Born on the Bayou And Barely Feeling Any Urge to Roam
By BLAINE HARDEN (NYT) 1724 words
Published: September 30, 2002
Vacherie, La. - For children growing up in this bayou town, the cultural imperative is clear: Don't set up housekeeping where you have to call your mama long distance.
By this standard, all eight children of Pierre and Lois Reulet are doing what is right. The nearest child, Myron, 43, lives next door to his parents. He stops by at 5:30 a.m. for hot chocolate on his way to work in a nearby oil refinery.
He comes in just as his brother, Kirk, 52, who lives six houses away, finishes the coffee his mother fixes him before he heads off to his job at a fertilizer plant. The most distant child is Sheila, 55, a homemaker. She lives five miles away.
Every Sunday Sheila and her five closer-to-home sisters help their mother fix dinner, a formidable production, feeding more than three dozen Reulets, all of whom live in Vacherie (pronounced VOSH-uh-ree). Before noon on a recent Sunday, the family had put away 20 pounds of potato salad and 40 pork chops.
Carved out of sugar cane fields and crowding the Mississippi River about 30 miles west of New Orleans, Vacherie is a stupendously static exception to the American rule of wander. With an almost total absence of population mobility, it is the most rooted town in the most rooted state in the country.
Vacherie is also the stay-at-home capital of Cajun country, which is saying something. For this part of Louisiana, a region of swamps, snakes and petrochemical plants, is home to what historians describe as one of the most stable populations in the history of North America. As such, Vacherie offers a primer on what forces in American life are still strong enough to keep young people in their mother's area code.
Americans do tend to roam. In the 1990's, at least one in four was on the move, according to the 2000 census, with 73 million people moving across state lines and another 13 million immigrating from other countries. In Nevada, by far the most transient state, nearly four out of five residents were born in another state or country. In Louisiana, the least transient, only one in five residents was born elsewhere.
Ninety-eight percent of Vacherie's 5,787 residents were born in Louisiana and 80 percent live in the houses they occupied in 1995, according to the census. Nationally, 60 percent of Americans live in the state where they were born and 54 percent live in the house they occupied in 1995.
Half the residents of Vacherie are black, most of them the children or grandchildren of sharecroppers who worked in the cane fields. But in the last 40 years, good-paying jobs in nearby shipyards, aluminum smelters, sugar refineries and petrochemical plants have allowed many of them to abandon subsistence farm work while remaining here.
''The plants broke that plantation mentality,'' said Alton Smith, 69, a retired schoolteacher who is black. ''Salaries more than doubled, black folks purchased land and got their parents off the plantation.''
But what augments -- and spices up -- the hold of most families here is Cajun culture. Mothers and fathers rear their children on fresh local food, fishing, trapping and shooting in the bayous, and a firm faith that entertainment is possible without watching television, cruising the Web or going to a movie.
There is no golf course for 20 miles. The biggest store is the grocery owned by the Shexnayders, a German family that has been around for more than a century. Fun, as young people are reared to understand it, means sitting around with relatives, drinking black coffee and telling white lies.
''It is easy to pick up and move when the culture you know is all McDonald's,'' said Glenn Petre, a Harvard-educated filmmaker who left Cajun country and found that his ties brought him home. ''But if you grow up the way I did in Louisiana, you don't in your travels find anything like it. Some of it is the cuisine, but mostly it is a mind-set.''
The Vacherie Deer Hunting Club specializes in such molding of minds. It is a shack on the swampy edge of town. Club members pay $150 a year to lease about 3,000 acres of swampland, from which they take crawfish, catfish, deer, squirrel, rabbit, turtles, frogs and crabs. They grow vegetables not far from shaded kennels that house 20 yelping deerhounds.
Inside, a big freezer and two commercial-grade gas ranges allow several men to cook their signature dishes simultaneously.
''We can all cook something good,'' said Ricky Oubre, 45, a petrochemical plant worker. ''My specialty is sauce piquant with turtles. I learned it from my father, Freddy, who can take that shoe off your foot and cook it with onions and you will love it.''
Belonging to a local hunting camp, many men in this town said, is a way to stay geographically close to one's mother or wife or daughters while being far enough away psychologically to act like an overgrown adolescent. Women are not welcome.
''Most ladies are glad of it,'' said Dickie Gravois, 45, a farmer whose family cultivates about 6,000 acres of sugar cane. ''Because mama don't want a bunch of men, drinking beer, with dirty feet, throwing rabbit guts around the house.''
The charms of big families, good cooking and rabbit guts would, of course, be far less irresistible if there were no decent-paying jobs around Vacherie.
Since the 1960's, however, people here say that relatively high-paying blue-collar jobs have been available at the nearby plants and shipyards. Most are on the Mississippi and within an hour's drive. Until recently plant jobs could be had with a high school education; now many of them require a couple of years of college or technical school.
All eight of Pierre and Lois Reulets' children, except their daughter Lola, either work in a plant or are married to a man who does. Lola's husband worked in a plant until two years ago, when he was killed in a work-related accident.
''There is a difference between being wealthy and being rich,'' said Sam Becnel, 53, production supervisor at a fertilizer plant, where he makes about $80,000 a year. He graduated from high school here, but did not go to college.
''Here, we are rich,'' Mr. Becnel said, while drinking beer and sitting in the shade outside the Vacherie Deer Hunting Club. ''Everything I need is here. I got the fishing, the hunting, the friends and the family. With my education, I never thought I would be able to afford to send my kids off to college.''
His daughters attend the University of South Carolina, where one is working toward a doctorate in English and the other is getting a master's in math. Mr. Becnel said neither was likely to move back home.
Higher education, in fact, is threatening the stay-at-home stability of the entire state. The 2000 census confirmed a long-term trend of more people moving out of Louisiana than moving in. Several studies have found that a disproportionately high percentage of those leaving are young, well educated and well off. At the same time, Louisiana is the country's least successful state in attracting new residents.
Here in Vacherie, the departure of young people appears to be especially common among the narrow slice of the black population with college degrees. Blacks and whites agree that race relations in Vacherie are stuck in a kind of 1940's time warp, with little overt racial animosity and little racial mixing.
When public schools were integrated in 1969, most white parents sent their children to private schools. Public schools are nearly all black and struggling. The Roman Catholic Church has a mixed congregation, but hunting clubs are segregated.
''Opportunities are better for whites,'' said the Rev. Lucien Garrett, 65, a black Baptist minister whose mother was born here and who has lived here most of his life. His eight college-educated children have all moved away.
The exodus of educated young people has yet to overwhelm the sedentary mind-set of south Louisiana, said Carl A. Brasseaux, a professor of history at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.
''The family is still the driving force in this part of the country,'' said Professor Brasseaux, himself a Cajun. ''Some folks might consider us to be rooted losers. But I think there is a quality of life here that is unsurpassed.''
When Cajuns do dare to leave the state, he said, their complaints are invariably the same. They miss the food. They miss their mama.
Map/Chart: ''Staying Put''
Map of the U.S. highlights the percentage of people who live in the state where they were born.
Stateline, Nev.: Lowest at 4.5%
Vacherie, La.: Highest at 98.4%
(Sources: Queens College Department of Sociology; Census Bureau)(pg. A23)