Mis Ancestros Isleños

Mis Ancestros Isleños

Out of my 16 great-great grandparents, 2 were German/Spanish, 2 were Scottish, 2 were British, 7 were French, and 3 were Spanish. That means that more than a quarter of my ancestors are of Spanish descent. Pretty surprising, right? Other than the fact that I have an affinity for tacos and anything made from an avocado, you would never know that blonde-haired, blue-eyed little me has any connection to the land of passion and conquistadors. Though a few ancestors were from the mainland of Spain, the majority of them were Isleños (islanders), a name given to the people from a small Spanish archipelago 60 miles West of the Moroccan coast called Islas Canarias, or The Canary Islands.

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The Canary Islands is likely derived from the Latin name Canariae Insulae, meaning “Islands of the Dogs.” According to some historians, the islands were given this name because it contained a “vast multitude of dogs.” Some have even speculated that the native people, the Guanches, used to worship dogs and treat them as holy animals. They would even mummify their dog with their owner to help guide them in the afterlife. The ancient Greeks even have recorded that there were a people living far to the west who were “the dog-headed ones,” who worshipped dogs on an island. The most notable dog native to The Canary Islands is the Perro de Presa Canario or the Canary Mastiff. They were originally bred for working with livestock (note for later). The importance of dogs in their etymology and culture is retained in their coat of arms and depicted on their flag.

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Perro de Presa Canario or Canary Mastiff
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The Canary Islands flag

The Canary Islands is the largest and most populated archipelago of the region. It is made up of 7 large islands and several smaller islands, all of volcanic origin. My ancestors come from the islands of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, and Lanzarote.

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Tenerife is the largest and most populous. It is known internationally as the Island of Eternal Spring with temperatures ranging from 64-82 year round. It is believed that Tenerife is the location of The Elysian Fields mentioned in ancient Greek mythology. Perhaps this is the namesake of the street in New Orleans. Tenerife is also famous for hosting one of the world’s largest carnavals.

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Tenerife, Canary Islands

Gran Canaria is the third largest in the archipelago in area and altitude. It was populated by the Canarii who are thought to have arrived as early as 500 BCE. The capital city of Gran Canaria is Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, which is also jointly capital of the whole of The Canary Islands with Santa Cruz de Tenerife. It was the first stop Christopher Columbus made on his way back from the Americas.

Aguimes is another notable city in Gran Canaria from which many of my ancestors hailed. Aguimes has been restored to reflect the perfect picture of a traditional and peaceful Canarian town. It has some of the best preserved cave dwellings including a church built into the mountainside and many popular cave restaurants.

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Aguimes, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands

Lanzarote is the easternmost island in the archipelago. Like the other islands that make up The Canary Islands, Lanzarote has volcanic origins. It has solidified lava streams as well as extravagant rock formations. It is sometimes referred to as the “Island of 1,000 volcanoes.” Arrecife, meaning rock reef, is the capital city. The name was given to the city in the 15th century in reference to the black volcanic reefs. Ships would utilize these reefs as a hiding place from pirates.

I have yet to uncover exactly what city my ancestors were from in Lanzarote. In the late 18th century, there were volcanic eruptions on the island for six years from 1730 to 1736. My 7th great grandfather and grandmother, Domingo† and Maria Campo lived in Lanzarote during this time of extreme volcanic activity. They are both recorded to have lived until 1751, so it seems they survived the eruptions. I can’t imagine living during a time where the threat of volcanic eruption was a daily concern! The volcanoes are now classed as historical and therefore dormant, although you can feel the heat under the surface at Timanfaya. Today, the heat coming off just nine layers of volcanic rocks is used to cook steaks and fish for tourists.

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Lanzarote, Canary Islands
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Due to the unusual black landscape, curved stonewalls are used to protect the growing of grapes in the wine producing region of La Geria

So what does this mean for me and my family? Why would these people leave behind such a seemingly paradisaical land? How did they traverse 4,300 miles of ocean and become such an important link in my ancestral chain?

