Table of Contents

Documentary History of the Filipinos in Louisiana

George Boeck, Lousiana State Museum, 1980

Public awareness of the Filipinos in Louisiana dates from the late nineteenth century when descriptions of a Philippine style fishing village on the state's southern coast were published in the popular press (Hearn 1883; St. Malo 1883). A more romantic introduction could hardly have been arranged. The immediate questions were, naturally, how did this group of immigrants come to settle here and what were their lives like. Subsequently, we have come to ask how did Louisiana's physical environment change their lives and how has broadened social contact changed them further.

St Malo village
from Hearn 1883                                

According to oral tradition the Filipinos came to Louisiana during the Manila Galleon trade. Although there is no documentary substantiation for this belief, it is certainly plausible. The Louisiana Filipinos, like those in their homeland, were Hispanic Malayans. That is to say, they had cultural elements of both Spain and the Pacific islands. Further, the Spanish Empire made the voyage to Mexico and contact with trading ships in the Gulf of Mexico physically possible. Quite importantly, the social conditions in the Philippines would have made emigration acceptable to some Filipinos.

Spain colonized the Philippines in 1564 when Miguel Lopez de Legaspi established the first permanent European settlement on the islands. Early cattle ranching land grants to individuals were soon sold to the religious orders who established a hacienda land use pattern similar to that throughout the Spanish Empire. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the haciendas usurped considerable land from the native populations and diversified the land grant economic base to include rice, sugar, and fruit (Roth 1982:136). Labor for these clerical land holdings was provided by Filipinos residing on the haciendas. Labor required for the operation of the government fell to the independent peasants. This could include cutting and transporting lumber, rough work at the ship yards, or road and building' maintenance. Skilled construction generally fell to the Chinese (Roth 1982:138; Schurz 1959:197). The peasant farmers near Manila were often forced to work a month each year. Due to numerous exemptions given to the hacienda laborers, the burden of corvée labor increasingly fell to non-hacienda villages (Roth 1 2:138, 139-140).

Both tenancy and corvée had existed since pre-Hispanic times in the form of Cacique landlords over Tao farmers (Field and Field 1931:416-417). Under this arrangement, commoners were in either of two land owning classes. The mamamhay tumaranpuh (in Visayan) could marry without consent, owed one half of his harvest to his landlord and worked one day out of four on his landlord's land. The guiguilar ayuey (in Visayan) could only marry with consent, owed less of his harvest to his overlord, but had to work three out of four days on his landlord's land (Phelan 1959:20-21).

The double burdens of traditional tenancy and forced labor for the State away from his family and land were worsened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the rise of middleman landlords. The hacienda collected rent in the form of produce. By having extended loans which were defaulted on or by outright purchase, an intermediate landlord, usually a Chinese-Filipino mestizo retail merchant, required a further share of the harvest (Roth 1982:144-147; Wickberg 1965:28).

Not surprisingly, the land seizures, forced labor, and tenancy burdens caused a series of revolts by the peasantry between the 1620's and the late 1800's. In fact, Philippine cooperation in the Spanish-American War and subsequent revolt against American occupation can be viewed as continued efforts to overcome these land tenure problems (Deats 1967:33-34). The dates of these revolts are important guides to likely periods of emigration in that the same situation will foster either alternative. The Tagalog revolts in 1746 and 1841 have particular relevance to Louisiana's Filipino population.

The role of the Chinese in Filipino society has considerable relevance to the Filipino American experience. Prior to their expulsion from the Philippines in 1765, they acted as a trading partner for both the native peasants and the Spanish community. Their trade consisted of exchanging Chinese imports for village products which were in turn traded for silver in the Spanish community (Wickberg 1965:6). This commerce was adopted by mestizos, the offspring of Chinese men and indigenous women, in the eighteenth century. Tending to change in the direction of assimilated indio rather than toward Spanish or unacculturated indio models, this group was extremely important to the establishment of Philippine identity (Wickberg 1965:17-18).

The peasants forced into lumbering or shipyard labor were participating in the Philippines' primary industry. From 1565 to 1815 one to two galleons per year carried Chinese silk and Malaccan and Indian spice to Acapulco, returning with Mexican and Peruvian silver and gold (Schurz 1959:15, 193, 27) . The early ships carried 60 to 100 crewmen; by the mid-eighteenth century, they carried 150 to 250 crewmen. Of these fewer than a third were Spanish. The rest were natives, either experienced mariners or laborers for interior Luzon impressed into service (Schurz 1959:209-210). Although the pay was relatively good (48 to 60 pecos for natives 100 or more for Spanish in 1697), scurvy, fever, and dysentery were the norm on the voyage to Mexico (Schurz 1959:211).

