Louisiana is proud of our multilingual heritage. Except when we aren’t. Despite touting French-speaking Cajun country, Isleno Spanish-speaking descendents in St. Bernard Parish, German beer and bratwurst at OctoberFest celebrations in Robert’s Cove and New Orleans, Native American crafts demonstrations and the rebuilding efforts of the Vietnamese community of New Orleans East, some state residents still display a decidedly xenophobic side.

The latest ugly example comes from the Terrebonne Parish School Board. About a month ago, Ellender High School valedictorian Cindy Vo, born in America to Vietnamese immigrants, gave her speech in English, with one exception. She addressed her parents, who are not fluent English speakers with this phrase: “Co len minh khong bang ai, co suon khong ai bang minh.” The command was one her parents often recited to her; she translated it as their invective to always be her own person. Vo, graduating at the top of her class, clearly took heed.

Terrebonne Parish school board member Rickie Pitre (note his French last name) took offense. “I don’t like them addressing in a foreign language,” Pitre told the Houma Courier. “They should be in English.” Some members of the school board say they want a formal rule requiring commencement addresses to be only in English.

Perhaps Pitre’s parents or grandparents were spared the humiliation of being spanked with a ruler, or required to kneel on grains of rice for speaking French in school. Perhaps he isn’t aware that the parish seat, Houma, is the name of a Native American tribe and a language, or that Terrebonne, where he lives, can be translated as “good land.”

Cindy Vo’s cousin, Hue Vo, was co-valedictorian and also delivered part of her speech in Vietnamese. “Ellender is very diverse. We have many cultures there. They encourage us to be an individual,” Hue Vo, told the Houma Courier. “That’s why I love Ellender. It helped me be an Asian American and not be ashamed of it because no one judged me.”

Fortunately there are some school board members who appreciate diversity and education. “I wish to God I spoke two languages,” says Don Duplantis. “They are very fortunate.”

After being humiliated for nearly 50 years for not speaking English, Cajuns are struggling to save their French, the root of this unique culture, from extinction. One would think that Mr. Pitre, who lives deep in Cajun country, would know the our history of discrimination and celebrate multiculturalism. We were once perceived as backward for speaking French. Now, thanks to Mr. Pitre, we are back in the national spotlight for trying to suppress another culture. Ignorance and fear, it seems, are the lingua franca of the small minded, and unfortunately, more more easily learned than tolerance.

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