Remembering America’s First Filipino Settlement Before It Vanishes Into The Sea

A view of St. Malo from the water. There are no more structures because the wetlands are sinking into the sea. (Photo: Michael Salgarolo)
ST. BERNARD PARISH, Louisiana - On a cold day in November 2019, two podcasters and a historian boarded a small boat on the edge of Lake Borgne in Louisiana and drifted into the bayou. They were on their way to St. Malo, the first permanent Filipino settlement in the United States. Seafarers from the Philippines, known as the Manila Men, settled there in the mid-19th century, decades before the Civil War.
Paola Mardo, a petite, fast-speaking Filipino American journalist who had flown in from Los Angeles with her partner Patrick Espino, wanted to collect recordings for “Long Distance,” her podcast about Filipinos abroad. Mardo, Espino, and Michael Salgarolo, a slim, literal New York University historian studying the Manila Men, wanted to see St. Malo before it disappeared from the map. All three identify as Filipino American. (Disclosure: Salgarolo is the author's partner.)
"We're all in the diaspora," said Mardo. "These Filipinos in St. Malo were the first."
The travelers planned to celebrate with local Filipino Americans at a grand celebration of the history of the Louisiana community the next day. They drove through choppy water and reed Spartina grass along the south shore of the lake, where once bustling fishing villages flourished.
Structures are gone because the wetlands are sinking into the sea at the rate of 28 square miles per year. Only 75% of the wetlands that existed in 1932 were still in place, according to a 2016 US Geological Survey report, and what is left is increasingly threatened. This is due to coastal erosion and climate change as well as the destruction of the wetlands by humans.
St. Malo is something a lot of people like to say, “Hey, we've been here a long time. We belong on American soil. '
Michael Salgarolo, historian
Since St. Malo was founded over 170 years ago, its importance in Filipino and American history has never been recognized by the state or federal government. For the past decade, local Filipino Americans have campaigned with Louisiana lawmakers to officially recognize St. Malo as the birthplace of their community, which has grown to 12,000 people in the state and 4.2 million people in the United States.
“For Filipinos, who are constantly portrayed as foreigners and outsiders in America, St. Malo is something a lot of people like to say, 'Hey, we've been here a long time. We belong on American soil, ’" said Salgarolo.
The Filipino-American community in Louisiana was founded by descendants of the original St. Malo settlers and other early Filipino immigrants in the area. For decades, its leaders have raised awareness of its long and little-known history. In recent years they have grappled with an unprecedented dilemma: How can they preserve and recall their history when their oldest physical touchstone disappears in the sea?
The story of St. Malo
While a number of historians have studied St. Malo and its residents, documents about the site are rare. Academics often cite an 1883 article from Harper’s Weekly by journalist Lafcadio Hearn, who traveled to the site in search of the Filipino settlers.
Hearn described an eerie journey through the swamp that led to a hidden village of "fantastic houses" poised on slender supports above the swamp, like cranes or bitterns on the lookout for scaly prey.
The “cinnamon-colored” residents are “strange, wild, picturesque,” ​​he wrote, noting that they often sent money home to “help friends emigrate”. An illustrator named J.O. Davidson, traveling with Hearn, drew mysterious houses and dark-skinned men. His drawings were later made into engravings for the article and are the only images of St. Malo that exist today.
Composition of five wood engravings from drawings by Charles Graham based on sketches by J.O. Davidson, from the 1883 Harper's Weekly article by Lafcadio Hearn. (Photo: Library of Congress)
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The Manila Men were sailors who worked on Spanish, American, and British merchant ships that docked in the Philippines, which had been a colony of Spain since 1521. They faced violent working conditions and, in some cases, were forced into forced labor or tricked. As a result, many deserted in busy ports around the world, like New Orleans, in hopes of starting over.
"They were poor people from a colonized nation that didn't have many options," said Salgarolo.
In the bayou, the Manila Men were not harassed by the American authorities. They soon established a successful fishing village that gave them access to the lucrative seafood trade in Louisiana and access to American society. Some married white and black women and raised families in the area, but many stayed in St. Malo.
Although the village was regularly hit by violent storms, the Manila Men rebuilt their homes. It was not until the great hurricane of 1893, which destroyed most of the houses, that the area finally left.
