About Gary Lavergne








While sitting on the front steps of a very modest home in the small Cajun community of Church Point in Louisiana, Nolan Lavergne talked to his son about the happiness and hardships of growing up on a tenant farm in rural St. Landry Parish. His son was a rookie high school American History teacher who asked a seemingly simple question: "Who was your grandfather?" The father did not know.

"Well, Daddy, I'm going to find out for you," said the son.

Thus began a fourteen-year-long project culminating in Lives of Quiet Desperation, a look at the ancestry of Gary M. Lavergne, a Louisianian of French descent. In addition to a substantial genealogy with over 1,200 names, Lavergne includes a series of concise essays placing generations in historical context. Special treatment is given to the forces that helped to determine the migrations of various groups of French-speaking people, and the pioneers who helped to build new worlds in Canada and French Louisiana. Particular emphasis is placed upon defining and describing the differences between Cajuns, Creoles, and other Louisiana French cultures.

The vast majority of the ancestors were simple, poor, tenant farmers with large cohesive families. the uncommon were pioneers of note. they all faced considerable odds and led lives of quiet desperation.

This page is an excerpt from LIVES OF QUIET DESPERATION and is made available to the public. However, Gary M. Lavergne retains copyright and all rights are reserved.



Lives of Quiet Desperation: The Ancestry of a Louisiana Frenchman

My mother, Helen "Bobbie" Richard Lavergne, was in many ways a quintessential Cajun. She was verbal and very open to those persons she knew, and quiet and reserved with those she did not know. She seldom criticized or complimented individuals or groups, preferring instead to mind her own business. "Mrs. Bobbie’s" ultimate compliment was, "Those are good people." In the eyes of a simple Cajun woman, money, prestige, and position really didn’t amount to much; there was no greater honor than to be a good person.

The descendants of Acadian exiles, Cajuns, are one of America’s most watched ethnic groups. During recent times, the apparent free-wheeling, carefree lifestyle of Cajuns provided relief from the "me generation" mentality of the 1970s and the "greed generation" mentality of the 1980s. Laissez les bons temps rouler and the Cajun mystique provided fodder for an American establishment searching for a simpler way of life. Good music, good food, lots of drink, waltzes and two-steps, broken English and unique accents have become an antidote for the pressures of a technological era. Cajuns epitomize carefree lifestyle that most Americans admire, but would never lead themselves.

Most stereotypes have some basis in fact, and as a Cajun boy growing up in Church Point, Louisiana, I witnessed and experienced the food, drink—lots of drink—music, dances and broken English. (Since English corrupted French and French corrupted English, some cynics claim that Cajuns are illiterate in two languages.) The Cajun people I know work hard and are poor; but that has never stopped them from having a good time, and it has never prevented them from being good people.

Glenn R. Conrad correctly asserts that many contemporary articles and works of history tend to homogenize the Louisiana French into a single "Cajun" culture. Such a simple view does not do justice to the Acadians or other French speaking peoples of Louisiana. My hometown, Church Point, once called "Bayou Plaquemine Brûlée," is decidedly Acadian, and growing up Cajun is a singular experience. What I am most proud of is the security and resilience of the Cajun people. By security I mean that, unlike many ethnic groups, Cajuns are very quick to laugh at and make fun of themselves. Most Cajun jokes and stories originate from and are repeated by Cajuns themselves--with genuine glee. It is very difficult to insult a Cajun. "Cajun" was once a pejorative term. It was adopted by the Acadians and now appears to be a term of endearment. "Coonass" is considered an insult by most people, even by Louisiana’s Legislature, which passed a resolution declaring the terms "Cajuns" and "Acadians" to be official. And yet, I can not remember a single instance where anyone ever burned with rage at being called a "Coonass" (unless, of course, they weren’t Cajun). One of my father’s favorite LP records was a French comedy album by a "Nonc Helaire" called "For Coonasses Only." Governor Edwin Edwards often used the term "Coonasses" on campaign stops throughout Southwest Louisiana to the glee of hundreds and thousands of voters who flocked to the polls to put him in Congress and the Governor’s Mansion."Coonass" is less common now, more because of a sensitivity afforded all minorities than a concerted effort from Cajuns to gain respect.

