POSTED Mon. Oct 27, 2014


NOLA Filipino History Stretches for Centuries

New Orleans loudly celebrates its Vietnamese community, its culture and especially its food. But the Vietnamese are not the only Asian American enclave in the area.Filipino culture is, in many ways, just as established locally, and is currently being celebrated during October, Filipino American History Month.

Possibly as early as the late 1700’s, Filipino sailors under the rule of the Spanish deserted or otherwise escaped Spanish ships to establish the fishing village of Saint Malo in Louisiana, five miles from Shell Beach in what would later become St Bernard.

These “Manila Men”, later called Taglas (from Tagalog, the indigenous language of the Philippines), were almost Filipino Cajuns, living off the marshlands, harvesting shrimp, all the while hidden from Spanish view in much the same way Jean Lafitte’s pirates eluded capture.

“Filipinos pioneered the dried shrimp industry, the predecessor of the modern shrimping industry,” says Robert Romero, the President of the Filipino Louisiana Historical Society, which he established in 2012. “There was no refrigeration then, and after you have been catching all this shrimp, so you have to just dry it.” Manila Village, Bassa Bassa and other Gulf Coast Filipino settlements would later be credited with developing the first major shrimp harvesting and processing businesses.

Saint Malo, the first Filipino settlement in the entire United States, flourished from the 18th to the early 20th century before being destroyed by the hurricane of 1915. The story was reported by transplanted Louisiana journalist Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote the first ever article about American Filipinos for Harper’s Weekly in 1883.

“We have introduced a lot of interesting facets of society in Louisiana: cultural, economic, and political,” touts Robert Romero. “We’ve given great contributions to Louisiana from a military point of view, and in the healthcare industry.”

Romero points to Louisiana’s 2008 mass recruitment of teachers from the Philippines to fill a post-Katrina teacher shortage. Those instructors are being recruited in math, science and English.

Jefferson Parish first recruited 60 Filipino teachers into its school system, all of whom were welcomed with charitable arms by established Filipino-American residents. “Filipinos are prized in America to teach math and science because their teachers are taught the American education system,” says Romero. “While America has brought education to the forefront in the Philippines, after Katrina hit teachers here were displaced, so… right now the Philippines are really paying back letting all our teachers teach here.” Romero believes New Orleans schools currently employs around 500 Filipino teachers.

Romero’s Filipino Louisiana Historical Society serves as a legal entity, and was instrumental in recently putting up the historical marker called The Manila Village Plaza. “It’s the first officially sanctioned Filipino monument in the nation,” Romero says. “We commemorated it in 2012 and 2013, and we intend to follow up with other historical spots throughout the state.”

These days, New Orleans reportedly hosts almost two-dozen types of Filipino cultural groups and organizations, like the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang group that sponsored a Filipino float in the Elks parade before Rex. Local Filipinos celebrate many other events that go under-the-radar in larger New Orleans culture. Filipinos celebrated June 12th as Independence Day from both Spain and America, with traditional food and dance.

Filipinos constitute a large Catholic population wherever they are found, and there are many monthly Filipino-themed nights in New Orleans. The Feast of San Lorenzo Ruiz brings together various Louisiana Filipino congregations at the St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in New Orleans for mass on the last Saturday of September to celebrate the Feast Day of San Lorenzo Ruiz East.

Romero is also the founder, Organizer and incoming Governor of New Orleans Filipino American Lions Club, which hosts its monthly meetings at local Filipino restaurant, Milkfish. Other than Ely’s Philippine Imports Market (339 Andrew Higgins Drive), Milkfish is the only place in New Orleans that offers Filipino food dishes.

“I didn’t realize there were that many Filipinos in New Orleans until I opened this restaurant!” says Cristina Quackenbush, who owns Milkfish with her fiance Dean Lambert. “Whenever we’d travel, everywhere we’d ever go we’d try find out if there’s a Filipino restaurant, because they’re so few and far between. You can go to any town and get sushi or Chinese food or Vietnamese, and so we were always on the search — until finally I got a little upset that I could never find any! That’s when I decided to try and put Filipino food on the map.”

This is Quackenbush’s first year in the Filipino Lion’s Club, but she first came to America when she was five-years-old with her step-father, who was in the Marines. Her family moved to Louisiana 14 years ago. Before recently moving back to the Philippines, Quackenbush’s mother taught her everything she knew about Filipino cooking. “She made sure I knew the dishes and grew up cooking them,” says Quackenbush.

She says the signature of Filipino cooking is the sauces: “They’re all family specific,” says Quackenbush, who points out that neither Filipino food nor spices are generally very spicy. “There’s a lot of vinegar and citrusy flavor, with black pepper and garlic. You put the sauces together how your family likes it. Just like there are a million and one ways family make adobo.” Milkfish also specializes in pansit (stir-fry), dinuguan (pork stew), and sinigang (meat or seafood stew win sour broth),

“We were conquered by Chinese in 1600’s, and then the Spanish conquered us in 1700s,” Quackenbush says, speaking for all Filipinos. “So you have both types of foods: Asian rice dishes and egg rolls, but then also stews and potatoes and garlic from the Spanish side. The Asian and Spanish influence is what makes us different from other Asians.”

Above image: Harper’s Weekly illustration of Saint Malo by Charles Whitney, 1883. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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