St. Malo got the recognition it deserves
Over a decade ago, the Philippine-Louisiana Historical Society (PLHS) began lobbying the state to commemorate St. Malo with a historical marker. They wanted it to serve as a "public declaration of Filipino character and heritage," said Randy Gonzales, co-vice president of the society and assistant professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Silver-haired and boyish-faced, Gonzales is bringing both sides of his family back to Filipinos who joined the growing Louisiana community in the early 20th century.
The PLHS eventually got approval for the marker - but deciding where to place it was a challenge. Historical society wanted it in an accessible, yet meaningful place. The French Quarter of New Orleans, for example, "gave no sense of the country slipping into the distance," said Gonzales. After all, the mind should be remote from St. Malo.
But St. Malo itself was difficult to get to, and besides, it was sinking. They had to be sure that the land they placed the marker on wasn't disappearing too quickly.
It was a big job. Southeast Louisiana was built on a precarious sediment pile ejected from the Mississippi Estuary over the past 3,000 years. There is no bedrock, only densely packed alluvial soil. It used to be replenished by the regular deliveries of pulverized rock by the river, but the sediment flow has subsided.
The dams built along the lower Mississippi to prevent flooding after the great flood of 1927 "put the river in a straitjacket," said Barry Keim, the Louisiana state climatologist. The problem, he explains, is that rivers are meant to be flooded. This is how they deposit sediments. In addition, dams in Missouri and Ohio hold back sediment upstream.
“The river is just not the farmer we're facing here,” said Keim.
Then there is the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal - locals call it “Mr. Go ”- which cuts a straight line from the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans and injects salt water directly into the wetlands. It was supposed to allow fishing boats to reach the city without having to traverse the switchbacks of the Mississippi, but was barely used after its construction in the 1960s.
It was decommissioned and replaced with a dam after Hurricane Katrina, but smaller channels that cut oil and gas companies through the wetlands still exist. Water is drawn from the peat underside of the swamps to cool power plants and oil refineries, which further destabilizes the land.
An aerial view of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier on August 1, 2015 in New Orleans. The 1.8 mile barrier is located at the confluence of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), approximately 12 miles east of downtown New Orleans. (Photo: The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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"If you put it all together, you have a landscape that is degrading," said Keim. "And then you add global climate change and sea level rise, and then the perfect storm brews."
According to Louisiana's 2017 master plan for coastal rehabilitation, the land around Lake Borgne could have flood depths of up to 4.5 meters in the next 50 years.
Gonzales and the PLHS eventually decided to place the marker on the lawn of the Los Isleños Museum Complex, a Canarian Heritage Site in St. Bernard Parish, just five miles from the French Quarter of New Orleans. It made sense because of the close ties between local Filipinos and Canary Islands, both immigrants from Spanish colonies who arrived in Louisiana.
Gonzales noted that the museum was protected by the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, known locally as the Great Wall.
"It was important to us that it be on the inside of the wall," said Gonzales. "We knew there was a significant amount of time that people could access it."
The wall is 26 feet high and stretches 1.8 miles on the edge of Lake Borgne, which is closest to St. Bernard Parish and the parts of New Orleans devastated by storm surges during Hurricane Katrina. It was completed in 2013 and was built to protect the area from a 100 year storm surge or a storm that has a 1% chance of occurrence every year.
"At least in my lifetime it will be there," Gonzales said of the marker. “It won't be gone anytime soon. Hopefully. "
A marker commemorating St. Malo in the Los Isleños Museum Complex in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. (Photo: Yasmin Tayag)
For most who know about it, St. Malo is more of a historical concept than a place. Because it's so hard to get to, most people haven't been there and probably never will. But for Rhonda Richoux, St. Malo is very real.
Richoux is dark-haired and has kale-rimmed eyes and is descended from a fisherman named Felipe Madriaga, who settled in St. Malo in 1848. She has dedicated her life to researching and preserving the history of the Filipinos in Louisiana. Her life story is in many ways a chronicle of church history.
Growing up in the New Orleans neighborhood known as Marigny, around the corner from the now-defunct Filipino-American Goodwill Society, the community's premier social club, Richoux remembers a happy childhood of picnics and partying with fellow Louisiana Filipinos . Her mother visited St. Malo when fishermen were still working there.
"When my mother was alive, there were Filipinos who rebuilt some of the camps and lived out there," said Richoux. When Richoux was older, she often came across St. Malo on fishing trips.