Growing up Cajun was fun, and it still is fun to be Cajun. During unguarded moments I catch myself speaking "Franglish." Franglish occurs when a Cajun thinks in French but speaks English. More specifically, Franglish happens when French usage and mechanics and English verbalization are combined. For example, in 1983 in Church Point I heard the following Franglish sentence: "Mr. Bacilla, him, he got two of his teachers pregnant at his school." In English the sentence is, "Mr. Bacilla has two pregnant teachers at his school." In French the adjective (pregnant) follows the noun (teachers); in English the adjective precedes the noun. Franglish often confuses civilians who don’t know any better. Fine examples of Franglish include:

      "Dean, there is a horse dead in the ditch by you house."

      "Francis, throw the cow over the fence some hay."

When speaking, Cajuns also tend to take short cuts. Interjections such as "Poo Yie!" "Kee Yoo!" "Cher!" "Mais La!" and "Ahn!" are paragraphs to Cajuns. At a Cajundome concert I heard the following conversation:

      Lady: "Was it you or your brother who died?"

      Man: "Oh Cher, it was my brother."

      Lady: "An you momma died huh."

      Man: "Yea, her too."

Better still, half sentences often suffice if meaning is obvious. "Come see" is really "come here and see this." "You sick" is really "are you sick?" and "an you" literally means "the characteristic you attribute to me is more applicable to yourself." Quite often, Cajuns corrupt or synthesize clichés. "Mais, dats how da cookie bounces!" "Well if we lucky we can kill two birds wit one gravel."

Furthermore, it is not possible to argue with Cajun logic. My grandmother once told me, "Gary, don’t complain about where you going because wherever you go—you gonna be there!" The remarkable thing about that bit of advice is that it is so obvious that it is impossible to contradict. Wherever you go, you will be there!

On another occasion my grandmother warned me not to play in the mud "cause it will make you retarded." I could not help but question that axiom. She quickly retorted, "Well then why do crawfish walk backwards?" How does a person argue or even reply to such a statement? Crawfish do walk backwards!

Exaggeration is an art form to Cajuns. "Sim, did you hear dat ole Madam Belle died."


"Well, Madame Belle died and look, I was sicker than her!"

Everything is fun about being a Cajun, even spankings and punishments. Mrs. Bobbie was a classic Cajun disciplinarian. She could never say more than one word without getting in a "lick" with a switch or a belt.


I always wanted to say, "No Mama, say it again." But I knew much better than to say such a stupid thing.

My father, Nolan Dale Lavergne, was less violent but much more terrifying. He had a George Washington stare, and as Gouverneur Morris once felt after a famous Washington stare, I wish the Earth would open up and swallow me. One rebuke I remember especially well went, "Boy, you had better straighten up before I remove your eyes and take a serious look at your brain."

In Cajun tradition, I too, try to make discipline a moment to remember. Just recently I told Mark, "Do that again and I’ll shove my arm down your throat and squeeze your pancreas." I had forgotten that my neighbors were visiting; they were mortified until they saw Mark laughing hysterically.

Meals in Cajun homes are real events. I learned at a very young age not to pile food on a plate and eat at one sitting. It is much better to "eat three or four plates." The first meal I ever shared with my soon-to-be mother-in-law is a good example. Having forgotten my earlier lesson and in hopes of making a good first impression, I piled on the food and ate everything. She then asked me if I wanted any more. When I said "No" her reply was, "What, you don’t like it?"

The problem with Cajuns and eating is, that while the eating occurs, good judgment disappears. I have a first cousin who used to wrap boudin around his arm as he ate it; an uncle who would take off his belt and unbutton his pants whenever he ate gumbo; and frequently I myself will have to stop eating and stand so that "my food can go down!" Once I heard of a person from Opelousas who ate four pounds of boudin. He could barely breathe as he sat prostrate in a chair in incredible discomfort. He was asked,

      "Why did you eat so damn much boudin?"

