This entry is the first in a series that Jessica will be writing for the blog about her personal and professional journey developing and researching her dissertation topic as a doctoral candidate in Borderlands history. She welcomes all constructive feedback in the comments section and hopes to spark a broader conversation about identity and regional borders over the coming months. -ed
About midway through my dissertation proposal defense, Dr. Jeff Shepherd, my dissertation chair at the University of Texas at El Paso, asked: “how does your project fit into Borderlands history.” I was not surprised by the question, but I remained stumped for some reason and gave a canned response. His question lingered after I became ABD. How does your project fit into Borderlands history, or a problem like it, is a question on every graduate student’s mind who studies in this field.
As to why I am struggling with this question may have to do with my topic, Cajun history, in particular, Cajun identity. Cajun history begins with the early French Acadian settlements on the tidal flats of present-day Nova Scotia. Imperial competition grew and in 1755, the British expelled the French Acadia settlers and scattered them throughout British North America, Caribbean, South American coast, the Falkland Islands, or France. After that, many Acadian exiles residing in France traveled to Louisiana and were welcomed under the Spanish crown hoping to increase the territory’s population.
Many of them settled in the southern half of the state, along the Gulf, and close to African slaves, Canary Islanders, Germans, Anglo-Americans, and Native Peoples. Establishing themselves as farmers and sometimes slaveholders, they lived in a multicultural and multi-linguistic world that was profoundly influenced by British, French, Spanish, and Native rivalries.
Although Acadians quickly rooted themselves in a borderland between North America, the Caribbean Basin, and the Atlantic world, their communities experienced significant changes with the transfer of their land from the Spanish to the French and then ultimately into American hands under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase of 1802, which marked the rise of the American nation-state. With the Purchase, Acadians entered into a new era of their history, characterized by Louisiana statehood, the shadow of chattel slavery, wars against Indian nations, and American expansion. These trends marked much of the nineteenth century and deeply influenced their historical identity that hastened a new identity, Cajun.
You may ask why did I choose to study a place and a group of people, who are not located on a border? Sometime in the late 1980s, I discussed with my grandmother her opinion of the ongoing Cajun cultural renaissance. While sitting in a rocker, her response was a role of eyes, a dismissive hand, and said, “I am Acadian.”
As far as I can remember, my family recounted histories of discrimination stemming from the 1755 Grand Dérangement, a ruler hand slap for speaking French in school, and tales of Cajun “royal ancestors.” These stories are incompatible. Perhaps the inconstancies have to do with the changing generation; the accounts of discrimination were my grandmother’s and the royalty story is my mother’s. Competing views of Cajun identity exist, even though Acadians became Cajun after the Civil War, some argue. But, why then since the 1955 Acadian Bicentennial Celebration have Cajun communities and boosters conducted a total recovery of language, food, literature, and music throughout Louisiana at the state, regional, and local level, when some members of the community such as my grandmother identify as Acadian, not Cajun?
Thus, the mission of my doctorate was to understand Cajun identity politics, in light of the recent move to boosterism. I felt that putting into perspective the reawakening of Cajun culture allows us to reexamine Cajun identity as multi-faceted and historically contingent. My project will pave the way for a lost Cajun past or Cajuns of mix racial and ethnic ancestry left to the margins of mainstream history; thus, Cajun history is subject to reinterpretation.
I am crying out for discussion. The southeastern or far northeastern (for Latin Americanists) borderlands are important historical places, but I am stuck. In an attempt to make my project relevant, I am asking for a discussion of Borderlands method. Is our present definition of Borderlands still relevant? Are we hyper-focused on the local or the line? Or is our current model too broad?