One, two, Cha Cha Cha…
by Vivian Williamson-Bryan
Dance lessons this week? Not quite. But it will be a story about Cha Chas or, as they’re more commonly known in this generation, Frenchies (I told you this was coming).
The Virgin Islands has a number of ethnic groups making up its population. Probably the tiniest in number (no more than 3000 of the 100,000+ on all 3 islands and 99.9% of them live on St Thomas), they form a distinct ethnic unit apart from other islanders (probably the closest comparison group to them would be the Cajuns of Louisiana). This fact is even noted in the Encyclopedia Brittanica in its coverage of the Virgin Islands (they also referred to them as a clannish, aloof and industrious community). They are descended from French Huguenots who left Brittany and Normandy in the 17th and 18th centuries to settle on the island of St Barts. Not a great choice since the island was rather barren and offered practically zero economic opportunity. After a while word filtered to that remote little island about another island, only 130 miles away, that was a comparative paradise, land and wealth just waiting for the savvy settler. So to St Thomas they came. The migration started in the 1850’s and continued in earnest for decades. (There is a trickle even today since it is still a source of brides for some of the less eligible Frenchie bachelors and you can’t beat those St Barts girls when it comes to killing and skinning a goat – always a useful talent) You will now find as many Frenchies here as you will in St Barts.
These emigrants settled in 2 very diverse communities on St Thomas. Home for about a third of the Frenchies is a tiny fishing village just a stone’s throw from St Thomas’s bustling Main Street. Today known as Frenchtown, with a concentration of great restaurants residing cheek by jowl with the fishing boats and still home to many French families that have inhabited its narrow, twisting streets for generations. Formerly known as Cha Cha Town, when it was populated strictly by those fishing families with their odd patois – a mixture of French, Creole and English – and even odder style of dress – women in long black dresses, men in trousers rolled halfway up their legs, both wearing traditional straw hats and not wearing shoes (these last 2 style choices are still evident among the fishermen – nothing compares to those wide-brimmed straw hats for sun protection and shoes are still an unnecessary nuisance!). Not exactly being keen on assimilation, many traces of this culture remain today. Houses for the most part are tiny, often only 2 rooms. During the day the inhabitants can sometimes be seen, sitting in the doorways, practicing the handed-down skill of straw work (this is becoming a rare sight since it is only the older generation doing it – the young ones want white collar jobs and, in the manner of young people everywhere and of all generations, disdain what they consider to be hokey traditions). If you pass by at night, perhaps on your way to dinner, you’ll see hammocks strung about in the tiny rooms – this is still the preferred sleeping accommodation for many of Frenchtown’s residents – tradition dies hard here – and besides, gently rocking in a hammock is a great way to be lulled to sleep – try it!
The other settlement of Frenchies does not have such neat boundaries – they’ve scattered themselves over the steep slopes of the island’s north side. You find them in Dorothea, Mandahl, St Peter – along with transplanted Continentals and other islanders. The real Northside concentration is in Hull Bay. This is true Frenchie territory – on every mailbox you see the name seems to be Berry or Bryan or LaPlace or Ledee (there’s been lots of intermarriage over the years – everyone is related). Again this is a fishing community but this time with the addition of farming. The new immigrants acquired as much land as they could (coming from an even smaller island they realized its value even way back then – a fortunate move for their descendants!) even though doing so made them “land rich, cash poor.” Raising crops on these rocky, often drought-wracked mountainsides is a Herculean task but these Frenchie farmers are a tenacious lot (and I guess compared to St Barts it seemed Eden-like) and are still at it generations later. Nowadays the crops tend to be small items like seasonings (parsley, scallion, thyme), pumpkin, hot peppers (these are a must considering our predilection for hot food!), limes and, in season, mangoes and avocados. These small crops are necessary since there are no longer the large tracts of land available for large scale farming – parcels have been divided and divided again so children and grandchildren have land to build homes. However, before the days of supermarkets with all their imported delicacies, when the island relied on homegrown fruits and vegetables, almost all of that produce was grown on the Northside and transported by mule to the downtown market place.
Although these 2 communities are only 3 miles apart (straight up one side of the mountain and straight down the other), their inhabitants are like night and day, recognizable immediately as either a “Frenchtown Frenchie” or a “Hull Bay Frenchie.” Besides slight differences in accent (an islander might pick up on this but tourists – who sometimes ask, “what language are they speaking” – referring to all islanders in general – would not), there are very obvious physical differences. As a rule, the families from Frenchtown (the names you’ll see there are Blanchard, Greaux, Danet) are fairly short in stature and dark haired – quite Gallic in appearance. The Northsiders, on the other hand, are quite tall (well over 6 ft) with blonde hair and blue eyes. This physical dissimilarity is easily explained by the history of St Barts which, although now a French department, was ruled by Sweden for 100 years (there was some sort of deal between the 2 countries wherein France traded St Barts for warehouses (!) but sense finally prevailed and the island reverted to its previous rulers). There are still many traces of Sweden on the island (it was an amicable deal) with one of the most obvious being the name of its capital – Gustavia – named after the Swedish king of that time.
One would think that these differences are minor and that they would consider themselves as one group. Not so. Although in the past the idea of “never the twain shall meet” was adhered to more strictly, even now there is not much intermarriage between the two groups (the Northside Frenchies have now begun – albeit reluctantly since they have been apprehensive about their land ending up in the hands of outsiders – accepting some Continentals as daughters and sons-in-law; the Frenchtown group has started to marry among the other island cultures). Each group has their own fishing tournament (Father’s Day for Frenchtown, Bastille Day for the Northside) with somecrossover participation. When selling their daily catch the Frenchtown fishermen have a market in Frenchtown, the Northside fishermen sell in various places around the island from the backs of their pickup trucks. Each group has its own set of bars that it normally frequents (in days past – and not all that long ago – it was asking for a whole lot of trouble for a group of Northsiders to go bar hopping in Frenchtown). Even in religion their insularity is evident – there is a Catholic chapel in each community (and neither group wanted to be considered as parishioners of the Cathedral that was already established!). One place that the 2 groups do indeed meet is on the playing field – softball is a popular sport with many good players from among the Frenchies and the other islanders.
So where does the term Cha Cha come from? One suggestion is that it was the annoyed response when the original settlers were teased about their unique customs by other islanders – in their patois it seems that cha cha might be interpreted as a suggestion as to where that other person might go. Another story traces it to the French verb, chercher (to look), because when asked to explain why they went out in their boats at night they would reply chercher la balahoo (balahoo is fish that is used for bait). Whichever… The p.c. term now is French, not Frenchie (although that probably won’t earn you too many daggers) and, if you value your life, certainly not Cha Cha!
But no matter what the name they are a fascinating example of an almost ethnically pure mini-society, providing a window into a way of life as it was lived before our time. At least for a little longer…