Like the murky waters of the Louisiana bayou, the history of St. Malo is shrouded in mystery. The small fishing village was believed to have sprung up about 30 miles east of New Orleans in present day St. Bernard Parish sometime after the first Filipinos came to America on Spanish trade vessels in 1763. The only documentation of the community was published in 1883 when Lafcadio Hearn wrote an article for Harper’s Weekly documenting his visit to the remote village.
As Hearn described, the community of over 150 fishermen – or Manilamen as they were called – lived in stilted houses made from wood and palmetto fronds which resembled the iconic Bahay kubo structures of the Philippines. These houses and their location on Lake Borgne gave St. Malo residence easy access to prosperous shrimping and fishing grounds, but left the village susceptible to large storms. In 1915 the New Orleans Hurricane destroyed St. Malo, leaving no trace of America’s first Filipino settlement.
To keep the history of St. Malo alive, the Philippine-Louisiana Historical Society (PLHS) has erected a historical marker at the Los Isleños Museum Complex in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. During the unveiling program on November 9th, government officials from the Republic of the Philippines, the State of Louisiana, and the city of St. Bernard Parish watched cultural performances and listened to historical accounts prepared by PLHS and local Filipino American community organizations. The evening then ended with a formal gala celebrating the installment with Filipino food and folk dances.
This was the second historical marker erected by the PLHS after the first was unveiled in 2012 to commemorate Manila Village; a community that was central to Louisiana’s shrimp drying industry. The markers for both St. Malo and Manila Village are crucial in protecting the vibrant history of Filipino Americans in Louisiana and keep in line with PLHS’s mission to share the unique history of Filipinos in the Bayou State.
“These two markers help us inform the public about our history” said co-vice-president of PLHS Dr. Randy Gonzales on the group’s website. “We want the histories of the communities of St. Malo and Manila Village to be integrated into the Louisiana story everyone knows. The next generation shouldn’t be surprised when they learn there was a Filipino fishing village in St. Bernard Parish.”
Today, more than 4 million Filipino Americans live in the United States with nearly 12,000 Filipino Americans living in Louisiana. Not only were Filipinos some of the state’s first residents, but Filipino Americans are also credited with pioneering the state's dried shrimp industry which was the precursor to Louisiana’s thriving shrimping industry. Today, Louisiana has become one of the nation’s top shrimp producers with the industry generating an annual income of $1.3 billion for the Pelican State.
Amy Namur is a participant in the East-West Center's Young Professionals Program and a recent graduate from the United Nations University-MERIT and Maastricht University.