Details are fuzzy on exactly when the site of Saint Malo became inhabited again after the breaking up of its maroon community, but the area’s next residents were just as remarkable, and nearly as surprising, as its first. Referred to in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Malays or, more commonly, Manilamen, Louisiana’s Filipino population is of a somewhat mysterious origin.
Filipino men began arriving in Louisiana as early as 1765, arguably establishing the first Asian community in North America. They came by way of the Spanish galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco, and while it may be easy to picture them becoming dissatisfied with their lives as impressed merchant seamen, it takes a little more imagination to figure how and why they made their way from the Pacific coast of Mexico to the New Orleans area. Filipino sailors are rumored to have been among Jean Lafitte’s Baratarians at the Battle of New Orleans, though more concrete evidence of Filipinos in Louisiana doesn’t arrive until midway through the 1800s.
Luckily for us, and unlike the case of San Malo’s villages or encampments, there is a detailed firsthand account of the Filipino village of Saint Malo, on the south shore of Lake Borgne in Saint Barnard Parish. Lacfcadio Hearn, a journalist and writer credited with exposing wide audiences to Louisiana cuisine, voodoo, and other local topics, visited Saint Malo in 1883 and recorded his impressions of the settlement in an article for Harper’s Weekly. The article makes for a great read (and can be found here). Hearn
pegs the beginning of the Filipino (specifically Tagalogs from the area
surrounding Manila) settlement of Saint Malo to the 1830s, and describes a
natural setting that is hardly enviable: incessant clouds of biting and
stinging insects, enormous spiders, chickens and pigs molested by crabs and
carried off by alligators. Hearn’s imagery makes it easy to understand why
Saint Malo’s residents, nearly all male, kept their families in New Orleans.
Despite the lack of families, the demand for seafood kept the village busy. Hearn reported that while Spanish was the primary language, Saint Malo fishermen also spoke a “Malay dialect,” most likely Tagalog. Given Saint Malo’s isolation, its residents created and maintained their own hierarchy and justice system, closely modeled on traditional customs. The houses of Saint Malo, built on stilts over the marsh in the traditional Tagalog style, were sketched by an artist travelling with Hearn, preserving a visual record of the Philippine village in the marshes of St. Bernard Parish. Though Hearn’s prose at times may lead to suspicions of romanticizing the residents of Saint Malo, he is also good enough to future historians by noting involvement in a New Orleans benevolent society (La Union Philippina) and other useful social and cultural information, such as the prevalence of Latin names and the form of poetry used to pass dull hours. The village described by Lafcadio Hearn remained until 1915, when it was destroyed by a particularly powerful hurricane.
While Saint Malo is fascinating, an even larger Filipino fishing community could be found south of New Orleans. Manila Village, founded in the 1880s by (perhaps) Jacinto Quintin de la Cruz, lay at the back of Barataria Bay 15 miles north of Grand Isle. In the 1890s, up to 300 Filipino and Mexican shrimpers inhabited the village, where they added a traditional twist to shrimp trade. Enormous platforms were erected over the marsh for the drying of shrimp, introducing the Southeast Asian method of preserving shrimp to the United States (the delicacy caught on the strongest in rural South Louisiana, where Cajun shrimpers continue the practice). Like Saint Malo, there were few, if any, women to be found at Manila Village, with many men keeping their families in New Orleans, specifically in the downtown neighborhoods of Faubourg Marigny and St. Claude. Many others married into local Cajun families and took up residence in southern Jefferson and Plaquemines Parishes. It is remarkable, to me at least, that in the complex racial and ethnic hierarchy of Southeastern Louisiana, Louisiana’s Filipinos were considered to be white, and were thus able to marry white women, as most did. Despite widespread intermarriage, many Louisianans of Filipino heritage have maintained strong ties to the Philippines, their language, and their culture, all of which have, at various times, been reinvigorated by more recent immigrants and visitors from the Philippines.
Further Reading: Marina E. Espina, Filipinos in Louisiana, A.F. Laborde & Sons, New Orleans, 1988.