"It's more than just a Shangri-La," she said. “It's something we know exists. It is a historical fact. And it gives us a start here in this country, just like all other ethnic groups. "
The devastation left by Hurricane Katrina fueled Richoux's quest to hold the community together. The storm destroyed the homes of many parishioners, she said. They escaped to a campground in northern Louisiana, where they raised morale by telling stories about the Filipino elders who rebuilt Manila Village, a newer local Filipino settlement, after each storm.
“They didn't have a Red Cross, they didn't have FEMA, they just helped each other. That's how they did it and they survived, ”said Richoux. "If I hadn't known my family stories, I wouldn't have made it through Katrina."
But the disaster broke the community. Some moved away; others gave up their landlines and lost contact. Since then, Richoux has worked diligently to re-establish those connections. She started a Facebook group, Filipino-Americans in Louisiana, to find descendants of the original settlers and introduce them to long-lost relatives. She is part of an effort to revive the Goodwill Society, which was abandoned after the death of its older members.
With Gonzales, she fought tirelessly for the historic marker of St. Malo. In 2019 they finally won.
Finally a party
After a long journey, the boat with Mardo's group drifted into a swampy landscape. In the distance, two rotting wooden stakes protruded from the green water. A large pile of mussels, the remains of a mussel-cutting company that once operated in the area, formed a makeshift island. The group docked at the island and explored it in silence, grenades crunching under their feet. They were cold and wet. For the first time they could imagine the life of the Manila Men.
Apart from a few empty bottles and beer cans, the area appeared to be empty. But eventually they found a rusty United States Geodetic Survey marker that had overturned in the bushes. It was dated 1934 and was faintly inscribed “St. Malo. "
"So we knew this was the area St. Malo was in," said Mardo. "It was kind of cool to see that." As they left the island, Salgarolo wondered if they would ever see her again.
A U.S. geodetic survey marker found in St. Malo. (Photo: Michael Salgarolo)
Every time Gonzales goes to St. Malo, he hopes to find evidence of the Manila people. The last time he found the same field of golden marsh grass.
When you grow up in New Orleans, he says, you learn to accept that storms take things away and never give them back. Gonzales posited that Filipino Americans have a similar relationship with impermanence because they are so familiar with migration and movement.
"Things can live in our heads in a way," he said. "We don't have to be there to know they're important."
The Philippines that Filipinos in America remember are often not the Philippines that exist today.
"St. Malo is the same, ”said Gonzales. “We can't go back. We cannot know the story. But how can it be recognized in people's minds and be something? "
On the morning after the travelers' trip to St. Malo, Filipino Americans in splendid embroidery gathered on the sunny lawn of the Los Isleños Museum and sang "The Star-Spangled Banner". Then they turned to a Filipino flag and raised their voices for their other national anthem, "Lupang Hinirang," which means "chosen country".
A lectern with the PLHS logo was set up in front of a yellow pavilion with cheerful pennants. Behind it, in the shade of mossy oaks, a blue velvet cloth hid a tall structure.
A number of local dignitaries made speeches on the podium.
"I'm so, so happy that it was finally put here because it's an important part of our history," said Richoux. "Filipinos have been here a long time, we made a contribution to America, and we are not referred to as part of the fabric of this country."
"This is well overdue for us," said Howard Luna, a St. Bernard parish councilor whose Filipino grandfather settled in Louisiana.
"We're here today so St. Malo doesn't have to be rediscovered," said Gonzales.
The podium and local dignitaries at the dedication ceremony of St. Malo. (Photo: Yasmin Tayag)
Amid camera flashes, officers pulled away the blue velvet cloth to reveal the state's new historical mark. Adorned with the affable pelican of the state, St. Malo is described as "a symbol of the growing Filipino presence in Louisiana".
Just three months after the marker was revealed, COVID-19 struck, putting all local Filipino-American community events on hold. Now that Louisiana opens, the PLHS is planning a small celebration for Filipino American History Month in October and expects to bring back the full cycle of heritage events in 2022, including the Isleños Heritage Festival - which takes place on the lawn of the Isleños Museum - “which helps us to remain visible in the parish of St. Bernard,” said Gonzales.
The marker won't be there forever. It may not even be there long. But as long as it exists, it will serve as an anchor for any Filipino American who feels unsure about his or her place in the United States.
"I can finally tell people that this is legitimate," said Mardo. “Go to Louisiana, go to St. Bernard Parish. There will be a reference to this community there, the very first settlement of Filipinos in this country. You may not be able to see this settlement anymore, but this is the living evidence we have. "
It is very likely that the marker will eventually disappear. The hope is that by then the Filipino Americans will no longer have to prove that they belong.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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