Manila Men: The Forgotten Filipinos of St. Malo

When it comes to the issue of the Filipino Diaspora, we always have the OFW (overseas Filipino workers) in mind or perhaps Filipino women who got married to foreigners. Aside from that, our imagination revolves around the Filipino immigration to the United States is tied to our long love-hate relationship with the Americans since 1898. The continuing brain-drain, rooted on the demand of nurses in United States, has increased the Filipino-American population.


When it comes to the issue of the Filipino Diaspora, we always have the OFW (overseas Filipino workers) in mind or perhaps Filipino women who got married to foreigners. Aside from that, our imagination revolves around the Filipino immigration to the United States is tied to our long love-hate relationship with the Americans since 1898. The continuing brain-drain, rooted on the demand of nurses in United States, has increased the Filipino-American population.

Most of us may think that this trend is a recent thing while some may say that Filipinos started pouring into the country since the first Pensionados arrived in the United States in 1901. Jose Rizal would probably never imagine that his countrymen have dotted across the states from sea to shining sea. From the bustling cities of New York and Los Angeles to the suburban homes of Florida and Hawaii, Filipinos have made their homes. But did you know that Filipino settlement in Uncle Sam's backyard existed even before the Americans landed in our shores?


Origin

It is said that St. Malo, Louisiana is the site of the earliest Filipino settlement in the United States. Named after Jean Saint Malo (Juan San Malo in Spanish) who led a group of runaway slaves to escape from the Spanish in 1784. Saint Malo and his group settled in the marshy confines of Lake Borgne where they organized a resistance with a motley crew of plantation workers and freed persons of colored races. Unfortunately, he was captured and hanged in front of St. Louis Cathedral (now later known as Jackson Square in New Orleans).

It is said that the Filipinos, who ventured into the unforgiving bayou and the unknown landscape, were castaways and marooned from the ships they were in. The Spanish galleons that brought Asian spices and porcelain make a stopover in Acapulco after a treacherous sea voyage from Manila and escaping from English, Dutch, and Portuguese privateers. Cargoes were unloaded and sent to other ships waiting in the Caribbean side of Nueva Espana with silver and gold bullions bound for Spain. Aside from the Caribbean pirates, the ships have to evade strong winds and Atlantic hurricanes. The deplorable conditions of the Filipino crew is probably the reason why some of them jumped ship and get away from their Spanish masters. The inhabitants of St. Malo were came to be known as "Manila Men" and for the next 8-10 generations, they are considered to have the oldest continuous Asian American settler community in North America.

However, the Naturalization Act of 1790 granted the right of U.S. citizenship only to all "free white persons." This exception to citizenship would not apply to them until after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. This is issue is quite confusing as they were not slaves in the first place but they were not also white.

Based on oral accounts, Manila Men were said to have participated in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 under the command of Major-General (future U.S. president) Andrew Jackson. With the help of French buccaneer Jean Baptiste Lafitte, the Manila Men reinforced the U.S. troops to defeat an 8,000 strong British Army under the command of Major-General Sir Edward M. Pakenham.

Though the War of 1812 was already on the end, the British invasion force were not aware of the ongoing peace settlement so the attack was still on the go and the attack on New Orleans continues. Jackson's army of 1,500 men rag-tag collection of regular army troops, state militia, western sharpshooters, two regiments and pirates from the Delta Swamps are prepared to halt the enemy force at all cost. The pirates were believed to be the Manila Men because they were the only Spanish-speaking fishermen living in that locality.


Rediscovery

Isolated from the rest of the country, the Manila Men (also known as the Tagalas) have eventually developed their own culture. They still retained the Filipino customs from where they came from. It was until then-unknown writer-journalist Lafcadio Hearn (later known as Koizumi Yakumo) visited the Manila Men houses on stilts and documented their way of life. In an article posted in Harper's Weekly in 1883, Hearn introduced the Manila Men to the American public for the first time. His work became the first written account about the existence of Filipino settlers in the United States.

Being the curious journalist that he was, Hearn visited the village and was able to make a detailed account of his visit. He described their dwellings as houses on stilts just like Bajaos in Mindanao do. This is an ingenius way of sustaining their community despite the unpredictable rise and fall of sea level in the delta. The inhabitants have learned to improvise on anything they need since living on the bayou would mean that one has to go against wildlife from mosquitoes to alligators. There are no furniture, even table, chairs, and bed, because the house on stilt won't be able to hold on its own when you have so many stuff inside. According to Hearn, they slept at night “among barrels of flour and folded sails and smoked fish.”

Here is what Hearn noted:

Although rice is the Filipino staple food, Manila Men rarely ate rice and their diet usually revolve around seafood. All of them are Roman Catholic. Since the area is so remote at that time, Manila Men have set their own rules and laws that inhabitants of settlement have to obey. The oldest person in the community is the one who settles a dispute or mediate a certain disagreement. If a person refused a verdict then he is jailed in a makeshift cell. At the end of the day, the offender would change his mind and obey the rule since the jail's condition is harsh.

Legacy of the Manila Men

Aside from St. Malo, there were other settlements in the area such as the Manila Village on Barataria Bay in the Mississippi Delta, and Alombro Canal and Camp Dewey in Plaquemines Parish. There was also similar settlements in Leon Rojas, Bayou Cholas, and Bassa Bassa in Jefferson Parish.

View Manila Men Settlements in a larger map

Houses in Manila Village were built on stilts on a 50-acre marshland but was destroyed by Hurricane Betty in 1965. If you ever thought that Bubba, Forrest Gump's buddy, introduced shrimp in the area, think again. The Manila Men were the ones who produced dried shrimp known as "sea bob."

So if you think about pioneering Filipinos in the United States then think about the Manila Men.

Credits:
The Filipino-American Historical Society of Hawaii - Filipino Migration to the United States

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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: Manila Men: The Forgotten Filipinos of St. Malo
Manila Men: The Forgotten Filipinos of St. Malo
When it comes to the issue of the Filipino Diaspora, we always have the OFW (overseas Filipino workers) in mind or perhaps Filipino women who got married to foreigners. Aside from that, our imagination revolves around the Filipino immigration to the United States is tied to our long love-hate relationship with the Americans since 1898. The continuing brain-drain, rooted on the demand of nurses in United States, has increased the Filipino-American population.
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