbor who carelessly busted his boat motor. No one knew who the décimero would rib. Everybody took great delight in the décimas. And so it would go, week to week, from Isleño town to Isleño town.

To negotiate life in the outside world, the Isleños learned French in the 19th century and then English. However, on Saturday nights at the dance halls, everyone spoke Spanish, sang in Spanish, and told jokes in Spanish. Their language was a source of pride.

Outside of the dance halls, life repeated a familiar pattern: hardship at the hand of natural forces and the struggle to recover. The Mississippi River Flood churned into south Louisiana in 1927 and the Isleños were faced with major destruction of the landscape, loss of life, and property. The damage to these communities was intensified by the diversion of flood waters into lower St. Bernard Parish, a tactical move to preserve the city of New Orleans.

It took years for the Isleños to recover after the Great Flood. Some families moved to northern St. Bernard Parish and took day jobs. Beginning in the 1930s, some signed on for more reliable employment in the new oil and gas sector. About the same time, roads and public education introduced many new people to lower St. Bernard — and many more Isleños to the outside world.

Those who returned after the flood began hunting, trapping, fishing and shrimping again. They also rebuilt the dance halls, where cultural traditions thrived through the 1940s. Today, Isleños tell stories about dance halls in the 1950’s, but by then, they explain, Saturday nights were not necessarily family events or exclusively for Spanish-speakers. Nor did they feature décima singing or midnight Spanish/Louisiana dinners. The Isleño identity was fading.”

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