Virgil, Mila, and Michelle. Photo courtesy Michelle

Michelle Covington: The Great Migration and Creole Cooking

KCET Departures asks, "What's you or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

This week we hear from educator, writer and recent Master's degree recipient, Michelle Covington:

CHAPTER ONE

"I was born in San Diego and raised there until age seven when our family moved to Amherst, Massachusetts. Then in 1983 we moved back to San Diego and I lived there until I was accepted to UCLA. I've been in L.A. ever since.

"I have a special affinity for the City of Angeles. Despite the shallow depiction often painted in the media, I believe L.A. is rich with people, culture, heart and soul.

"I've lived in Westwood, West L.A., Leimert Park and Torrance and now L.A. I met my husband Virgil when I was living in Leimert Park and he grew up in Inglewood.

"Growing up, I had the unique opportunity of experiencing two very distinct worlds both rich in culture and experience. These two worlds would become the foundation that I would later build (my identify) upon. Let me explain.

"My father's family is from San Diego, they were upper middle class and educated people. My father was a professor at Miramar College in San Diego until his passing in 2008.

"My mother has always had a gift for working with children and spent many years as a childcare provider and homemaker; she even opened her own daycare at one point along with my sister, Lisa. My mother's side of the family has lived here since the mid-1940s. My mother's grandparents - my great-grandparents - came to Los Angeles from the South, from Natchitoches, Louisiana, during the Great Migration.

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"My great grandpa drove out first to find work and get established and then he sent for my great grandmother and my mom who came by train. Later, when they came back for my grandmother, my grandmother's sister and one of my great uncles, they all traveled together in a station wagon.

"They arrived in Los Angeles when Watts was still considered L.A. and the community was still not that integrated. My mother and her siblings grew up in the midst of the civil rights movement and the unrest that was going on. The Watts Riots happened a little bit after that.

"My great-grandfather* was a sharecropper in Louisiana - which basically means you work land in exchange for food and crops. My Mami ("Mom-mi," my great-grandmother) had no formal education but was wise, loved her family and had a strong faith.

"My maternal grandma, Augustina, had a sixth-grade education, because of course back then, farming was more important than education. The laws have changed drastically, but then, that was kind of what you did. When she came out here, she worked as a maid and she also worked at a factory, which is where she ended up retiring. She raised seven kids through hard work and lots of prayer, and my mother, Geraldine, is the oldest.

"My great-grandparents had, between them, sixteen kids. Not all of them survived -- a pair of twins passed away. My Mami had been married previously and her husband was killed in a logging accident.* The kids from that marriage were older and a lot of them had already established families in different parts of Louisiana. So they stayed behind.

"My great grandparents found a house on 87th Place in Los Angeles. My mom was two years old when the family moved there. Many years later, when I was growing up, I'd come over to visit regularly. Each time I would enter their home it was alive with sounds of people laughing and talking and the savory smells of southern Louisiana Creole cooking. The smells of garlic and onion would remain in my senses for years.

Virgil, Mila, and Michelle, on the occasion of Michelle's Master's degree graduation ceremony from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena. She received her undergraduate degree from UCLA. Photo courtesy Michelle Covington

"The atmosphere was always busy and my great grandparents home was like the communal spot. There was always a full house -- mostly family but there were also neighbors, friends and even strangers who would stop through to receive a portion of the love expressed in greetings, laughter and good times.

"I can remember my Mami, with her long hair always collected in a bun wearing her cat-eye glasses always clothed in her apron-like smock with pockets where she kept her cooking knife and whatever she was cutting at the time. She often sat on her chair cutting onion and even okra that she would stick onto our foreheads -- giving us the super abilities to go around and scare people with our alien-like slimy green horns.

"Mami had a heavy French heritage and spoke Louisiana Creole ("Kréyol La Lwizyàn," or in French, "Créole Louisianais.") This is a French Creole language spoken by the Louisiana Creole people of the state of Louisiana. The language consists of elements of French, Spanish, African and Native American roots.

"It was often interesting -- this very assorted, distinct language which as a child seemed to be almost a code language spoke amongst my great grandparents with my great uncles and aunts chiming in with what little they could/understood. Even now looking back as an adult, it is so unique the mixture of languages and dialects that compose Louisiana Creole -- it reveals a lot about the merging of cultures.

CHAPTER TWO

"My Papa (my great-grandfather) was Creole as well and had a very heavy Native American heritage and his skin tone was a reddish brown like many Creole's from the South. His hair was very straight, thick and curly in texture. It was the most beautiful color silver.

"He used to let me and my sister comb his hair with those little black combs (with the close teeth) and he'd use the bottom part of his finger -- he lost in a pressing machine when his wedding ring got stuck -- to tease and tickle us. We were so intrigued by his missing finger and would scream with extreme laughter when he would play with us. Our Papa would often surprise us with silver dollars -- we were so enthralled with the larger than life quarters. Oh, what wonderful memories of my great grandparents, so absolutely blessed!

"They brought more than just themselves and their language from Louisiana. They brought their agricultural skills and also a Southern way of socializing -- think of it as a 'porch culture.'

"First the agriculture: On 87th Place, my grandparents made a farm in the backyard. Not a farm like they had in Louisiana, but basically, there was a lot of land on the property and they would grow crops. You know, the most beautiful, red, ripe tomatoes and lettuces and different fruit trees and whatnot.

Michelle Covington's great grandparents. Photo courtesy Michelle Covington. Photo added since original post

"But also intriguing to me was the culture of sitting and visiting on the porch. It was carried over from the Southern culture where the homes are large and the porches are huge. So, to pass time people would sit, drink lemonade or sweet tea on the porch and visit. When I was a little girl we would go over there and everyone would be sitting on the porch conversing and playing cards. All of my great uncles, their friends and even neighbors would be gathered on the porch enjoying the simplicities of life.

"That screen door on the porch would usher over the savory smells of my great grandma's southern Creole cooking. She would cook using rich, beautiful vegetables from their garden in the back yard, redder than red, ripe, juicy tomatoes, fresh green onions and bell peppers, greens* and much more, all reminiscent of their sharecropping experience from Louisiana.

"Memories of the distinct creek and snap of the screen door opening and closing as family members, friends and neighbors would drop in for a visit. My great grandparents treated everyone like family and they did not discriminate -- it seemed like they would feed a stranger and offer refuge to the forgotten. It seemed like every meal stretched much like it did for Jesus feeding the multitudes.

"I remember driving over to 87th place where at the head of the street was Mother of Sorrow Church that my family attended, a corner store and only a few blocks away was ABC Market. The lawns were well manicured and every neighbor seemed to be acquainted.

"Inside, holy pictures of Jesus and the Mother Mary decorated the walls alongside family photos in the three-bedroom home that would house many family members throughout the years. Each family would come and stay until they bought a home and then they'd move out. There were always many living there -- children and all. A small 13-inch black-and-white TV sat on top a much larger floor model TV that had one of those old antennas on top. I believe one TV was for the picture and the other for the sound; folks were very resourceful.

"Their home was like a refuge, a safe haven for so many. I can remember people often stopping through to borrow money. Although my great grandparents did not have a lot of material items, they had an abundance of love and acceptance.

"Three generations later, my husband and I are also rooted in the heart of Los Angeles. We too find ourselves praying over the streets, the community and the people. We pray for a heavenly atmosphere and safety for children and families, also how we can be a blessing to others. After all, I had a wonderful example."

-- Michelle Covington
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

*=updated

Photo: Michelle, Virgil and Mila Covington, on the occasion of the 2012 commencement ceremony where Michelle was awarded a master's degree. Photo courtesy Michelle Covington

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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