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A Life’s Work Washed Away

A Life’s Work Washed Away

Much of Marina Espina’s research on Filipinos in Louisiana was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and many scholars fear that history may be gone for good.
By Lydia Lum

When Hurricane Katrina barreled toward land just over a year ago, University of New Orleans librarian emeritus Marina Espina was among the thousands who evacuated the city. As she navigated the congested freeways, she worried about what damage the storm could wreak on the hundreds of papers and photos she had collected, documenting the lengthy history of Filipinos on the Gulf Coast.

Espina’s worst fears were realized when New Orleans’ levee system failed, submerging 80 percent of the city. Water rose to 11 feet in her house, which sits a few blocks from Lake Pontchartrain and the UNO campus. Most of her research was ruined.

The loss not only devastated Espina, but promises to be a serious setback for scholars and historians across the country. Many college faculty cite Espina’s 1988 book, Filipinos in Louisiana, in their Asian American studies and history courses. Without Espina’s research, far less would be known about the Filipinos who settled in the Louisiana marshlands in the 1760s. The “Manilamen,” as they were known, are believed to be among the earliest Asian immigrants in this country. Conscripts on Spanish galleons, the Manilamen escaped by jumping ship in New Orleans and in Acapulco, Mexico.

Dr. Kimberly Alidio, a University of Texas assistant professor of history, wonders why their story has drawn so little attention.

“Maybe it’s because the Manilamen were here in pre-Revolutionary times, when this country wasn’t formally a country,” she says. “Even some Filipino-Americans don’t know what to do with these stories.”

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are more than
1.8 million Filipino-Americans nationwide, with more than half living in either California or Hawaii. Only 4,500 Filipino-Americans live in Louisiana.

The loss of Espina’s research was devastating because the work represented such a significant portion of the available history. In the weeks after Katrina struck, the Filipino American National Historical Society said, “We as Filipino-Americans share her loss. Espina’s research was the foundation of Filipino-American history.”

For years, Espina went up and down the bayous and deltas of Louisiana, using word-of-mouth referrals to track down descendants of the Manilamen. She coaxed people into sharing family photos, birth certificates, documents and stories of their elders. All the while, she was making copies of whatever she could to piece together the broader history. Espina also traveled to Mexico and the Philippines. She received a Fulbright scholarship in 1983 and has taken two sabbaticals from UNO, but by and large she has financed her work on her own. Along the way, she has presented her findings to university audiences and has had her work profiled in metropolitan newspapers and by the BBC. In recent months, she has been discarding much of the ruined research and background material from her flooded home, including thick files of papers and a 24-volume set of reference books on the Philippines. “My life is being thrown away with every material thing,” she says. 

Dr. Dawn Mabalon, a San Francisco State University assistant professor of history, calls the loss “heartbreaking,” not only for Filipino-Americans, but for all Americans. The Filipino-descended scholar first learned of the Manilamen as a child in the 1980s after reading about Espina’s work-in-progress. That revelation made a deep impression on her because Filipinos never appeared in any of her school books in Stockton, Calif., despite the multi-generation presence they have had there.

“Learning about the Manilamen helped give me a sense of pride and identity,” says Mabalon, who for the last decade has helped preserve and restore an eight-block area of Stockton called “Little Manila.” “It also blew apart my image of the South — that it was only Black and White.”

250 Years of History…Gone
The Philippine Islands were a colony of Spain for more than 300 years, until being ceded to the United States in 1898, after the Spanish-American War. During the centuries of Spanish rule, armed merchant ships called galleons plied a lucrative trade route from the Orient to Acapulco and on to Europe. Crews led by Spanish officers hauled jewels, silks, ivory, rugs and spices from the East to trade in the “New World” and in Europe.

But galleon life was grueling and perilous. Countless sailors died. The surviving Filipinos figured they had little to lose by escaping. According to Espina, the Manilamen built their first village, Saint Malo, outside of New Orleans. The escaped sailors built houses on stilts, governing and policing themselves while working as shrimpers, fishermen and trappers. They married local women, but because of the village’s rudimentary conditions, wives and children typically lived in the city. 

