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Review: Islenos: A Root of America

A documentary chronicles the Isleno community in St. Bernard Parish

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There's a good reason why New Orleans spends so much time celebrating and preserving its many regional cultures. Historically, some of those cultures have nearly been lost — in some cases coming closer than many would believe possible.

  A telling example lies at the heart of writer-director Eduardo Cubillo's documentary

Islenos: A Root of America, which had its U.S. premiere at the recent New Orleans Film Festival and will receive a weeklong run at Chalmette Movies. The film traces the southeast Louisiana history of the Islenos, a people indigenous to the Canary Islands, an autonomous community of Spain located off the coast of Africa. Some 2,000 Islenos traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in 1778 at the behest of Louisiana Gov. Bernardo de Galvez (whose father was governor of the Canaries), in part to help protect New Orleans from attack by British forces. They later played a key role in the Battle of New Orleans.

  The Islenos established five settlements in the region (and founded St. Bernard Parish), one of which fully maintained its Spanish language heritage and unique Canary Islands culture until the late 20th century. But, as eloquent St. Bernard Parish historian Bill Hyland eloquently explains in the film, evidence suggests that the Islenos lost their identification with the Canary Islands sometime in the 19th century. Many in the community assumed that "Islenos," which translates to "islanders," referred to the Louisiana island of Delacroix, where the Spanish-language settlement moved after the Civil War.

  It took the sleuthing of another historian, an Isleno named Frank Fernandez, to re-establish the historical connection to the Canary Islands in the 1970s. Otherwise, a full understanding of Islenos culture might have remained out of reach forever.

  That revelation — and the joyous reaction to it among Islenos interviewed for the film — sets the tone early for Islenos: A Root of America. In addition to celebrating Isleno culture, Cubillo's engaging hourlong film is intended as an act of preservation. It makes a strong case for the Islenos as a uniquely influential regional force.

  The film examines the early history of Islenos settlers in Louisiana before moving on to the Battle of New Orleans (incorporating footage from recent re-enactments) and the Islenos' colorful history as fur trappers, fishermen and suppliers of Cuban rum and whiskey to New Orleans during Prohibition. The deep influence of Islenos on regional music is found in the stories of early jazz sensation Alcide Nunez and accordion player Joe Falcon, who made the first-ever recording of Cajun music in 1928.

  Outlandish, possibly apocryphal stories such as one in which an Isleno saved a grateful Al Capone from drowning in a Louisiana storm are hard to verify, but that doesn't diminish their entertainment value — or their capacity for illuminating the Islenos' worldview.

  Islenos: A Root of America features far higher production values than generally found in regionally themed documentaries. Cubillo runs a film production company based in the Canaries, and his documentary was co-produced by the islands' Television Canaria. All of which helps give Islenos: A Root of America the flavor of a letter sent by a distant traveler to the folks back home, some of whom may be wondering what their expatriates have been up to for the last 240 years. The answer, as it turns out, is quite a lot.

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