      "Cause it was good!" was his reply.

Another uncle of mine once ate four large servings of fried and stewed catfish with rice. After the fourth plateful he said, "You know, if I had some tea I could eat some more!"

Finally, there is the unsubstantiated but perennial story of some Cajun men who spent hours preparing a very elaborate supper. They drank as they cooked and by the time the meal was ready they were too drunk to eat.

To much of the rest of the world, Cajuns remain a mystery. As someone who makes a living making speeches throughout the United States, I am no longer surprised at some of the silly questions that highly educated persons often ask me about my people. In Washington, DC, while my son Charles and I waited to enter Skylab, on display at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of Air and Space, a very polished, dignified, obviously well-educated, middle-aged lady asked, "Where are you from?" She had detected our accent. Very politely I explained that we were Cajuns from Louisiana. The ensuing conversation went:

      Lady: "Oh, I know very much about you people!"

      Gary: "You do."

      Lady: "Oh, yes, especially about your wonderful food. I enjoy it very much, but I’ll never eat rattlesnake."

      Gary: "Madam, you’d love it if I cooked it for you!"

      Lady: "Yes, I suppose so!"

I chose not to tell her that there are no rattlesnakes in Louisiana.

As a political science fellow at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a good friend and classmate of mine from Tennessee innocently asked, "Are you a Coonass?" Our group consisted of scholars from all parts of the United States, and as soon as he asked that question a collective gasp was heard throughout the room and all eyes and ears awaited my reaction. "Yes" was my answer. I figured that there was nothing to be gained by being insulted just because I was in New Brunswick, New Jersey, instead of Church Point, Louisiana. While studying School Law at Harvard, a classmate of mine told me of a documentary produced by Encyclopedia Britannica which suggested that Cajuns use their children as alligator bait. "I know better than that!" she said proudly. "Thank you!" I replied.

Some of the questions I am asked about Cajuns are fair, like whether or not it is true that there is a Cracklin Festival, a Frog Festival, a Boudin Festival, a Praline Festival, a Crawfish Festival, and so on. I usually explain that in addition to the hundreds of festivals there is a day called Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) whose festivities can last several days or even weeks. Moreover, there are "Cajun Days" in most small communities. Religious holidays like Easter and Christmas, or events like First Communion, Confirmation, and Marriages can be festivals in themselves. "Well, you people are always looking for a reason to celebrate aren’t you?" I guess we are. So what? We are good people.

I am proud to be a Cajun, and would never deny my heritage, if for no other reason than because of the fact that Cajuns and many of their traditions have survived, except for the language. My great grandparents spoke no English; my grandparents spoke little English; my parents were completely bilingual; I speak a little French; my children speak no French. Most elderly Acadians will readily admit to participating in a concerted conspiracy to eliminate the French language from Louisiana. They tell of spankings for speaking French at school and of the irony that government and the media now struggle to preserve and resurrect the Cajun culture they once tried to suppress and of how teachers are frantically trying to teach what children were once punished for. They were good people; at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. But there is a dark side of life in Acadiana. Laissez les bons temps rouler exacts a price. Cajun food is very likely the eighth wonder of the world; the Cajun life style is the envy of many in the United States, and rightly so. But Louisiana has the lowest life expectancy and one of the highest illiteracy rates in the United States. There is precious little to show for the "embarrassment of riches" during the oil boom of the 1970s. Cajuns pay little or no property taxes and have deplorable roads and schools to prove it. Many Cajuns laugh at and are entertained by politicos who think corruption is funny; the price exacted, however, is corruption itself.

Cajuns are very tolerant people who pretty much don’t care what other people think. The tendency is to "just let it pass." Cajuns do battle over things that are really important; it’s just that there isn’t a whole lot that is important. Like almost everything else Cajun, that is a strength as much as a weakness. In the end, Cajuns have the greatest strength of all—they are just good people.

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