 As word spread that Filipino sailors had settled along the Gulf Coast, Espina says, more of their countrymen on the Manila-Acapulco route escaped the galleons and joined them. Over the years, more bayou communities were established, with many housing families instead of just men. One of the largest was called Manila Village, just west of the Mississippi River delta and named after the Philippine capital. The Manilamen popularized a process called “dancing of the shrimp,” in which they stomped on the shrimp to the tune of guitar music to remove the heads and pop them from their shells.

But an unnamed hurricane in 1915 erased Saint Malo. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy destroyed Manila Village. And then in 2005 Katrina wiped out most of Espina’s records. “Every 50 years, nature seems to diminish the Filipino history here,” she says.

Espina moved from the Philippines to New Orleans in 1967 when her husband was assigned to work for the Filipino consulate there. In New Orleans, a consular official once mentioned Manila Village to Espina, but when she went to the campus and community libraries, she could find no mention of the Manilamen.

Family Ties
The Burtanog family was one of the families featured in Filipinos in Louisiana, and for them Hurricane Katrina meant a dramatic, life-altering shift. Two Burtanog sisters, Joyce and Lillian Mae, now well into their 70s, had always lived within walking distance of each other in their native New Orleans and in their longtime homes east of the city in St. Bernard Parish. The fifth-generation Filipino-Americans were featured in the 1997 film, “My America … or Honk if You Love Buddha.” Patterned after Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, it’s a road movie about Asian-Americans in various parts of the country and has been shown at many college campuses.

The Burtanogs have long fascinated students with their brown skin, New Orleans vernacular and unexpected stories. For example, they remember that during the years of segregation, they were
treated by locals as if they were White. When Dr. Martin Manalansan IV asks his students on the end-of-semester evaluations for
the most memorable aspect of the course, the Burtanogs are usually one of the most common responses.

“On one hand, the Burtanogs are interesting, quirky characters,” says Manalansan, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois. “On the other hand, they illustrate the malleability of race.”
He estimates that about 70 percent of the students in his “Introduction to Asian-American Studies” and his “Asian-American Cultures” courses are White and from the Midwest. “They expect to study someone who’s different from themselves; then they watch these Filipinas talk about attending White schools.”

The Burtanog sisters trace their roots to a 19th-century Filipino sailor named Felipe Madriaga, who met his Irish wife, Bridgett Nugent, on a ship that eventually docked in New Orleans. The couple was listed in the 1860 Census as residents of St. Bernard Parish, says Rhonda Richoux Fox, daughter of one of the three remaining Burtanogs, which also includes Benita. The eldest sister, Audrey, died in 2000. Over the generations, many of the female Madriaga descendants married Filipinos, and some branches of the family lived and worked in Manila Village.

Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña, who wrote and directed “My America,” credits Espina with introducing her to the Burtanog sisters. She recalls visiting the women at their local Filipino Goodwill Society building, a popular weekend family destination where adults mingled, danced and played cards while their children played.

The fact that the Burtanogs are now living in three different states saddens Tajima-Peña, who is also an associate professor in the social documentation program at the University of California-Santa Cruz’s community studies department. “They are the vessels of history,” she says. “A real community is a living thing.”   

But perhaps the story of the Louisiana Filipinos has shifted, says Dr. Rick Bonus, an associate professor in the University of Washington’s American ethnic studies department. He has used Espina’s book and Tajima-Peña’s film in his classes.

“As sad as Katrina was, we should pay attention to how these people find new ways of going on with life,” Bonus says. “Whenever Filipinos have migrated, whether because of natural disaster or other reasons, their stories are of tenacity and resilience.”

Meanwhile, Espina and her husband now live in Lafayette, La., about 125 miles west of New Orleans. Their old home awaits demolition and, like so many other families, they are engaged in a lengthy battle with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance adjusters. Retired from UNO since 1996, Espina says it’s impossible to re-create the historical records she lost in Katrina. For one thing, she doesn’t know the current whereabouts of most of the people she has interviewed over the years.

Nonetheless, she still patiently fields queries from scholars and this past summer spoke at the Filipino American National Historical Society’s national convention.

“The story of the Manilamen and their descendants has almost become my entire life,” she says.

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