From Bayan to Bayou: A Filipino-Louisianan Connection

Wednesday, June 5, 2013 6 comments
Creamy Cajun Shrimp Enchilada

[Disclosure: I received the following product samples free of charge. I was not required to write a post  and was not compensated in any way in exchange for this post.]

It's unlikely that Pinoy entrepreneur Stan Laeno intended to become a conduit between this inquisitive blogger and an obscure bit of Filipino-American history when he created a special spice blend. Nevertheless, that's precisely what happened after I received a sampling of Cajun Caleb Seafood Spice, the eponymous first product of his fledgling food company.

It almost didn't happen at all. When publicist Elgin Zulueta emailed me with the offer, I politely declined, anticipating that the Los Angeles-based company might balk at the cost of shipping to the Philippines. But Elgin, a Fil-Am herself, cheerily waved off those concerns. She was happy to make the extra effort on behalf of a 'proudly Pinoy' company and expressed hope that kababayan bloggers such as myself and Fil-Australian Cherrie Moore of Sweet Cherrie Pie, could help spread the word by coming together in the traditional Pinoy cooperative effort known as bayanihan.

Team Spirit

Rooted in the Tagalog word bayan, meaning borough or town, bayanihan is the rural Philippine practice of helping neighbors literally move house: Local residents hoist the entire structure off the ground, usually with a large makeshift litter made of bamboo poles, and carry it to a new location nearby. From this extraordinary example of teamwork, its meaning has broadened to represent the spirit of helping out fellow Filipinos, whether they are right next door or half a world away. Supporting Stan by blogging about his Cajun seasoning would be a breeze compared to hauling a nipa hut from one spot to another.

Relocating: More Fun in the Philippines

The thing is, I'm not known for pithy posts of the "cook it, snap it, post it" variety. I believe there's a story in every dish, waiting to be discovered with a bit of patience and tenacious Googling, and I wanted to find Cajun Caleb's special tale. But the company website already revealed how it was inspired by Stan's love of cooking, and named after his grandson. I asked Elgin if Stan had any particular connection to Louisiana - did he once live in the region, work in a restaurant specializing in the cuisine, etc.? Nope, she replied in an e-mail. "He always prepares Cajun-style seafood, so he thought about it [as a product]."

With that, my Cajun Caleb post seemed destined to be a simple show-and-tell, until a serendipitous blurb about centuries-old Filipino settlements in Louisiana's bayous popped up on my Twitterstream. From that single thread, a tangled chronicle of Filipino-American history in Cajun/Creole country began unravelling.

From Luzon to Louisiana

It seems the annals of early Filipinos in North America are chock full of contention. For instance, the first documented¹ arrival of Pinoys was on October 18, 1587, when anonymous seamen referred to as 'Indios Luzones'² accompanied a landing party from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza onto the shores of Morro Bay in California's Central Coast. At least, that's what it says on a lovely plaque commemorating the occasion. However, while the event itself is undisputed, history buff Hector Santos pointed out interesting discrepancies that challenged the widely accepted landing site. In turn, his questions were answered in an equally persuasive counterargument from UCLA Distinguished Librarian and historian Eloisa Gomez Borah. The verdict: For now, Morro Bay retains its claim to that moment in time.

Yet another controversy surrounds the aforementioned Louisiana connection. Popular history has it that during the mid-1700s, Filipino sailors from Manila galleons docked along the Gulf Coast jumped ship to escape their harsh Spanish masters. Making their way to the Mississippi River Delta, they established fishing villages in the bayous surrounding New Orleans. It's now a Pinoy point of pride that Filipinos comprise the oldest continuous Asian American community in the United States, thanks to these hardy seafarers-turned-fishermen and the bayou-bayans they created.

The very first of these communities was Saint Malo, on the edge of Lake Borgne, which was supposedly settled in 1763 by 'Manilamen', according to Marina E. Espina, University of New Orleans librarian emeritus and author of Filipinos in Louisiana (New Orleans, LA: A.F. Laborde & Sons, 1988), cited by many as the definitive history of Pinoys in the region.

The village remained hidden from the rest of civilization until 1883, when intrepid journalist Lafcadio Hearn revealed its existence in a Harper's Weekly dispatch, "Saint Malo: A Lacustrine Village in Louisiana":

"For nearly fifty years there has existed in the southeastern swamp lands of Louisiana a certain strange settlement of Malay fishermen - Tagalas³ from the Philippine Islands. The place of their lacustrine village is not precisely mentioned upon maps, and the world in general ignored until a a few days ago the bare fact of their amphibious existence. Even the United States mail service has never found its way thither…"

Stilt houses of Saint Malo village
(source: US Library of Congress)

Illustrations⁴ accompanying the article showed a settlement built along and atop marshy waters, comprised of stilt houses that any Filipino would recognize as bahay kubo:

"All are built in true Manila style, with immense hat-shaped eaves and balconies, but in wood; for it has been found that palmetto and woven cane could not withstand the violence of the climate."

Make note, however, of Hearn's dating of the village, which implies a founding closer to the 1830s - nearly six decades later than the year given by Espina. Once again, questions about the accuracy of the earlier date have been raised by others: in an editorial column, Philippine academic and author Ambeth Ocampo cited an article⁵ by historian Malcolm H. Churchill that casts doubt on the accepted timeline. At issue was Espina's seeming reliance on a single secondary source⁶ to determine the date of the first Filipino settlement in Louisiana.

