Counseling Females in the “Cajun” Culture of South Louisiana

Introduction

The Cajun culture of south Louisiana began with French settlers from western, central France. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, France was forced to cede Acadie to Britain in 1713. These Acadians were then deported to various British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, including present day Nova Scotia, Canada. These French settlers in Canada were considered a threat by the British amidst the fighting between the British and the French. The Acadians simply wanted neutrality between the British and the French, and did not want to choose sides and fight. This desired, long-lasting neutrality ended in 1754 when the Governor of Canada, Major Charles Lawrence, illegally required those Acadians to sign an oath of absolute loyalty to the King of England, along with renouncing their Catholic religion (LaBorde, n.d.). Those who refused to sign the oath were forced from their families and/or arrested. Entire Acadian colonies were subsequently burned to the ground. This destroyed everything this population of already exiled settlers worked to establish. A mass expulsion then occurred, known as “Le Grande Derangement” or the Great Upheaval. Many families were separated and placed on different ships headed to different states and countries (LaBorde, n.d.).

Arrival in Louisiana

Roughly 4,000 of those exiled Acadians found their way to southern Louisiana, along the fertile land and bayous. The term “Cajun” evolved from the terms Acadie, Acadia, Acadian, and Acadiana. Cajuns arrived in Louisiana as a population, an ethnic group, without a country. Close ties were developed among this group, who only had each other for survival. These Cajuns were content with a simple existence, free to practice their religious beliefs and live their life (Bras-seaux, 1992).

“Outsiders” have viewed and still view Cajuns as a singular group of fun, honest, but perhaps ignorant and desperately poor fishermen and trappers (Bras-seaux, 1992). This perception may have developed from the non-materialistic nature of the Cajun culture. This culture initially survived by growing and building what the family needed, and then selling what wasn’t needed to buy non-essentials. A comfortable lifestyle was all that was desired. An important component of the Cajun culture was and is sharing with others. For example, a garden will most likely produce more than necessary. This surplus is shared with neighbors and anyone who drops in for a visit (Brasseaux, 1992).

This generosity and loyalty extended beyond the family and to the community. This is a protective culture, somewhat enmeshed, and sometimes exclusive. Once you are accepted, the loyalty can extend a lifetime. As readily as one can be accepted, one can also be excommunicated. The general assumption is that people are good and trustworthy, and you will be welcomed — until you prove you are not good and trustworthy. A Cajun person is likely to migrate to the good people, the party, and the festival. These are not difficult to find in south Louisiana.

People generally think of New Orleans when thinking of Louisiana. This includes Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, and “passing a good time.” There is the culture of New Orleans and then there is the culture of Cajun south Louisiana. Both are similar, but drive about one hour southwest of New Orleans, and you will see the difference. The communities become smaller, and the houses (surrounded by sugar cane fields) and yards larger. The party atmosphere is still prevalent; however, the parties are generally in people’s homes, rather than a nightclub on Bourbon Street. Any occasion is one to gather people together. The neighbors are invited, as well as any who may just want to “drop in.” Along with the best food in the world, it is safe to say there is an impressive amount of alcohol present at gatherings. It is considered rude to not keep a guest’s cup and plate full. In this culture, you are showing respect by eating (especially if the host cooked) and perhaps imbibing. Everyone just wants you to join in the fun and the comradery.

In south Louisiana, women generally do the cooking, although a fair number of men participate (and very well). In many homes, you’ll find the women in the kitchen, cooking, cleaning, and gossiping, and you’ll find the men in the living room watching a LSU or Saints game. It’s fair to say that both genders wouldn’t likely have it any other way. Most women might say that they do not want the men hanging out in the kitchen - that is their territory.

The term “feminist” is not used very often by Cajun women. It would be unusual to hear a woman over 35 claim to be a feminist. Why is this? Cajun women are generally the head of the household and do not seem to need the title

“feminist.” No decision is usually made without going through “mama,” even though “daddy” may be the breadwinner. You will hear the phrase, “I have to ask mama first” quite often in south Louisiana.

As stated previously, this is a tight-knit, somewhat enmeshed group, sometimes extremely enmeshed group. The interactions and choices are largely interdependent; keeping the community in mind. Cajuns are fiercely loyal to each other, and this is especially true for Cajun women and their friends. This carries over to daughters. It is commonly known that when “boy marries a Cajun girl,” they WILL live near her mama. If there is a problem, it is normally discussed with one’s mother, sister, and best girlfriends. Outside of this circle, it is no one’s business. Even a problem such as problem drinking is expected to remain “inhouse.” Family can handle the issue with love, tough love, and even gathering others in the circle to help. You are generally taught not to trust professional, outside help. In this culture, for example, if someone passes out drunk in the front yard, you are expected to call that person’s family (typically a male member of the family). The police would never be called. This would be disloyal, unless you know the policeman and you know it would be kept under the radar, not an uncommon occurrence.

A Cajun woman who drinks to excess generally suffers the same stigmatization as the rest of North American society. A drunk woman is frowned upon. Reasons for this include the woman being the head-of-household, having children, and “representing” her husband at all times. Women could easily be blamed for the decline of the household, and the break-up of the family if drinking is an issue. Women are primarily responsible for the care of children. Again, this is a responsibility happily accepted, and not easily turned over to outside help. Therefore, a woman who cannot adequately care for her children is viewed in a particularly negative light. The Cajun culture is, in large part, a matriarchal culture. However, a woman is likely also a wife. Her behavior reflects upon, and has the potential to be an embarrassment to, her husband; although he would never say that publicly. A common expectation of this community would be to “get control of your woman.” If a woman is drunk, and behaving drunk, her husband, father, and brothers may step in to avoid further embarrassment. This may involve removing your wife, daughter, or sister from a gathering; and quickly. The family will discuss how to proceed, and the problem will be addressed privately. Cajun communities have always been small and “everyone knows everyone.” Therefore, a drunk woman at a party will be gossiped about thoroughly. Recovery from this stigmatization is rarely achieved. Once you are labeled an “addict” to any substance, the label sticks. If the family cannot get the situation under control, only then is a professional involved.