From the first arrival of Europeans in the mid 1500s until statehood in 1812, Louisiana flip flopped between Spanish and French rule several times. During a time of Spanish rule in the late 18th century, the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, sought to grow his army to protect against British expansion and populate Louisiana with more Spanish citizens. In 1777, the Spanish government issued the royal order to begin recruitment from the Canary Islands. At about the same time, the Canary Islands was going through an economic downfall and many jobs were being seized by the industrialization of other major European cities and countries. plague of African locusts invaded the islands. Paired with a terrible drought, the locusts ruined the dried-out crops on which the farmers depended upon for survival.  This created a perfect opportunity for Governor Gálvez to recruit. He offered Canarians (preferably married with children) an escape from their poor living conditions, land, farm tools, a house, a monthly stipend and a fresh start in a new land across the Atlantic.

Routes from The Canary Islands to the New World.

One of Gálvez’ recruits was my 7th great grandfather, Manuel Nunez de Villavicencio*. In July of 1778, Manuel, his wife Josepha Suarez, and their 5 children set sail for Louisiana on the S.S. Sacaramento, the first ship of Isleño immigrants heading for the port of New Orleans, under the command of Captain Benito Ripoli y Barcelo as a part of the Louisiana Batallion. Manuel and 260 other passengers arrived approximately 6 months later at the port of New Orleans.

The Isleños settled in four towns strategically placed around New Orleans to guard the city from British invasion: Galveztown, situated just below Baton Rouge, Valenzuela, located along Bayou Lafourche, Barataria, located along Bayou des Familles in Jefferson Parish, and La Concepcion, later San Bernardo, located in St. Bernard Parish along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs (see map below). Manuel and his family settled in the latter along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs, sometimes referred to as the “end of the world.” It is situated on the extreme outskirts of the bayou, where the land and sea blur into one. There he made his living as a farmer and fisherman. Manuel and other Isleño farmers in the area provided the New Orleans market with the majority of their garlic, onion, bean, potato and poultry supply. The inhabitants adapted to their new terrain and learned how to best profit off of the land and sea as farmers, hunters, trappers, and fisherman. However, their work would be put on a temporary hold. Shortly after arriving in the new world, Manuel and his many of his Canarian brothers, served in the Revolutionary War in the Gálvez expedition from 1779-1783.

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Four major Isleño settlements
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San Bernardo National Scenic Byway, St.Bernard, Louisiana

The few published church records from the time in the St. Bernard Parish suggest that Manuel and his sons were probably the progenitors of the Nunez families in the area. By the mid 1800s, most of his descendants were living in the upper part of the Bayou between Reggio and St. Bernard. They brought the tradition of domesticating cattle to the area, hence the name Terre-aux-Boeufs or “Cattleland.” Ranchers from all over Louisiana and even parts of eastern Texas brought their herds of cattle to St. Bernard for training. Isleños specialized in livestock domestication due to a scarcity of horses and mules in Tenerife. In their homeland, they were forced to use oxen for crop cultivation (remember the dogs?). In addition to cattle training and farming, many Isleños worked on sugar plantations, harvesting sugar cane and cypress. Vincent Nunez, grandson of Manuel and my 5th great grandfather, was a prominent merchant and sugar planter. Apparently prominent enough that robbers pinned his house for a break-in in November of 1852, though they only got away with a few “sundry” items.

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Vincent Nunez

The Isleños brought so much more to Louisiana than farming and ranching techniques and men to build Gálvez’ army. They brought rich cultural and social traditions that are deeply a part of the southern Louisiana lifestyle to this day.

Something that I’ve experienced within my life, that was most likely passed down from my Isleño ancestors, is the importance of family. Isleño’s entire social life was centered on the family and Roman Catholicism. Religious holidays were of great importance and celebrated extravagantly with dancing and huge feasts. If you know my family, you have most likely been to one of our infamous crawfish boils. We often celebrate major holidays, like Easter, blasting music, playing yard games, and sucking crawfish heads with family and friends. Growing up, Christmas was an all day event where everyone in the family, immediate, extended, first, second, third cousins, and even ex-husbands and wives, crammed into my great grandmother’s den to open presents and eat food until we were sick. However, this practice wasn’t reserved for major holidays only. Every month we would have a birthday party to celebrate all the family members born during that month. If it wasn’t a holiday or a birthday, chances are many of us were still gathered at grandma’s house eating dinner together several times a week, if not daily, like our ancestors, who ate all meals together as a family. Many of my grandmother’s recipes featured a medley of beans that had been stewing in a pot all day with salt pork or pickled pork, a culinary tradition passed down by our Spanish ancestors.

