The Historical Context of “Creole”

The term “Creole” has a very wide range of possible meanings, and it can refer to a variety of cultural backgrounds. Depending on the context, Creole can have specific linguistic meanings, such as when we refer to the Haitian Creole language, or Louisiana Creole. In fact, throughout the Western hemisphere, the term “Creole” has different connotations in different languages. For example, the term “criollo” in Spanish was originally used to distinguish people born in the New World from the “peninsulares,” or people born back in Europe, specifically in the Iberian peninsula. However, throughout the Americas, depending on the region, “criollo,” “créole,” or “creole” can alternately emphasize indigenous, African, or European heritage, depending on the specific region in question.

Besides changing according to geography, the word “Creole” has changed its meaning over time. Here in Louisiana, the term serves to emphasize social distinctions that are inseparable from historical context. For instance, during the last third of the 18th century, “Creole” was often applied to the French-speaking colonial aristocracy of Louisiana as compared to Spanish-speaking soldiers and government officials representing the new Spanish regime. After the Louisiana Purchase, the meaning of “Creole” widened considerably to include people of various backgrounds but still referred primarily to the French-speaking population of Louisiana, as distinct from the new influx of English-speaking “Americans.”

In any case, throughout the colonial period and much of the 19th century, the term “Creole” was most often associated with French language and culture, and it is used in this historical sense in relation to the Villeré family.