Los Isleños: St Bernard Parish’s Flourishing Spanish Culture

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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA–Louisiana culture is at times, more alike to other places in the world, than it is to the United States. Our cocktail of of culture is part of what makes Louisiana’s overall story so compelling.

Bernardo de Gálvez, was serving as governor of Louisiana. As Spain and France, waged war against Great Britain, as allies to the American Revolution, ships of Islenos and Cajuns were brought over to help populate the Americas.

Earlier, in the 1400’s the volcanic Canary Islands were the first settlement on would become the Spanish empire. By 1778, Canary Islanders or Islenos settled across the Atlantic. One of the colonies established was in what is now, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. St. Bernard Catholic Cemetery holds the graves of the original founders of Louisiana’s Spanish society.

William Hyland is the St. Bernard Parish Historian and also the site manager of the Los Islenos Museum Complex and says, “We are standing today where the parish of St. Bernard began. More than three thousand Canary Islanders were recruited to come to Louisiana.  My mother was a descendant of the Nunez family.  The Nunez’s came here from Tenerife.”

Over the years, more of the hispanic population joined Los Islenos and sometime in the mid 18th century, Saint Malo was settled as America’s first Filipino community. From the introduction of mirliton squash, to advanced record keeping and government; wherever Spain conquered and settled, they left their mark.

William knows a great deal about the culture of Louisiana and one of the most surprising early contributions of Los Islenos, he says is “in the 19th century and the late 18th century, the wine which was most consumed in Louisiana and the United States, was from the Canary Islands and you can see in the period newspapers, accounts of new shipments of Tenerife wine that had arrived.”

Today, the legacy of the Canary Islands lives on. A few dozen descendants speak Spanish as their original language. The Los Islenos museum holds a festival every March celebrating the culture, but all throughout the year, they present Spanish culture and by extension, Louisiana’s culture.

William Hyland describes the museum saying, “We tour people.  We have nine buildings, 22 acres and a nature trail.  On Tuesdays, we have a quilting class, as many of the descendants are involved in quilting.” 

St. Bernard Parish shares a rich connection with other places, like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, where early Canary Islenders make a home.

“Because the Canary Islands are 80 miles off the coast of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean and 200 hundred miles from the Sahara desert.  Those islands became the gateway to the new world.  Wherever there were Spanish colonies, there were settlements of Canary island people.  When you look at this presence of Canary Islanders and their descendants, we are part of a much larger global phenomenon called Canariedad,” says historian William Hyland.

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