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Irvan J. Perez

Musician and woodcarver Irván Pérez spent much of his life advocating the preservation of the cultural traditions of Louisiana's Isleño community.

Irvan J. Perez

Courtesy of Nick Spitzer

Pintail Turnhead. Perez, Irvan (Artist)

Musician and woodcarver Irván Pérez spent much of his life advocating the preservation of the cultural traditions of Louisiana’s Isleño community. Isleños descend from the Canary Islanders who migrated to southern Louisiana in the late eighteenth century. Though best known for singing décimas, traditional narrative songs, Pérez also carved intricately detailed wildfowl from wood. In addition, he was one of the few remaining native speakers of the Isleño language, a unique mixture of traditional Spanish, maritime Spanish, and Cajun French. In 1991, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Pérez the National Heritage Fellowship.

Born December 29, 1923, Irván J. Pérez was raised in and around the Isleño community on Delacroix Island (or in common parlance, “down at the Island”) in St. Bernard Parish. As a boy, he spoke almost no English until he went to school. Early on, he participated in the characteristic activities of his community: muskrat trapping, shrimp trawling, oyster dredging, and alligator hunting. At the start of World War II, Pérez dropped out of high school to serve in the U.S. Army; he returned to southern Louisiana at the war’s end. For much of his life, he worked at the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Chalmette.

Like many folk artists, Pérez learned to sing and compose traditional décimas from his father, Serafin. His repertoire expanded when he began listening to décimas at local dance halls. The décima, a song written in ten-line stanzas, originated in Spain as early as the 1500s and was transported to Louisiana with the Canary Islanders who migrated to the area in the late 1700s. Often satirical, décimas can function as a form of social commentary or comedy. Pérez sang both traditional décimas, passed down from one generation to the next, and his own compositions. He performed in venues ranging from a décimas festival in the Canary Islands to Carnegie Hall, and was featured in the 1999 PBS series River of Song: A Musical Journey.

In addition to his phenomenal knowledge of décimas, Pérez was a talented artist, creating highly detailed wood carvings of local birds—another skill he learned from his father. Pérez’s realistic birds, usually carved from cypress, were both utilitarian decoys and works of art. He sold some of these carvings, while others have been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Pérez eventually came to be recognized as an encyclopedic expert on his beloved Isleño community and its highly distinctive culture. He valued the independence, courage, and persistence of the Isleños; their determination in the face of hurricanes, floods, catastrophes, economic depressions, and intrusive government regulations. In an effort to save this culture, Pérez became a spokesman for the marshlands and bayous of his community, as well as the birds, fish, and other wildlife and natural resources central to Isleño culture. His extensive knowledge of Isleño lyric poetry, legends, and folk cookery, including various ways to roast muskrat, attracted researchers from all over the world.

In 2005, Pérez lost his home and many of his wood-carving tools when Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana. He died on January 8, 2008, after a heart attack. With his death, only a few native speakers of the Isleño dialect remain; even fewer who sing décimas in this dialect. His music can be heard, however, on Spanish Décimas from St. Bernard Parish, a CD produced by Louisiana Folklife Recordings.