This is a guest post comprised of notes, observations, and an interview by Sami Haggood (Project Assistant Director) with Phanat Xanamane (Project Director) on their project, the Louisiana Lao New Year Archive, as part of the Of the People blog series featuring the 2022 awardees of the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants program. The project focuses on cultural documentation of a Lao-Buddhist immigrant community’s New Year’s celebration on Easter weekend in April 2022. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities for more Americans to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story.
Introduction by Sami Haggood
Imagine you’re going about your last day of the year getting ready for New Year’s Eve and all the partying you will do to celebrate the new year. Your outfits are ready, you know exactly which places you’re going to get food from, and you have family and friends over to either make food or bring drinks. Now imagine someone shows up to your house with a film camera and a laptop and tells you: “Hello! We’re representing the Library of Congress and have come here to document your culture’s way of life. It’s because your personal history is in danger. Did you know that? Because it is. And this is our way of rescuing what makes your journey special!” What would you say to that? Do you believe there’s anything that special about how you were raised, or who you are for this level of effort to be put into this? Do you let them in? Do you tell them your story? Will I do a disservice if I answer questions the wrong way or I’m not blank enough to preserve anything important?
This hypothetical situation, while a little melodramatic, are the stakes for a small yet notably distinct Laotian population nestled in the heart of America’s Cajun country. But of all the states, why Louisiana? And why was this so important? These were some of the questions and concerns that prompted Phanat Xanamane, a 1st-generation member of the Louisiana Lao community and community activist in that area, to apply for the AFC’s Community Collections Grant.
Where and how do you start documenting a culture? The answer: with a focus. Our focus was tracing generational narratives revolving around the significant cultural phenomenon that is the Louisiana Lao New Year Festival. We further focused on the festival through the lens of six primary themes: Immigration Settlement, Religion, Food, Music & Dance, Fashion Costumes, and Kinship Ties.
Here, I (Haggood) interview Xanamane about some of our ongoing research surrounding the festival and its community.
Haggood: What are the stakes here? Is the Louisiana Lao New Year Archive in danger? Is the culture endangered? Why did you need the help of the Library of Congress? What facets of the culture are most at risk?
Xanamane: My unique position coming to the U.S. as a very young 1st-generation immigrant allowed me to be close to some of the Lao culture and traditions while also being educated to navigate the American mainstream culture. I consider myself a 1.5-generation immigrant because having been born in a refugee camp in Thailand, I don’t have any memory our homeland, Laos. And because all of my upbringing was in the U.S., I adopted American culture more. I now see 2nd and 3rd-generations moving even further, progressively assimilating to the mainstream with very little to no connection to Lao traditions and social ties. One major loss is the use of the Lao language, as it’s becoming less common between generations, which creates a difficult barrier for new generations to understand the traditions of the first. When language breaks down, so too does meaning and the understanding of important religious chanting rituals, music, and general social exchanges and references between people of Lao ethnicities.
Our project, Louisiana Lao New Year Archive, begins to remedy this disjuncture between generations and repair riffs between traditional and mainstream culture so that younger generations may have a better point of access to understand their own heritage. Through the lens of the festival we explore cultural facets such as religion, immigrant history, food, music, fashion, and kinship ties and family values. The documentation work emerged as a collection of interviews and historic footage and photos that brings together multi-generational perspectives within Louisiana’s Lao community. The project is timely, at this urgent stage in the community’s development and growth. I hope it will ensure the cultural preservation necessary for future generations to know and celebrate the achievement of their ancestors.
Tell me about “Sabaidee Pi Mai”…
It means good tidings for the new year. It’s said pretty much how it is spelled like so many other Lao words that must be written in phonetic English form. “Sabaidee” is the customary greeting for all Lao people meaning “good tidings” upon encountering one another. Directly translated it means “relax good.” The simple wish or blessing to another is an essential practice in my Lao Buddhist community. It’s a fundamental start to generating a flow of positive thought, speech, and action between community members. In that exchange social bonds and good intentions are created. We celebrate and renew our bonds every year during the Louisiana Lao New Year Festival.
Where is this celebration located?
The festival is located within a small Lao residential enclave in rural Iberia Parish of about 60 modest homes. It was created in 1985 by the area’s first-generation Lao immigrants and is centered around a Buddhist temple, Wat Thammarattanaram, that serves as the festival ground and a religious and social center. There are a few other Lao neighborhoods in the region. Groups within each enclave band together to perform traditional Lao folk dances in traditional costumes for a parade at the temple. Many are surprised that a nondescript area surrounded by pastoral fields of sugarcane and oilfield industry related businesses would host such a unique cultural gem.
Now how did a celebration like that end up in the heart of Cajun country?
In the early 1980s, the first Lao immigrants settled in this part of Louisiana following the U.S. conflict in Vietnam. Most refugees were sponsored by the Louisiana Catholic Diocese, which supported and aided refugees with job and home placement. The Lao immigrants banded together to purchase land for a neighborhood development and temple Wat Thammarattanaram in 1985. The festival began soon after as a small event and has grown into a weekend long Lao-American cultural celebration that attracts visitors from across the country and beyond.