To avoid the similarly rigorous return voyage, escape impressment, or seek fortune elsewhere, some Filipinos mustered out or deserted in Acapulco. In 1618, for example, 74 of 75 native seamen left the ship Espiritu Santo, having been hired by Mexican Indians to teach them how to make wine (Schurz 1959:211). The more likely occurrence would have had the seamen signing on as porters for th almaceneros7, the Mexico City merchants, or 1959:384). The same almaceneros who traded at Acapulco for Chinese goods, traded at Jalapa for Continental manufactured items and Havana wax (Brading 1971:97, 95).

Although no written evidence of Filipino mariners employed in the Gulf has been found, the reputation of these sailors and the availability of ships allows the supposition that Louisiana's Filipinos came via ship. There was certainly sufficient traffic to have made the trip possible.

As a French colony, Louisiana was barred from trade by Spanish authorities. As early as 1703, however, a ship from the colony was sent to Vera Cruz three times searching for a supply of food (Surrey 1916:388). The smuggling of gold and silver coin and dyewood into Louisiana through ships bound from Mexican ports was a relatively frequent occurrence (Moore 1974:82) . Prior to Spanish dominion over Louisiana (1768-1803) , the illicit traffic was from Campeachy, Vera Cruz, and Tampico to Havana via re)nsicola. This route was far enough north to allow time for a surreptitious stop at Balise on Louisiana's southern extreme (Surrey 1916:439).

Practically speaking, the earliest period of easy trade between New Orleans and Spanish ships was during the 1740s (Surrey 1916:431-442) when France was at war with England over the Austrian succession. Obviously, emigration would have been easy after Spain extended free trade to Louisiana as a colony in 1768 (Clark 1970:222).

In the absence of a specific record, it is a matter of speculation when the first Filipinos came to Louisiana. The manila Galleon trade would certainly have brought competent seamen from the Philippines to the New World. Further, trade in the Gold of Mexico was active enough to have presented the opportunity for a settlement in the middle or late eighteenth century. Following the Louisiana purchase, Filipino immigration to America was open until Philippine independence in 1935 brought its citizens under the immigration quota system.

With an idea of how the early Louisiana Filipinos may have come to the state, we next need to know what their society was like. They would have brought elements of their culture with them. Their life in Louisiana would be comprised of those behaviors which made sense in or could be adapted to their new environment. Again, the recorded evidence is scant, but sufficient to give a general knowledge of their Malay and Hispanic cultural heritage.

The earliest Filipinos would have been Malays, probably from Luzon, the province in which Manila was founded, or Visayan, on the Northern coast of Mindinao. Socially, these people organized themselves into barangays, small kinship units of 30 to 100 families (Phelan 1959:15). The Spanish based their local colonial government on these patriarchal organizations (Phelan 1959:17). As mentioned previously, a class system cross-cut this socio-political structure. The Cacique class were, perhaps, former chiefs and landlords. Everyone else was within the Tao class which was further sub-divided into two stations (Field and Field 1931:416-417; Phelan 1959:20-21).

The economy was agricultural with rice and fish as staples, bananas as the predominant fresh food. Variation in the diet was achieved by pork, chicken, and sweet potatoes (Field and Field 1931:437). The fish were either trapped in corrals or handthrown nets (Hart 1954:573). Some shrimp and crab were available in Visayan (Hart 1954:566).

Settlements were dispersed barangays near the rice patties (Phelan 1959:73). This pattern persisted despite efforts by the Spanish religious orders to institute village and town settlements. The transition to villages occurred due to the fiesta complex, especially the feasts of Holy Week, Corpus Christi, and the local patron saint. The parish village, cabecera, and Sunday houses for fiestas, visitas, poblacions, became barangays and with the introduction of civil government (Phelan 1959:73, 47-480). The effectiveness of the barangay kinship structure is evident in the present day Philippine barrio which remains a similar size and strongly patriarchal (Field and Field 1931:418).

