The year was 2015. Funding for the arts had been undergoing major structural changes ever since the 2009 recession. What funds weren’t drying up altogether were adding stipulations to their usage that were making it more and more difficult for the Southeast Texas Arts Council to pursue our mission as a funding source for local non-profits. We were also facing the unfortunate truth that as a behind-the-scenes facilitator for our organizations we were … well, behind the scenes. Just can’t tell you how many times we get confused for the Art Museum or Art Studio. It was time for a change. We were committed to continuing our mission through sub-granting and publicizing, but we needed to face forward on a project.
Quite a few ideas were considered and a few were pursued. Without a doubt our most successful ventures have been the Downtown Beaumont Cultural Arts District (covered in previous issues of Off Ramp) and the Cajun Heritage Fest.
Originally titled the Carnival des Cajuns, we eventually changed the name. You sort of felt pressured to pronounce it with a proper Cajun accent, which – no offense to my Cajun relatives – is just about impossible. Everyone ended up saying it a different way and it was just a mess. The updated title Cajun Heritage Fest is much less demanding and does a better job of communicating what the festival aims to be about.
The festival has had its ups and downs. In its inaugural year rain threatened to float us all away. It was held at the pavilion in downtown Port Arthur and by evening the streets were ankle deep with water. We were beginning to wonder if we were going to have to trade the two-step for the backstroke. Then there was the crawfish shortage of ’16, a couple of hospitality hostilities, and general chicken-with-your-head-offedness that increases proportionally with the number of beers consumed. Still, all in all every year has been a bigger success than the last, with more people, more organization, more fun and less stress. We’re pretty happy with it.
In its current state, the Cajun Heritage Fest is a full day of dancing, music and food. We’ve had some big-name acts in the Cajun music circuit on the stage including Grammy Award winners Jo-El Sonnier and Wayne Toups. Toups, a staple of Cajun and country music since the 1970s, will be returning in 2021. A dance floor in front of the stage is open to all takers, and it has been getting a little bigger every year. We’re having to push the tables back a few feet with each new festival. Soon we might outgrow the Carl Parker Multipurpose Center, hitherto the Cajun Fest stomping grounds.
The Cajun Heritage Fest is a vision not yet completed. Over the years we have practiced and refined the fundamental aspects of the festival’s success: the music, dancing, food and drinks. We’ve experimented with partnerships with fishing tournaments and music competitions and we’ve planned expansion of the activities into the community. It was a great disappointment to have to cancel in 2020 due to the pandemic, but in 2021 we’ll be moving forward with the latest addition to our little jamboree, the Cajun Caravan. Beyond that, perhaps we’ll be able to include more of our original dreams; movies that pay tribute to the Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana region such as Shultze Gets the Blues, historical character actors like Jean Lafitte (we do have Pincher, and that’s a good start), expanded competitions, more children’s events and a longer festival.
Each year the festival grows a bit as more and more people discover it. As the Cajun Heritage Fest waltzes into the future, we hope you’ll join us on the dance floor. If nothing else, we’ll all have a good time!