Saint-Malo: The first refuge settlement for Filipinos built in Louisiana

by Paul Garilao, ABS-CBN News

NEW ORLEANS, LA — In the early 1700s, some Filipinos who were on board the Spanish ships as crew help during the Manila Galleon trade decided to take matters in their own hands — by deserting their masters and seeking refuge on the shores of Lake Borgne in Saint-Malo, now known as Saint Bernard in Louisiana.

Honorary Philippine Consul Robert Romero said these Filipinos escaped possible abuse from their Spanish masters.

 “They jumped ship because there is hope for them rather than them being slaved by their masters in those voyages.”

These Manila men also knows as Tagalas constructed large Cypress Houses in low lying wetland areas in Saint-Malo — a strategic place for them to hide from the Spaniards.

The village that they built eventually became the earliest settlement of Filipinos in the United States.

Jose Bautista, a Xavier University professor, shared that these Filipinos became entrepreneurs and developed a method to dry shrimp, which they learned back in the Philippines.

“The seafood industry expanded from Saint Bernard to the New Orleans area. That allowed for opportunities. Over time, the original settlers intermarried with locals. That’s how the influence of Filipinos spread throughout the area.”

Saint-Malo became the largest fishing village on Lake Borgne with approximately 150 Filipino fishermen running their shrimp businesses. Although the location provided easy access to prime fishing grounds, the village was hit by severe storms through the years.

“They were hit by the hurricanes, as well as their products and the community. They would start from scratch to the point where maybe the younger generation found it hard to do so.”

On November 9th of this year, the Filipino Louisiana Historical Society will unveil a historical marker in Saint Bernard in honor of the first chapter of Filipino migration in the U.S.

“We invite everyone to be a participant in this momentous event. Hoping that we, on the next generation, can really try to share this also in the next generation as well.”

 The history of the early Filipino settlers in Louisiana proved their determination to overcome the challenges and fulfill the American Dream.

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