The houses have remained substantially unchanged for centuries (Hart 1954:653). They are usually one or two rooms (occasionally with a third room or open porch) elevated one to five feet off the ground on wooden posts. The floors are made of nder, split bamboo laid side by side; the walls are bamboo or pa palm; the roofs are thatched nipa shingles or grass (Hart 1954:650; Field and Field 1951:418). Nearly every description mentions rambling pigs and chickens on the ground beneath the house.

The family was patriarchal, although the women usually manage the family income. That may be due to their participation in cottage industries (hat-making, embroidery, and cloth weaving), frequent ownership of small, local stores, and their role in tending the fields (Field and Field 1951:421).

The pre-Colonial religious beliefs and practices offered several elements in common with Hispanic Catholicism, including a supreme deity, heaven and hell, baptism, ritual cures of illnesses, and visits to the dieing (Phelan 1959:24, 82). Pantheism, priestesses, and to a lesser extent ancestor worship were suppressed.

Social observances included dowry, bride price or bride service. Betrothals, weddings, and funerals were particularly important occasions with considerable ritual drinking. Alcohol consumption was noticeably reduced in the seventeenth century as Catholic ritual replaced indigenous practices (Phelan 1959:23, 134).

Upon the introduction of Hispanic religion, the compadrazgo (god parents) relationships became important much as they had in Latin America (Phelan 1959:77). The native were described as particularly fond of holy water, largely for its curative properties. The would match the importance of water and bathing in the pre-Hispanic era (Phelan 1959:75).

Our current ethnographic knowledge is far greater than that of the nineteenth century when housing and language were nearly the extent of the awareness of Philippine culture. We have descriptions of the Louisiana Filipinos mostly because the architecture of the fishing villages at St. Malo and Manilla Village struck a romantic cord in the late nineteenth century imagination. A pair of articles appeared in 1883, carrying the news of a primitive Philippine-style fishing village in remote access Louisiana. The shorter, illustrated version by Lafcadio Hearn appeared in Harper's Weekkly, the Time Magazine of the late nineteenth century. A fuller version appeared simultaneously in the New Orleans Times Democrat newspaper.

As one might expect, several characteristics are described which match Philippine culture. As Maria Espina concludes, the St. Malo fishing village was basically a barangay except composed entirely of men (1981:85). The community was led by its eldest member who acted as arbiter in conflicts (New Orleans Times Democrat 1883:3; Hearn 1883:198). Contemporary reports give a population figure of 150 men, although 100 may be a more realistic figure (New Orleans Times-Democralii 1883:3; Espina 1974:19). Except for a black Portugese speaker, a white carpenter, and a few Chinese, all of the residents were Filipino (Hearn 1883:198).

The languages normally spoken were Spanish, Tagalog, and French. Little of the vocabulary was reported beyond the following Tagalog (New Orleans Times Democrat1883:3):

Bigas--rice                                             Toabig--water
Kine--to eat                                           Ta Poosna--I am done
Toolug--to sleep                                     Marame--plenty, much
Mariquite--pretty                                    Pari Tune--come here
Cubila--on the other side                        Barboot--pig
Cubila Cubla--from side to side              Hibig--I want
Mabote--nice                                         Hoolug--to fall down
Marame Namouk--plenty mosquitoes     Manuk--chicken
Hudlo--I have it not                                Hanting-hanting--to voodoo or charm
Isa--one                                                 Dalawa--two 
Tatto--three                                           Haput--four

All of the residents were Catholic. Hearn mentions that the caPenter had baptised some of the men who had no been Christians upon arrival (1883:198). The inference, here, would be that these men had emigrated from the southern, Islami Philippine Islands. Although Catholic in name, the settlments were rarely visited by priests (Hearn 1883:198). The dead were even reinterred at the Philippine Union grave site in New Orleans (St. Malo 1883:3). The men were described as not particularly religious but superstitious and showing timidity toward omens (St. Malo 1883:3). Since there was a local burial with a cross and subsequent disinterment (Hearn 1883:199), one would expect Malay and Spanish popular religious customs to have existed.

