My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Memories of Bayou Teche

From one of my 2005 journal entries:
"Sweltering heat. Rotten wood, warped flooring and artificial altar flowers in old St. Catherine Church. Flies buzzing bowls of condiments at a near-empty food shack, the only 'diner' in town. A Main Street so empty of businesses it looks like a ghost town. Shacks like houses of cards along Bayou Teche.

This commemorative edition was
recently published, including beautiful,
historic lithographs.
Vivid memories remain of my visit to Arnaudville, Louisiana in 1992, when I visited Catholic Extension subsidized missionary Sister Mary Bordelon. Talk about hidden poor. In this Cajun town of about 1,400 people less than 50 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, dwelled the 'River Rats.' On a sunny day 13 years ago I met them, and still shudder that some locals likened fellow townsfolk to rodents. So-called 'River Rats' rented shacks along Bayou Teche, a spot romanticized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem 'Evangeline.' The reality I saw was three- or four-room homes weathered gray and roofed with corrugated tin, elbowing each other in a wobbly row, along a curbless, cinder road.
An image of Arcadia, from the reprinting of Evangeline, shown above.

'You want anything fixed, you do it yourself!' one resident told me, about how her landlord seldom dropped by. 'But when rent's due, you can bet he's here!'

Outside, two children rode double on a bike. A teenager lounged against a doorway. A middle-aged man hunched on a lawn chair, nowhere to go and no way to get there. Then I met a 'hidden hero.' Amidst gray boards, cinders and bayou green, one screen door creaked open and a young woman named Cytina beckoned warmly, scarlet and blue ribbons flashing joyfully in her hair. Sister Mary and I stepped inside, and three was quickly a crowd in the shoebox-sized living room. Sweat beaded our foreheads as we chatted. Furnishings were spare: a sagging couch, a table, an old dresser against one wall. Nearby hung pictures of three brothers who died fighting for America in Okinawa, Korea and Germany. From a side bedroom came gentle murmuring. There lay Cytina's elderly mother, suffering after a stroke. She prayed constantly, statues of the Blessed Mother and Sacred Heart nearby.
Population of Arnaudville, LA, July of 2009 was 1,401. Estimated median household income averaged $21,204.
At 28, Cytina was like a glowing ember amidst a spent campfire. She leaned forward eagerly when Sister Mary told her a new choir was forming at church. She clutched a novena book and spoke of getting more involved at the parish. Her eyes were deep and expressive. Her smile enlivened her pretty face. When she was a girl, doctors told her she had sickle cell anemia and might never live to be 21. Then a 'walkin' man' visited town, peddling 'blood-building' tonics to poor African-Americans. Cytina was convinced his tonic cured her.

She blinked away tears and said, 'Here I am at 28! God must want me here. Now I want to be a nurse to help others.'
Intersection of Bayou Teche and the
Atchafalaya River. Photo by U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers.

It seemed a pipe-dream. After losing three babies and the break-up of her marriage, Cytina had returned to the poverty of her childhood home. Now her address made her an undesirable. In fact, a 'River Rat.' 

People in town ask why these people don't work, Sister Mary told me in her gentle voice. 'But they have no cars and no way to get anywhere.' Today I recall those words as hurricanes rampage through the Gulf Coast. Evacuate? For the poor, mobility is a luxury. 

'With how the world's going, I am praying more,' Cytina told me thirteen years ago. 'I want to help make things better.' At 41, does this bright-eyed woman still dream of helping others? Or have cruel winds of circumstance and nature dimmed the light in those eyes?

'With how the world's going...' Sometimes it keeps me up at night...all the Cytinas hidden along all the bayous and cinder roads of the Gulf Coast. Countless hidden heroes are struggling to weather yet another misery, in already stressed lives.

People are strangers until you're introduced. Sister Mary introduced me and now a piece of my heart has been buffeted by the winds of the 2005 hurricane season. At night in my comfortable bed in suburban Chicago I wonder, where is Cytina now? Dear God, where and how are all the Cytinas?"

Sent by EXTENSION Magazine to Cajun territory, I saw pristine grounds, and an innovative and gracious approach to learning at Grand Coteau's historic Academy of the Sacred Heart, founded in 1821. I toured New Orleans' French Quarter, and boarded a fishing vessel for a shrimp fleet blessing. I was hosted for dinner by a family whose gorgeous home rivaled those found in any upscale suburb. But I also was privileged to visit with the hidden poor on remote crawfish farms, within the Atchafalaya Swamp, and along the banks of Bayou Teche. "Poor" is such a relative term. I was captivated by these people's rich faith and culture, strong family and community ties, their warmth and humor.  

Different faces of those I had met haunted me at night after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. I worried over their possible fates. I wrote the above reflection about Cytina and Sister Mary Bordelon in my journal, then asked colleagues at The Catholic Church Extension Society if they would like to use it in some way (I was freelancing for Extension Society at the time). They offered the piece on Extension's web page under its "Hidden Heroes" section. 

I later learned that Arnaudville is on high ground, so escaped catastrophic flooding. But the Cytina I met there, stranded without a car or job and with an ailing mother, represents to me countless hidden poor throughout the region. Click on this link to see the stretch of homes I visited where Cytina lived: The photo was taken during my visit to Arnaudville in 1992.

Today, Arnaudville's described online as a "great little town to raise children," and a charming place with lush trees and quaint shops. One of the oldest remaining towns in St. Landry Parish (settled late 1700's), it serves up a thriving Cajun culture, let loose in gatherings like the Etouffee Festival, held each April. After Hurricane Katrina, the town opened its arms to artists and musicians who needed a new cultural home, so a revival was sparked. A new cultural arts center established there in 2005 was attracting visitors from around the world, until it burned down four years later. Residents are determined to rebuild, an uphill battle since many struggle financially. With Lafayette just 14 miles away, jobs are to be found in factories, retail, and health care, for those who have a car and can afford the gas. But I can't even imagine the impact high gas prices are having upon this population. In 2009, more than 23% of Arnaudville residents fell beneath the poverty level. 

Tonight, Louisiana is again suffering, as 3,000 square miles of farms are flooded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to try to divert worse flooding from more populous cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. People of Louisiana, you have had much to bear. I remember one crawfish farmer telling me about Cajuns' infectious "Joie de vivre." May you never lose your joy.