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A simmering pot of Caldo soup, a traditional Isleño recipe

An observation was made by Raymond MacCurdy, who spent 7 years amongst the Isleño community in village of Delacroix. He observed that the people were “very devout and superstitious, stoic, have a sense of humor, and are extremely hospitable…they respect and obey their elders.” Add in the parties and the importance of family, and you have an exact description of my family.

Another tradition of great importance to the Isleños of Louisiana was décima singing. This was a Spanish tradition traced back all the way to the 15th century. Due to the geographical isolation and lack of formal education in that part of the state, oral traditional art was the best way for the people to pass along their stories and traditions. Generally, décimas are a stanza of poetry consisting of 10 lines per stanza, 40 lines, or 4 stanzas, per song. These songs were often sung at events in the communities, such as dances, weddings, and holiday celebrations or even after a long day of work or after a meal at a friend’s house. Their musical influences seeped into the mainstream at  the beginning of the 20th century as Latin Jazz made it’s way to the forefront of the dance halls and night clubs. Today there are fewer than a handful of people still practicing the tradition, one of the reasons being the loss of the Isleño language that is only spoken by a few elderly in the community. Though the tradition has waned from the society, remnants still live on in Isleño descendants’ passion and affinity for music.

Many of my family members have a natural, raw talent for music. In fact, many of my cousins and my grandfather, direct descendants of the Nunez line, are extremely talented musicians without ever having studied music or learned to read it, much like their ancestors. My most notable Isleño relative, who made a living as a musician, is my 3rd great grandfather (Manuel Nunez’ great, great grandson), Alcide Nunez. Alcide was a jazz clarinetist in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in the early 20th century during the birth of jazz in New Orleans. Stay tuned for a more in depth post on Alcide, his career, and his contributions to Jazz.

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Alcide Nunez

Of the four Isleño settlements, two survived into the nationhood of our country, including St. Bernard, the village where most of my ancestors originally settled. They all endured a plethora of hardships including storms, floods, sickness, disease, mosquitoes, intense heat, and the many yet to be discovered mysteries of the swamp. They were a people running away from drought-ridden, locust-plagued land only to find that their lives would be threatened by drowning and disease. It was not the Heaven they had dreamed of however, it was their new home and there was no turning back.

For centuries they would endure many threats to their home in the form of natural disasters. Floods, hurricanes, and intense heat made it extremely difficult to create a life sustained by farming and fishing. Living so near a disappearing coastline makes for easy work as a fisherman, but can be disastrous for a farmer. The Isleños have persevered through centuries of major hurricanes including several just after their arrival in the late 18th century, the hurricane of 1812, the Chenier Caminanda Hurricane, categorized as the deadliest hurricane in Louisiana history, Hurricane Betsy in 1965, up to the historic Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Some, growing weary of constant reconstruction, have moved to other cities, other states even. However, time and time again, Isleño people return to the land their ancestors built up from nothing but a marshy swamp. They have tenaciously fought to restore these lands, preserve their culture, and press on.

Aside from my deep love for dogs, it is in the of spirit of perseverance and preservation that I feel most connected to my Isleño ancestors. While cherishing and honoring the rich traditions that make up the very essence of who we are, we continue to press forward, through the storms, standing at the end of the world, ready to face any challenge life may bring.


†Domingo Campo -> Francisco Campo -> Antonio Campo -> Simon Campo -> Josephine Campo -> Frank Cuadrado -> Odeal Cuadrado -> Odeal Ayo -> Tracy Pigrenet -> Me

*Manuel Nunez -> Estevan Nunez -> Vincente Nunez -> Victor Nunez -> Alcide Nunez
->Mary Nunez -> Dora Mae Mocklin -> William Pigrenet -> Tracy Pigrenet -> Me