Saturday, October 4, 2014

Manila Men: The First Filipino Overseas Workers

OFWS: Overseas Filipino Workers 

Filipinos have been a major source of human resources for countries in every continent for over 50  years. In fact at any given time up to 15% of the Filipino population are abroad on a work visa and more than a million leave yearly for this specific purpose. This number do not include the undocumented ones.

Most people would think this brain drain is a recent phenomenon, but history tells us this is not so.

The very first OFWs were probably the Manila men -- a band of sailors who jumped ship during the Spanish Galleon Trade Era (1500s to 1800s) and found a safe haven in the marshlands of Louisiana, USA.

Though these men weren't the first Filipinos who set foot in the US Mainland, they were the first "documented" who permanently settled in the New World.

The first Filipinos who set foot in the US were Captain Unamuno and his Filipino crew , the "Luzones Indios". They landed and did some expeditions some where in the coasts of California on October 18, 1587. They left a few days later.

Filipinos In Louisiana (circa 1760s)

For close to 300 years, nothing had been written about these early globe trotting Filipinos. Not until the 1800s when word about a secret and isolated people finally piqued the interests of the media. Noted Greek-Irish journalist Lafcadio Hearn was commissioned by New Orleans to check up on the existence of a secluded community of Filipinos living in the remote swamp lands of the area.

Hearn went there with an artist who drew several sketches of scenes of everyday life and fantastic houses sticking out of the water on wooden stilts. These unique houses have covered balconies in the front and open-air gardens to the rear, very similar to the houses of the Badjao tribes of Southern Philippines.

Manila Men

On March 31,1883, Harper Weekly published their eyewitness account. In “St. Malo: A Lacustrine Village in Louisiana”, Hearn wrote of an unusual Filipino village of 100 or so "cinnamon-colored" Manila Men (or Manilamen, no women) who lived by fishing and catching alligators.

They spoke Spanish and a Philippine language and he referred to them as “Tagalas” from the Philippine Islands. These men sent money back to their families in the Philippines whenever possible, with the profits they made from their fishing. Thus making them the very first OFWS.

The Manila Men of Saint Malo were also credited with starting the dried shrimp industry in Louisiana, employing methods commonly used in the Philippines.

St. Malo

When Hearn interviewed Padre Carpio in 1882, the oldest Manilaman of Saint Malo at that time, he learned that his village had been in existence for a little more than 50 years (about the 1820s).

In case if you are wondering,  Saint Malo was only one of seven Filipino settlements in that region.

The other communities were the Manila Village (on Barataria Bay in the Mississippi Delta by the Gulf of Mexico); Alombro Canal and Camp Dewey (in Plaquemines Parish); and Leon Rojas, Bayou Cholas, and Bassa Bassa (in Jefferson Parish), all in Louisiana.

Saint Malo was destroyed by the New Orleans Hurricane of 1915, while Manila Village, the last of seven Filipino villages, was washed away by Hurricane Betsy, which is still one of the deadliest and costliest storms in United States history, in 1965.

Manila Village

Manila Village was considered to be the largest and most popular, Saint Malo, however, was the oldest.

Saint Malo: Oldest Continuous Asian American Settler Community in North America

Saint Malo used to be situated on a waterway 5 miles east of the fishing village of Shell Beach.

Some accounts state that the Saint Malo settlement was established as early as the 1700s by Filipinos who deserted Spanish ships during the Manila Galleon Trade (1565-1815).

Filipino sailors sailed on galleons plying the Manila-Acapulco trade route routinely  jumped ship in the New World. Eventually they made their way across the Gulf into the Louisiana’s bayou, as far away as possible from the Spaniards and settled in a remote area. This community in essence with at least eight generations should be the oldest continuous Asian American settler community in North America.

Other accounts do suggest that the community was established sometime after 1812 (or sometime towards the end of the trade, just as the old man Padre Carpio have said).


Whatever year they did arrive, they  settled in the bayous and we're referred to Manilamen. Later on they were called the Tagalas. People from Manila speak Spanish and their local dialect, Tagalog.

They governed themselves and kept their existence a secret from mainstream society for at least over a hundred years until the arrival of Hearn, whose article is the first known written piece about Filipinos in the United States.

Hearn and his companion were able to visit the village, and their account provided a very detailed account about the Manilamen.

This isolated community lived in houses made from wooden planks which would have been shipped from other places as these kind of wood do not grow in the swamp lands.

There was no furniture and no bed in any of the dwellings. Instead the fishermen slept among barrels of flour, folded sails and smoked fish.

Their diet was mainly fish and surprisingly they rarely ate rice, which was a staple of Filipinos for centuries.

Like in the Philippines,  the Manilamen were predominantly Roman Catholics. They have no specific address, no mail and didn't appear on the census records. They paid no taxes and had no policemen. They had their own set of laws much like they have back home.  In case of disputes, the oldest man living in the settlement will mediate between the contending parties.

There were no females in the village when Hearn visited it and it was understandable as no sane woman would want to live in such harsh conditions. And since there were no Filipino women, the Manila men intermarried with Cajun, Indian and other native women. Their descendants still survive until this day.

Selected Sources:

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