Housing and settlement was strikingly Philippine. St. Malo was initially built of palmetto and woven cane in either the 1840's or as early as 1825 (St. Malo 1883:3; Espina 1974:119). By the l880s1 cypress post and boards had been shipped in. The rooms and balconies on four foot high posts continued to have pigs and chickens wandering beneath them. The eaves were immense and, following Philippine structure, hat-like (Hearn 1883:198). In the 1880s 13 or 14 huge buildings stood about 100 yeards apart on a 2 to 3 foot bayou bank. Boats docked at the front of each structure (St. Malo 1883:3). Most of the houses had 2 or 3 rooms which were quite stark. Hearn mentions no furniture but Spanish moss matresses on tiers, a trunk, an ancient clock, modern firearms, and monte table and chairs (1883:198). The New Orleans Times Democrat account is quite good:

The houses were all square, with low roofs running up with a concave curve to the top. They were all built on piles, some nine feet from the water, and the openings were remarkably scarce, the first object being to keep mosquitoes out rather than let fresh air in. A gallery projects from the front, and over it projects the eaves of the roof, so that one has to stoop to look out on the landscape. A few old barrels or damaged ice-box form their cisterns. In the whole village there are but two panes of glass, and they are inserted in the roof in lieu of two shingles to give light to a little attic above. Furniture is entirely unknown, not a piece being found in any of the houses there. Rough benches take the wooden bunks, built one above the other, are the bedsteads (St. Malo 1883:3).

The daily life is sparsely described. The diet featured raw fish in oil and vinegar, maccaroni with grated parmesan cheese and daube (served by the carpenter to his unexpected house guests) , rice, beans, and meat once a week (St. Malo 1883:3; Hearn 1883:199). If weather prevented fishing, food became scarce within three days (St. Malo 1883:3). Clothing mentioned included oil skin pants and so'wester hats, although subsequent descriptions mention pajama-like cuts and Chinese type straw hats (St. Malo 1883:3; Kane 1943:90).

Both keno and monte are mentioned as leisure-time activities. Keno is a gambling game similar to lotto or bingo, played with counters on a board. Monte is a card game in which players bet that they will match a known card before the dealer does. At St. Malo the dealer called the cards in Spanish giving metaphorical names to the numbers.

4--casa del gato (cat's house)
11--dos piquetes en vivero (two pickets to which a fish car is tied)
22--dos patitos en la laguna (two little ducks in a lagoon)
24--dos y cuatro (two and four)
25--buena noce pasado (Christmas)
33--tres con sa pareja, edad de Cristo (three with its like, the age of Christ)
90--el mas viejo (the most old, referring to the highest card in the game)

Although the Chinese are said to have introduced shrimp drying in 1873 (Mysterious 1937:16), St. Malo's economy was based on fish trade with ice-loaded luggers from New Orleans. The captain the a fishing vessel owned the seine net. The first catch was his exclusively. The subsequent casts were shared equally between him and his four or five crew men. The red fish or sheephead fish were bunched in threes and sold for 15 cents each. On a good week crew men could earn $15 to $18. (St. Malo 1883:3). Alligator skins were traded as well (Hearn 1883:199).

Hearn reports that money was sent to the Philippines to aid friends wishing to emigrate, stating "such emigrants usually shipped as seamen on board some Spanish vessel bound for American ports, and desert at the first opportunity" (Hearn 1883:198). This route was quite consistent with an account of St. Malo's founding in the 1840's. In this case, the impetus was to avoid taxes and conscription, and the emigrants knew of their eventual destination (St. Malo 1883:3). This foreknowledge gives credence to Espina's claim that St. Malo had been in operation since at least the 1820s (Espina 1974:119).

Because of the romantic cord which a Filipine fishing camp in remote Louisiana struck, perhaps it is not surprising that the family lives of these men were not described. Hearn does mention that the families were visited in New Orleans, Proctorville, and La Chinche where the men traded as well (Hearn 1883:198).

Despite its temporal precedence, St. Malo has left fewer (J.mages for the contemporary awareness than Manila Village. Unfortunately, even less of Manila Village's social structure has been described. The houses were, again, platform with eaves and balconies reminiscent of Philippine construction. Hung dried fish, roaming pigs and chickens beneath the floors, and the absence of women are again mentioned (Fortier 1914:311). The camp had 13 or 14 buildings. Its population varied with the shrimp season, 250 from early August to November and a handful through the winter (Hansen 1971:570). A New Orleans Filipino benevolent society continued to offer re-interment of the bones of those who died and were buried at the village (Fortier 1914:311).

