Creole, always a controversial and confusing term, the word Creole, to put it simply, means many things to many people. It derives from the Latin creare, meaning, “to beget” or “create.” After the New World’s discovery, Portuguese colonist used the world crioulo to denote a New World slave of African descent. Eventually, the word was applied to all New World colonists, regardless of ethnic origin, living along the Gulf Coast, especially in Louisiana. There the Spanish introduced the word as criollo, and during Louisiana’s colonial period (1699-1803) the evolving word Creole generally referred to persons of African or European heritage born in the New World. By the nineteenth century, black, white, and mixed-race Louisianians used the term to distinguish themselves from foreign-born and Anglo-American settlers.
It was during that century that the mixed-race Creoles of Color (or gens de couleur libre, “free persons of color”) came into their own as an ethnic group, enjoying many of the legal rights and privileges of whites. They occupied a middle ground between whites and enslaved blacks, and as such often possessed property and received formal educations. After the Civil War, most Creoles of Color lost their privileged status and joined the ranks of impoverished former black slaves. All the while, however, the word Creole persisted as a term also referring to white Louisianians, usually of upper class, non-Cajun origin (although, confusingly, even Cajuns sometimes were called Creoles, primarily by outsiders unfamiliar with local ethnic labels).
Like the Creoles of Color, these white Creoles (also called French Creoles) suffered socioeconomic decline after the Civil War. In Acadiana, newly impoverished white Creoles often intermarried with the predominantly lower- class Cajuns, and were largely assimilated into Cajun culture. And today Creole is most often used in Acadiana to refer to persons of full or mixed African heritage. Ultimately, however, the word Creole remains murky, with some individuals (black, white and mixed-race) futilely claiming the right of exclusive use. As the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture states, perhaps the “safest” course is to say that a Creole is “anyone who says he is one.”