While the exact date of the Filipinos’ arrival in Louisiana is not entirely known and is debated among historians, there are accounts from the 1830s about Filipino sailors, Manilamen, living in palmetto frond huts along bayou in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, also known as St. Malo. There are ample reasons why Manilamen chose to settle in Louisiana and more specifically St. Malo. With New Orleans being one of the busiest ports in the United States through the nineteenth century, Manilamen were drawn to the abundant opportunities on the Gulf Coast. According to historian Dr. Randy Gonzales, “Louisiana was sparsely populated and rather welcoming to settlers who were willing to work in labor-intensive areas like fishing and trapping.” Brimming with seafood, the waters surrounding St. Malo empowered any individual with a boat and net to reap the benefits of Lake Borgne and garner a respectable profit. These Filipino fishermen could overflow their boats with fish to supply the hungry New Orleans markets. “At the time, Lake Borgne was the primary source of fresh fish for New Orleans” explains Dr. Gonzales.
Additionally, in the eighteenth century, when the Manilamen arrived in the area, both Louisiana and the Philippines were Spanish colonies, giving historians reason to believe that the Spanish-speaking Filipino seamen would have felt at home in St. Bernard where it was noted that “everyone in St. Bernard parish spoke Spanish.” While other fisherman and shrimpers were terribly reluctant to live in the swampy, mosquito-infested marshland of St. Malo where the lines between land and lake were blurred, as skilled boatmen and fishermen, Manilamen were not deterred by the daunting landscape. Quite the contrary. Upon hearing the success stories of early Filipino trailblazers, more Filipinos journeyed to St. Malo and the surrounding areas where it became the first permanent settlement of Asian Americans in the United States.
By the 1860s, this settlement of Manilamen prospered into a small fishing village of over 150 Filipino fishermen along the shore of Lake Borgne in St. Bernard Parish. This thriving community lived in substantial cypress structures on stilts constructed over the wetlands. St. Malo grew into the largest fishing village on Lake Borgne and served as an outpost for fisherman and shrimpers alike. The location of St. Malo afforded these fishing and shrimping boats amazing opportunities to venture further down the coast. Although the location of St. Malo provided incredible access to superior fishing grounds, the village, floating above the bayou, was unfortunately susceptible to storms.
Every 10 to 20 years, a massive storm would dismantle St. Malo village. “By the end of the nineteenth century, the dangers of living at St. Malo outweighed the benefits” observes Dr. Gonzales. “The Cheniere Caminada hurricane of 1893 swamped all of the one-story buildings at St. Malo. The few survivors were able to ride out the storm on the second floor of one building. After they were eventually rescued, they swore never to return to St. Malo.” As a result of these often unrelenting storms, St. Malo was eventually evacuated in the early twentieth century, leading Filipinos to seek out alternative opportunities in South Louisiana—one of which was the burgeoning shrimp drying industry in Barataria Bay.
Even though the Filipinos abandoned St. Malo in the early twentieth century, Dr. Gonzales emphasizes that “the village remains significant, representing the many forgotten settlements that helped shape Louisiana history and culture and a first chapter in the story of Filipino migration to the United States.”