The most trustworthy description of the community appeared in the WPA guide to Louisiana:

The dozen or so red-roofed, green-painted buildings that make up the village are built upon stilts at the edge of the bayou, constituting what is called "the platform." The sustaining industry is the catching and sun-drying of shrimp. The freshly caught shrimp are first boiled in huge rectangular pots, then dumped on open platforms to dry in the sun...The platforms are built in a series of slopes with valleys between to drain away the water in rainy weather. rakes until completely dried; at night and during rains they are protected by tapaulins. When dried sufficiently the shrimp are thrown into revolving hoppers which drip shells, heads, tails, and broken bits onto the floor. This residue, called "shrimp-bran," is sold as fertilizer and hog feed. the finished product is packed in barrels averaging 225 pounds in weight and sent to New Orleans for distribution; a large proportion is exported to China. The population of Manila Village fluctuates considerably, averaging 250 at the height of the season--usually between early August and November--but dropping to a mere handful in winter, when the shrimpers, becoming trappers, leave for the muskrat trapping grounds. The town is known throughout the district as Manila Village, but a sign on the post office bears the name Cabinash. Most of the inhabitants are Filipinos, but there is a sprinkling of Mexicans, Spaniards, and Chinese. (Hansen 1971:569-570).

In contrast to St. Malo, then, Manila Village was a seasonal shrimping outpost, processing dried shrimp for export to China. As an industrial camp, the occupations followed innovations quickly. Rented shrimping boats brought their catch to the ice boats of their company (Dickson 1934:25). The cast net and seine for shallow water shrimping were quickly replaced by the patented ottertrawl in 1915-1918 (Lindner 1936:34). Smaller shrimp were brought to the village's platform for processing.

Here, the shrimp catch was boiled, complete with heads, in iron pots until the color changed. They were then wheelbarrows to the platform for drying (Kane 1943:91). Raked to a uniform depth of two to three inches and turned every two or three hours, they were dry after three to four days in the summer and five to ten in the winter (Mysterious 1937:16). Once dried, the shrimp were danced. That is, they were shelled by being trod upon by men whose feet were clad in burlap. A revolving drum eventually replaced this practice (Kane 1943:92).

Again, the family life of these men was to be found in Proctorville and New Orleans and received no description. Espina has given a family history from Manila Village which illustrates some of the diversity missing from our sources. She mentions Felipe Madrigal, a New Orleans restaurateur during the civil war, Baltic Borabod, an overseer at the Wilkinson Plantation at Myrtle Grove, Hermogenes Ferniz, a boat owner and fleet captain (18 to 25 men) who worked in sugar refineries in the winter, and Benito Yabut Martinez, who became a French Quarter tailor (Espina 1978:35-36).

Accounts of Filipino American immigration in the twentieth century are almost exclusively devoted to the influx of agricultural laborers to the West Coast in the 1920s and 1930s. The U. S. Census reported only 161 Filipinos in 1910, at which time Louisiana had 84 or more than half the U. S. population (Marino 1933:18). Beginning about 1915, the Hawaiian Sugar Planter's Association began bringing Filipino laborers to the islands to work sugar and pineapple crops (Catapusan 1940:12-15).

In the 1920s 31,000 Filipinos came to California via the Dollar Steamship and Los Angeles Steamship lines from the Philippines and Hawaii. The fare for one-way steerage was $87.50 and $45, respectively. (California 1930:15) The Census enumerated 5,603 Filipinos in 1920 and 45,211 in 1930, with Louisiana's share being 104 in 1920 and 518 in 1930 (Marino 1933:18). Despite a six-fold increase in Louisiana's population between 1910 and 1930, the state's share of Filipinos dropped from more than 50% to 2%.

Immigration quotas were applied from 1934 to the mid-1960s. The bulk of immigrants during this period were World War II veterans and their families and the families of resident Filipinos already in the U. S. (Allen 1977:196). Since the 1970s, most of the Filipino immigrants have been professionals due to current immigration requirements that admissions be on an as needed basis (Allen 1977:198).

Curiously, the familial basis of the community in Louisiana which was left undescribed in accounts of Filipinos here saved the most recent immigrants from many of the problems encountered by the community in California. Sociological studies of the California laborers mention that the immigrants were nearly all young males out to make their fortune who spent their leisure time in Chinese gambling houses and at taxi dance halls (Marino 1933:40, 41-43).

Manila Village began a decline in the 1930s. By 1965, when Huricane Betsy destroyed the platform, it had been largely abandoned (Darbey). While it seems likely that it no longer served the purpose it had been designed for, its abandonment illustrates one of several questions about the Filipinos in Louisiana. As they became increasingly assimilated into the Louisiana social landscape, the very romantic aura which led to their initial description dissapated, taking them from public view.


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