Give us a tour of Lao New Year fairgrounds starting from the gate. What’s on our left and right? Where are the booths? Where is the food?
The festival offers attendees an experience delighting all the senses. Visitors coming to the festival for the first time are greeted with remarkable sights, sounds, tastes, and smells one would usually only see in Southeast Asia. Immediately as you pass through the gates you’ll notice several halls and pavilions within the complex decorated with golden spires, colorful tiles in intricate patterns and bas reliefs of floral motifs based on Khmer civilization classical art and architecture. Many images of the Buddha and Lao mythological beings such as the serpent called, “Naga,” are represented in murals and in sculptures around the complex.
Lao people flocking to attend temple ceremonies or performing in the parade only add to this visual tapestry wearing brightly colored traditional silk textiles and Lao folk costumes carrying silver or golden alms vessels adorned with flowers, incense, and offerings. Many attendees are Lao, but the festival draws in a diverse crowd that add to colorful celebration. Beyond the displays of colors and textures, your senses are gifted with a delightful mix of aromas of sweet and savory Lao treats from dozens of Lao food vendors. Your taste buds are tempted with Lao style soup and pho vendors, lemongrass chicken pits, freshly squeezed grassy sugarcane drinks, the pungent smell of fermented fish sauce and fragrant sticky rice. From the olfactory to the auditory, also floating through the air are the sounds of Lao music featuring distinct Lao instruments like a bamboo flute/organ called the “khaen.” The chanting of Buddhist sutras in the ancient “Pali” language led by monks emanates from inside the sermon hall. It’s a cacophony of sounds, sights, and smells that would make an impression on any visitor.
And when is Lao New Year, and how long does it last?
In Laos, the festival is celebrated in accordance with the rainy season and lunar calendar. However, here in Louisiana, it was adapted to occur every year during the Easter weekend to coincide with the American work holiday in the region. It begins on the evening of Good Friday with the “Nang Songkran,” or Queens Pageant. Saturday is the big day with religious ceremonies in the morning, parade midday, and a concert and dance social in the evening. Sunday concludes with washing of Buddha statues and the Buddhist monks in residence at the Wat.
What makes this festival so special?
This festival has carved out a unique space for Lao ethnic identity to be celebrated in a region of the deep south dominated by Cajun and Creole culture. This Lao immigrant community is relatively small compared to others around the U.S., but has been said by many to have a very authentic “Lao” feel and truly honors and celebrates valuable traditions of Lao culture.
Describe how to get there, where to walk in, and what to do first…
To see the most activity, many visitors go on Saturday late morning and stay until mid-afternoon. The parade and many performances happen at that time. To get to Wat Thammarattanaram, take U.S. Hwy 90 to the LA-88 West exit. From there you take a right on Melancon Road, travel a mile and turn left on Vientiane Street where you’ll immediately see the temple grounds at the end of the street. You’ll probably have to find a parking spot outside the grounds or in the surrounding neighborhood. After you park, walk to the temple gates and get a smartphone ready to take Instagram-able photos for your social media. Your money shot is going to be in front of the highly ornate Ordination Hall, or “sim,” in Lao. Go inside the large sermon hall and you may catch a chanting ceremony. Feel free to sit quietly in the back and watch monks lead the congregation through a chanting of the Dharma or teachings of the Buddha.
After you’ve seen some of the religious aspects of the culture it’s time to dive into the Bacchanalian style revelry of the festival. Peruse the Lao food and traditional craft and clothing vendors. Purchase some traditional Lao textiles and basket weaving to add to your home. Eat some spicy and pungent Lao dishes like Lao Spicy Papaya salad with sticky rice and grilled chicken on a stick. Move over to the entry gate for the parade that starts around noon. Different “krewes” representing various Lao residential neighborhoods in the area parade down the Lao-named streets performing traditional Lao folk dances before terminating back at the temple grounds. Following the parade, the revelry and celebration ensues on the grounds and at homes across the neighborhood, as banquets of Lao food mixed with Louisiana food like boiled crawfish are offered to all passersby. If you haven’t gotten your shot of Hennessy yet, this may be your time to do it. Imbibing a shot glass or two, or more (if you’re feeling extra festive) of this cognac is a popular part of this celebration ushering in the New Year.
To date, we have assembled nearly all of our documentation in form of a few dozen video and audio interviews and curated 100+ historic photographs of previous celebrations. I share the sentiment of my community that I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful this work is being done. After conducting interviews and reflecting on the research, I feel an even deeper sense of pride in being part of this community. I have a better appreciation for the struggles faced and what they overcame to build this festival that is now a beacon of Lao ethnic culture in the Louisiana landscape. And now this project can serve as a resource for future translations seeking to continue the culture and help it evolve. –Xanamane