There aren’t a great number of therapists in small Cajun communities. Everyone would notice your car in the therapist’s parking lot! Therefore, to avoid a dual relationship, and town gossip, you may have to drive to a larger city such as Baton Rouge or New Orleans.

A fellow Cajun would understand the gravity of the decision to seek a professional. However, those not from the culture may not know what to expect. There is a lack of research concerning this culture and mental health counseling. The following sections will address Cajun women, problem drinking, and seeking counseling for help with problem drinking.

First, don’t be surprised if your client’s (identified patient) father, brother, or husband makes the call for an appointment. The client’s mother likely directed one of these males to “take care” of the business aspect of scheduling the appointment. This person who makes the initial contact with the mental health professional is likely to be very polite and deferential. Cajuns may find that professional very impressive, but also intimidating. Expect members of the family to respond, “Yes ma’am, and yes sir,” even if the therapist is younger.

Therapists are professionals and taught to dress the part. However, it may helpful to take off the jacket, and loosen your tie. Cajuns may walk in and ask if they can relax - perhaps put their feet up. Therapists are taught to meet the client where they are. So, put your feet up as well! You will be appreciated for being yourself. This includes matching the language of the Cajun culture. If your client uses slang, and imperfect English, you may want to rephrase the graduate school, “fancy” words. For example, a word not “innocuous” may garner polite, yet blank stares. Take note of this and use a simpler, yet still explanatory work.

Of course there are highly educated Cajuns, but this population was born of farmers, plantation workers - who learned to provide all for their families. In a manner of minutes, you can find a Cajun who would share heartbreaking stories of a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent being punished in the schools for speaking Cajun French. Children were hit over the knuckles with a ruler, or made to kneel on dry com kernels. The abuse became unbearably oppressive, and many parents took their children out of the school system. Many report relatives with a fifth-grade education, or lower. Therefore, even a highly educated Cajun remembers the stories of oppression and discrimination that happened with their loved ones; and wouldn’t dare use those “big” words for fear of making anyone feel inferior. A therapist with “airs about them” will not go over as well as a therapist that has a sense of humor and is “down to earth.” In the community of addicts, as well as this population, it is appropriate and welcomed to share stories about yourself. This is an effective way to build rapport with those in addiction, as well as the Cajun culture.

Upon arrival at the initial therapy session, you will want to make sure there are enough chairs in your office. You have no idea how many people may decide to attend. You may also want to have a pot of coffee available for the group. This will set a welcoming tone. In most Cajun households, upon arrival, you will be offered fresh coffee. Your client may bring her mama, her sister(s), and her best friend. Of course, this is ideal for a systemic family therapist. For others, this could be an unwelcomed surprise. Many activities from shopping to going to the DMV are done in groups in the Cajun culture. The company is always appreciated. You’ll often hear the phrase, “The more the merrier” in south Louisiana.

Building rapport is one the most important components of the therapeutic process. With the Cajun population, it is advisable to build rapport immediately, otherwise you may have a “no-show” for the second session. As mentioned previously, the Cajun circle of trusted family and friends is the most important aspect of life in general. It is not uncommon for women to speak to their female circle of friends and family several times a day. The opinion of this circle is not to be dismissed, but perhaps integrated into the session; without loss of administrative control. For example, the client’s mother may seem intrusive with her opinions. The nature of this relationship is to be respected for rapport and progress. If your client’s mother is disrespected, the Cajun culture dictates that everyone stand up for and protect the mother; even if she’s wrong. This calls on a specific skill set to hear the mother out and compliment her wisdom and devotion. Once the mother feels respected and heard, the therapist could then ask for her help with further ideas. When rapport is established, as with the previous example, the therapist will be supported and the mother will likely insist everyone support and listen to the therapist’s suggestions. At this point, don’t be surprised if a gift is brought or homemade food. These are signs of love and acceptance in the Cajun culture. If the food is homemade, it is advisable to have some while the session is occurring. In terms of rapport building, and being accepted, there is no more powerful response to a Cajun client than to enjoy their food.

At some point, the therapist may utilize couple’s therapy, as a concomitant to “family therapy.” The enmeshed, closed system of the Cajun culture should still be considered. The loyalty runs deep and this isn’t always healthy loyalty. The husband may want to learn new, and healthier ways, but the wife’s family will likely have a strong influence.

The therapist may benefit from asking the couple, “Who is triangulated into the problems currently experienced?” This provides information regarding outside influences on the marriage. For example, the wife may state that discussing personal issues with mother, or others, is quite a normal occurrence. Drinking with family and friends may be a part of the relationship for the client. Females identify alcohol as the primary substance abused across all cultures in the United States (SAMHSA, 2011). You may have a husband state that his wife or partner spends too much time at her mother’s house. His mother-in-law may spend a great deal of time in his home, uninvited. This mom likely has her own key, and doesn’t bother knocking on the door. Those outside of the culture may find this rude and intrusive. In south Louisiana, this is an everyday occurrence.

 
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