Fresh off the boat-A A +A
Saturday, January 19, 2013
THE Philippines and the United States have had a long time to get acquainted with one another. Since the “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines by the United States of America and, even after our independence from our second conqueror, our two countries have had an intimate relationship with one another. The Americans give us their exports, and we provide them with cheap labor.
Since the American colonial period, Filipinos have dreamed of going to America, the proverbial land of “milk and honey” or “Coke and hamburgers” to seek a better life across the Pacific.
To live and work in the United States has been a dream for generations and generations of Filipinos. So one day, I asked myself, “I wonder what the first Filipino immigrants into the United States were like… where did they come from? What did they do?”
So, I did some digging. The results were not what I expected to find.
I always thought that the first ever Filipinos to set foot in the United States were brought to Hawaii to work as pineapple farmers in the early 20th century. In reality, the first Filipinos to arrive in the so-called New World came much earlier.
While the first Filipino eyes to ever see America were aboard a Manila galleon that docked in a port in Nueva España (a blanket term for the Spanish colonial holdings in the Americas and elsewhere), the first true Filipino settlers came in the mid 18th century and turned a little slice of Louisiana into home.
In 1763, a group of Filipino deserters from a Spanish galleon jumped off their ship to escape the rods of their Spanish masters and fled into French-controlled Louisiana. There, they became the first Filipinos – and the first Asians – to settle on American soil.
The deserters, finally free of the yoke of their Spanish oppressors, chose to settle in a mosquito-infested swamp – they called it Saint Malo. The deserters built nipa-style huts to live in. Unfortunately, their construction materials of choice – palm and wooden cane – could not stand up to the violent Louisiana weather, so storms that hit this village were particularly devastating.
Later on, proper wood was shipped in from other parts of Louisiana, bought with the profits of the village that came from fishing, shrimp catching and alligator hunting. When a reporter in Harper’s Weekly magazine investigated the village in 1883, he wrote that the villagers had no beds, chairs, tables or any kind of furniture at all, and that the villagers had to put wire meshes on their windows to keep out the mosquitoes.
Another problem that the Saint Malo villagers faced was that they had no women. The village was composed entirely of men. Those that did court and marry local women like Cajuns (French Louisianans), blacks, Native Americans and creoles asked their womenfolk to live in nearby cities like New Orleans because they didn’t want them to suffer the harsh conditions of life in Saint Malo.
The Saint Malo villagers were also the first OFWs. Whenever possible, they would write letters back to their families in the Philippines and send money to friends in Manila with the profits they made from fishing. Little did they know that this practice would continue for the next three hundred years.
The Filipinos had nothing to fear from the French, or the United States government when they bought Louisiana in 1803. Since the ruling powers were more or less apathetic about Saint Malo, the village was never taxed, and not a single law enforcer was ever seen in it.
Instead, the villagers governed themselves. Whenever a dispute arose, the oldest person in the village acted as the judge and jury. If you had wronged the village elder at some point in the past and had committed a crime, well… good luck. If a man was found guilty of committing a crime, then he was put in a fish cage and denied proper food and water until he gave up.
Eventually the outside world encroached upon the sleepy settlement in the form of the War of 1812, where the Americans fought against the British in what was called a “second War of Independence.”
The French pirate Jean Baptiste Lafitte recruited the Filipino residents of Saint Malo into his militia. They were to serve under him in defense of the city of New Orleans in the battle that would end the War of 1812.
The battle was fought between the British, who had brought 11,000 regulars and Royal Marines, versus the Americans and their force of 4,000 composed largely of militia, mercenaries, farmers, fishermen and hunters. After a month’s worth of fighting, the Americans had gained an astounding victory of the British, killing 386 of them, wounding 1,521 while only sustaining 55 casualties. After that, the war was over.
The Filipinos who participated in the battle returned to their village with stories of heroism and bravery, but soon returned to their hum-drum existence of being simple fishermen.
Saint Malo was soon followed by other Filipino communities in the area. The other settlements were Manila Village on Barataria Bay in the Mississippi Delta by the Gulf of Mexico; Alombro Canal and Camp Dewey in Plaquemines Parish; and Leon Rojas, Bayou Cholas, and Bassa Bassa in Jefferson Parish, all in Louisiana. Most of them still kept the charming nipa-hut architectural style of the Saint Malo village, and Manila Village even grew to be a respectable small town with its own shops and eateries. The Manila Village later became responsible for exporting thousands of pounds of shrimp and fish to Asia and Latin America.
Sadly however, none of this was meant to last. Saint Malo and the Manila Village went the way of Baton Rouge and were completely destroyed by hurricanes. Saint Malo was swept away in 1915 and the Manila Village in 1965.
However, the Filipino communities in Louisiana today are working to bring back the awareness of these first Filipino pioneers, so that today’s generation of Filipinos can be proud of what their people had accomplished.
Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on January 19, 2013.