The mystery of the “manilamen”, the first Asian settlers in swamps of the southern United States.

According to historians, Filipino settlers lived in the Louisiana swamps in houses raised on stakes.

Just five miles downriver from the ornate wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter in New Orleans, in the American South, lies a more serene landscape, covered in marshes and thick mud. Fishermen sell shrimp along the road through St. Bernard Parish.

This 200-year-old suburb is famous for its fishing industry and a distinctive geography that emerges like the crest of a wave on Louisiana’s east coast, before expanding into dozens of islands and swamps in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here, on Lake Borgne, is where Saint Malo once stood, the first permanent Filipino settlement in the United States and the oldest known permanent Asian settlement.

The story of Louisiana’s striking swamps has a diverse mix of sources: from Spanish settlers to French Acadians, Native Americans, and people of African descent, both slave and free.

But there’s one ingredient missing from this complex sancocho: Before the US was a country, Filipinos most likely lived here in stilt houses built on top of the swamps.

From these “floating villages,” the so-called “manilamen” (Manila men) established the fishing industry that introduced dried, boiled, pickled, and sun-dried shrimp to Louisiana to concentrate its flavor.

With subsequent Chinese immigrants, they transported dried shrimp around the world, laying the foundation for Louisiana’s modern shrimp industry.

“floating” community

But how the “manilamen” got to Louisiana is a mystery. Some historians believe that it was aboard Spanish ships in the mid-1700s. Others, that they were sailors and servants on the routes between Manila and Acapulco who abandoned their ships and took refuge in the Gulf, whose swamps and landscape resembled those of their land.

Some British colonizers even mentioned the “Malay pirates” who were part of French pirate Jean Lafitte’s smugglers, who attacked Spanish galleons.

One of the oldest accounts of Saint Malo appeared in an article in Harper’s Weekly magazine in 1883, in which writer Lafcadio Hearn described an idyllic picture of the “floating” community.

Hearn noted that the community had existed for about 50 years.

However, Filipino-American historian Kirby Aráullo wrote on that “according to oral tradition, there was already a Filipino community there in 1763, when the Philippines and Louisiana were part of the Spanish colonial government ruled from Mexico.

According to Randy Gonzales, a fourth-generation Filipino from Louisiana and a historian at Lafayette University, the Manilamen saw an opportunity in the Louisiana Gulf, a region that many others found very wild and hostile. Despite the mosquitoes and hurricanes, the “manilamen” were used to typhoons in the Philippines.

There, Filipino settlers established their method of drying and preserving crustaceans, according to Liz Williams, founder of the New Orleans Museum of Southern Food and Drink.

“They would put some kind of canvas on their feet and walk on the nets that were suspended over the water in the marsh area and over the dried shrimp,” Williams explains.

The shell fell into the swamp, but the dried shrimp, hardened by salt, did not break and remained in the net. They called that the “shrimp dance.”

“They realized that dried shrimp could be shipped and taken all over the world, because we have so many types of shrimp and so many shrimp seasons here,” adds Williams.

John Folse, a chef who owns a restaurant and an expert on the region’s Acadian and Creole cuisine, remembers there was always a bucket of dried shrimp in the backyard of his home in St. James Parish in the 1950s.

“It was like having a constant gift when it was all over,” he says. “With bland vegetables like brinjal and squash in our garden, dried shrimp were perfect for bringing out that explosive flavor you couldn’t get with regular shrimp or crabmeat.”

This ingredient is entrenched in the state’s culinary landscape, but locals are unlikely to recognize its Filipino origins. That’s because the history of Saint Malo has largely been forgotten.

“In the 20th century, the reason these stories were lost was assimilation and segregation in a way,” explains Randy Gonzales.

Filipinos are brunettes. Well, if you’re brunette, you can be black or white, depending on who’s deciding. So my grandmother had to go to school and say, ‘Look, my son is white’ so she wouldn’t have to go to the black school, which she was less gifted with. There were very pragmatic reasons for letting that identity disappear.

There are also physical factors why the history of Saint Malo has been lost. According to Gonzales, there are so few artifacts and records from the settlement that it is difficult to piece together a history of the “manilamen.”

Marina Estrella Espina, author of the book “Filipinos in Louisiana,” was one of the first modern historians to document Filipino life in Saint Malo.

Between 1970 and 1990, he tracked down the descendants of the “manilamen,” collecting photos, birth certificates and stories, which he kept at his home in New Orleans.

But, it was all lost in Hurricane Katrina that destroyed the city in 2005. A devastating loss, according to the Philippine-American Historical Society.

The inclement weather seems to be a metaphor for the very history of Filipinos in this region. The land around Saint Malo is eroding, Gonzales says.

St. Bernard Parish is known for its vanishing coastline and could lose 70% of its land in the next 50 years if there is no intervention.

Even so, the history of these Filipino settlers is finally being recognized.

Gonzales, a leading researcher on the Filipino presence in the US, has published many books on the subject. In 2019, the Philippine-Louisiana Historical Society erected a plaque to commemorate the history of Saint Malo, and Gonzales wrote the accompanying text.

The plaque is located near the Los Isleños museum complex, a few kilometers from where the village would have been.

Though no traces of their stilt structures remain, the history of the “manilamen” is being highlighted in a new exhibit at St. Bernard’s Nunez University that examines the role of Filipinos in Louisiana history.