The Challenges of Reclaiming Filipino Louisiana’s Centuries-Old HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: immigration, Louisiana, ethnic history, Filipino Americans
IN 1883, AN ITALIAN-CREWED LUGGER moved slowly through the shallow, murky waters of the Louisiana bayou. At times the men aboard used poles, or grabbed onto muddy banks with their bare hands, to push the small ship through the swamp amid a cacophony of frogs and insects.
A day’s journey east from New Orleans, Lafcadio Hearn, a correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, saw the first steep-roofed houses rising on stilts above the green waters of Lake Borgne. The lugger and its crew had arrived at a place few outsiders ever visited: the Filipino village of St. Malo, perhaps the oldest Asian community in the United States. By the time Hearn arrived, it had stood for generations.
In his report on the visit, Hearn has the dismissive tone of an outsider: “But for the possession of modern fire-arms and one most ancient clock, the lake-dwellers of St. Malo would seem to have as little in common with the civilization of the 19th century as had the inhabitants of the Swiss lacustrine settlements of the Bronze Epoch.”
Indeed, the history of Louisiana’s Filipino community has been largely written by outsiders—when it has been written about at all. In a state where Acadian and West African heritage sites and communities are celebrated, St. Malo and other early Filipino villages are rarely mentioned, though they are among Louisiana’s oldest.
“People in power tell the stories, and Filipinos weren’t in power,” says Randy Gonzales, an English professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It wasn’t malicious, they just didn’t think about it any other way.”
Gonzales, a fourth-generation Louisiana Filipino, is among a handful of people in the community uncovering and reclaiming their history. Like navigating the bayou, it is not an easy course. Separating fact from myth remains a challenge, and much of the evidence has been lost. St. Malo, for example, was destroyed by the New Orleans Hurricane of 1915. In 2019, community members erected a marker 30 miles east of New Orleans, but the exact location of the village, like its date of origin, remains a mystery. Retrieving the early history of a community that settled in these swamps more than two centuries ago, and left no written record, requires both creativity and caution.
“In terms of Filipinos coming here, the biggest question we had was why?” Gonzales asks. The answer lies in an old empire. The Philippines’ Spanish overseers, in power since 1565, “weren’t interested in educating, so there weren’t many opportunities in the Philippines,” Gonzales says. When Spain acquired Louisiana from the French in 1763, people from around the empire, including the Philippines, began trickling into the colony. “Louisiana provided opportunities for these early migrants,” says Gonzales. “There was a comfort level to the culture of Louisiana; people spoke Spanish and practiced Catholicism.”
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