When Filipino sailors, fed up with the harsh treatment of their Spanish overlords, jumped ship in waters off Louisiana, they found themselves in a place much like home.
“The humidity is the same as the Philippines,” said Robert Romero, president of the Filipino Louisiana Historical Society. The terrain was familiar, too, Romero added, with the abundant water reminiscent of the Philippines’ over 1,100 islands. “They were familiar with what life was [when you are] dependent on water.”
Those early sailors settled in two main areas – Saint Malo in what is now St. Bernard Parish and a place they called Manila Village in present day Jefferson Parish. (Saint Malo would be destroyed by a Hurricane in 1915 and Manila Village by Hurricane Betsy in 1965.)
Shrimping, the local industry, “was not new to the Philippines,” said Romero, and many of the sailors took up that way of life, even becoming pioneers when it came to methods of preservation.
There wasn’t even a need to change religions, Romero said, with the Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic nation in Asia.
Also like New Orleans, the Philippines has a cuisine that is influenced by the many cultures that have either ruled or traded there over centuries.
“Well the traditional Filipino dish will always contain rice, which is indigenous to the Philippines, and also seafood,” said Romero, “but also there is what are called the adobo or chicken cooked mostly with vinegar and some salt added to it.” Different parts of the Philippines have their own take on the adobo, Romero said, adding you can tell where a person is from by the way they cook it.
Today, there are over 11,000 Filipino-Americans living in Louisiana, with about 6,000 in the metro New Orleans area. A small, yet important contingent of those came following Hurricane Katrina, Romero said, when teachers from the Philippines were recruited to come to New Orleans to help fill the vacant spots in the chaotic post-K landscape.
“One of the greatest contributions of America to the Philippines is by way of education,” said Romero. So with those Filipino teachers, “we have come full circle. I commend those teachers for sharing that legacy back with America.”
Romero said there are a few ways to experience Filipino culture in New Orleans, including an event October 8th at Xavier University in recognition of Filipino-American heritage month. Filipinos also celebrate two independence days over the summer, the first on June 12th commemorating freedom from Spain, and again on July 4th to mark the end of U.S. control (which happened back in 1935).
To celebrate, “we always have some folk dances just to remember the culture,” Romero said. “We have a lot of food, and getting together… it’s a festival! We’re in New Orleans! It’s a hotbed of festivals!”