Personality - One Of The Folks
03/17/2017 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: Conni Castille’s Cultural Commonalities [4 Images] Click any image to expand.
Conni Castille’s Cultural Commonalities
Byline: Shanna Perkins
“Enrich it. Explore it. Embrace it,” filmmaker and Executive Director of the TECHE Project Conni Castille recites the TECHE Project’s mantra. But, this may as well be her battle cry for the work she does for Cajun culture. Castille is the harbinger for the aspects of her heritage that are the most steeped in bayou mud. The “folks,” as she calls them, it’s their stories she tells and it’s their resources she is intent on protecting.
Bye Bye Bayou
Today, Castille celebrates her culture in a very public way. But, there was a time when she wanted to run from it, to hide from it. Castille, who seems like the cool aunt you never had, grew up in rural Breaux Bridge in the 1970s, and after a teen pregnancy, she began to feel as if she was falling into the stigma she badly wanted to escape. So, she packed her bags and moved to Florida.
“While I was living in Florida, I was asked on three separate occasions what country I was from,” Castille says, curled in an armchair in her office in a cozy little corner of UL’s Griffin Hall. “They thought I was speaking English as my second language. I started trying to hide my accent. But eventually, as it goes, you never appreciate where you came from until you leave, and you never feel more Cajun than when you’re away from south Louisiana.”
So years later, Castille headed back to the bayou with her children in tow. She returned home with the mission of receiving an education. She wanted to find out who she was. And she wanted to find out how the community she had grown up in contributed to this. Castille’s formal education was eclectic, but each step served as a rung on the ladder to where she would land. After a philosophy degree, and a brief and loathed stint in law school, she was running UL’s center for child studies in the comparative behavioral biology unit. All the while she was chipping away at a Masters in folklore.
“Folklore is where I was truly introduced to the idea of embracing people’s stories,” Castille explains. “I wrote a paper in one of my classes about women in folklore, and that’s really where my filmmaking career started. I interviewed women in Breaux Bridge about ironing.”
I Always Do My Collars First
Ironing…an often dreaded and frequently overlooked task by most, but not by the women Castille interviewed. Several of the women she spoke to were from within her family, including her mother. As her mother lamented about ironing, it slowly revealed itself that ironing was a topic of conversation among the women in her community. Castille recalls her mother rattling off the iron brands and starching habits of her neighbors.
“These women had discussed ironing at length,” Castille says. “And that’s what folklore is. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the story you’re telling is a community conversation, and that the values you’re expressing are shared by the community. I really began to learn that, for them, ironing was about pride, and it was nurturing act. They didn’t have a lot of clothes, but if those clothes were clean and ironed they could keep up with the Joneses.”
Through this process, Castille began to find answers to so many of the questions she returned to Louisiana to find. She began imagining the interviews in a film format, however she didn’t know anything about the “behind the camera” aspects of filmmaking. That’s where Allison Bohl came in. Together, they created the short documentary film based on Castille’s interviews: “I Always Do My Collars First.”
After creating her first film, Castille took what is best described as plaguing curiosity and channeled it into creating award-winning documentaries. What followed were three films about seemingly commonplace subjects matters – “Raised on Rice and Gravy,” King Crawfish” and “T-Galop: A Louisiana Horse Story.” She is also seated aptly and comfortably as an instructor and the Assistant Director of the Moving Image Arts concentration at UL.
“We’re telling stories, but we’re also revealing the layers of meaning and the universal connections that exist there,” says Castille, exposing her philosophy background. “You don’t have to have ever ironed to appreciate ‘I Always Do My Collars First.’ It’s about humanity, culture, tradition and people. We’re just using horses or irons or food or crawfish to get to the universal truths about life.”
Castille refers to herself as an “amateur environmentalist, and believes that preservation of local resources, namely the Bayou Teche, is a perfect marriage of all of her values. The TECHE Project, of which Castille is the Executive Director, is an organization made up of individuals who have a shared goal of making the Bayou Teche a healthier waterway for wildlife and recreation. The members advocate for improved watershed through the reduction of pollution. Castille zealously protects the bayou because she believes it is not only a natural asset, but a cultural one as well.
“The culture and history of the bayou is amazing,” she says with moons in her eyes. “It’s where the Acadians arrived and settled, and also the Native Americas – the Chitimacha Tribe, creoles, African Americans. All of these cultures needed to be on the water because that’s how they fished, hunted and traveled. You can see the development of that into various cultural expressions that we still value today, like boat building.”
The TECHE Project’s mission is multifaceted. The Department of Environmental Quality currently classifies the bayou as an impaired waterway. The TECHE Project aims to correct this through outreach, educating people about the watershed ecology. They partner with Project Front Yard and the Teche Vermilion Fresh Water District to tackle this problem by land and by water. They host various programs and workshops to get Acadiana’s youth involved in the bayou. They’re creating wood duck nesting areas that will also serve as mile markers for paddlers. They received designation as a national water trail and are always working to maintain this. In short, The TECHE Project is doing everything possible to make the bayou the cultural asset it’s meant to be.
It’s easy to find the allegory between Castille’s folklore craft and her work with the Teche. As she says, “in order to look inward and find out more about yourself, you also have to look outward and find out how your culture and surroundings influenced you.” By more deeply exploring and steadfastly trying to preserve what may seem commonplace, Castille hits at the nerve of what makes people and places tick. Like the starched collars on your father’s shirt, the plate lunches you stand in line for and the brown water of the bayou that’s slow churn is the heartbeat of the community.
“When you paddle the Bayou Teche, you see that the older homes were built so that the front yard was the bayou. They truly celebrated the bayou. And that’s what folklore is all about, looking beyond actual behavior to find out the significance of what’s being celebrated. And I believe it’s just as worthy as what is in the history books. Folk knowledge is passed down from one person to another. These are the things that are learned by doing, watching and experiencing.”