Hurricanes and Heritage

Similar uncertainty surrounds the history of Manila Village, the most well-known of the Pinoy bayou communities and the place where Louisiana's sun dried shrimp (called 'sea bob') industry was born. One book on the history of Jefferson Parish states that it was founded by Chinese and Filipino immigrants in 1873 under the auspices of the Quong Sun Company to process sea bob for export to China. However, an historical marker unveiled last year by the Philippine-Louisiana Historical Society gives a vague 'turn of the 19th century' timeframe, but very specific credit to one [Jacinto] Quintin de la Cruz of Albay province in Bicol⁷ as the founder of both settlement and industry. While the circumstances of its beginnings are debatable, the year of Manila Village's ending is not: In 1965, Hurricane Betsy demolished the town's stilt-supported homes and shrimping platforms, leaving behind a few lonely pilings to mark its once thriving existence.

Sea bob packing company in Manila Village
(source: The Louisiana Digital Library)

The legacy of these original Filipino settlements might have faded when their residents moved away and were absorbed into Louisiana's broader society, if not for present-day descendants who take pride in their heritage, and continue to nurture and celebrate their connections to the Philippines. Among them is Rhonda Lee Richoux, a freelance writer, columnist and 6th generation descendant of Felipe Madriaga (aka Madrigal), a seafarer from Ilocos Norte who was one of the original settlers of Manila Village. Her research into her family's Filipino roots yielded photographs⁸, documents and vivid oral stories that exemplify the Pinoy-Louisianan connection.

Many personal records were destroyed when Ms. Richoux and members of her extended family lost their homes and belongings during catastrophic Hurricane Katrina in 2005; fortunately, some of these records, particularly priceless photographs, were stored in electronic form. Even more fortunate is that Ms. Richoux has shared her genealogical work online in "Madriaga History in Louisiana" - a fascinating read well worth a leisurely look.

Stan Laeno may not have had direct ties to Cajun country when he whipped up his spice blend, but the story of the Manilamen of Louisiana is one in which all kababayans can share.


1. Recounted in the handwritten journals of the Buena Esperanza's captain, Pedro de Unamuno, and translated by Henry R. Wagner in Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1929).
2. During the Spanish colonial period, native Filipinos of Malay ancestry were called 'indios' (source: 'Luzones' was coined by the Portuguese for the inhabitants of Luzon, the Philippines' largest island (source:ções).
3. Hearn was perhaps referring to the Tagalogs, a major ethnic group primarily from the southern provinces of Luzon and nearby islands. [source:]
4. Saint Malo illustrations were engraved by Charles Graham, based on the sketches of Harper's Weekly artist J.O. Davidson, who accompanied Lafcadio Hearn to the hidden village. [source:]  
5. Churchill, Malcolm H. "Louisiana History and Early Filipino Settlement: Searching for the Story." Bulletin of the American Historical Collection Foundation. 27.2 [1992]: 25-48.
6. Espina quoted a portion of an article by Larry Bartlett, published in the July 31, 1977 issue of Dixie, which mentions the year 1763. I could not find the full text of this article online; furthermore, I have not read Espina's book, so I do not know if she provides other primary documentation to support Bartlett's date.
7. Place of Quintin de la Cruz's origins, as given in a press release from the Asian/Pacific American Society of New Orleans [].
8. The linked photograph of Felipe Madrigal/Madriaga's extended family is found on and identifies Felipe and his Irish wife Bridgett Nugent as numbers 2 and 1, respectively.

"Add Spice to the Mix!"

Which brings me back to Cajun Caleb. Stan may not have been aware of the Filipino-Louisianan connection, but surely a Pinoy-Cajun spirit was watching over him as he concocted his blend. As Elgin promised, a package of Cajun Caleb seasoning arrived all the way from SoCal. Opening one gold foil packet, I caught a whiff of pungent cumin and could see flecks of dried green herbs and salt crystals in the mix. The seasoning's scorched orange shade delivered on a promise of zestiness, thanks to cayenne and black peppers, but there was also a distinctly citrus-y note, perhaps from ground coriander, that perked up the overall flavor. 

So then, what to make with this Cajun-inspired, proudly Pinoy product? How about an easy recipe that ties together elements of Louisiana's fascinating Filipino community history:

Creamy Cajun Shrimp Enchiladas

Let's break it down:

  • Cajun is for Cajun Caleb - the reason this post and dish came to be;
  • Shrimp is for Louisiana's shrimping industry and the Filipino fisherman who contributed to its development;
  • Enchiladas is for the Mexican tie-ins to this story: the destination of the galleons that carried the Manilamen so far from home, and the coincidental alignment of two ersatz holidays - Cinco de Mayo and National Enchilada Day - on the day I made this meal.
  • Creamy is for reasons.

This creamy shrimp sauce is also delicious served over pasta or steamed rice. As with many spice-based recipes, the flavors deepen the longer they have time to blend with the other ingredients. The leftover sauce, tossed into rotini, had developed quite a nice zing by the following evening.


1 small onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs olive oil
3 lbs* raw medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 Tbs Cajun Caleb seasoning (or more, to taste)
1 fl cup heavy whipping cream
2 Tbs cornstarch mixed with 1 Tbs cold water

10 5-inch flour tortillas

To Make:

Heat the olive oil in a large fry or sauté pan, and sauté the onions and garlic until softened. Add the shrimps and lightly toss, then evenly sprinkle Cajun Caleb seasoning over them. Cook until the shrimps start to turn pink, about 1-2 minutes. Add the whipping cream and stir well. Bring to a low simmer and add the cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce. When the sauce has thickened, remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 325˚F.

Spoon some sauce - without any shrimps - into a rectangular glass or ceramic casserole and spread it evenly. For each tortilla, spoon about 2 tablespoons of the creamy shrimp down the center length and roll it. Place each rolled-up enchilada side-by-side in the dish and ladle more sauce on top of them. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Garnish with finely chopped red bell peppers and cilantro.


  • BettyAnn @Mango_Queen said...

    Bravo! This is an exceptional piece! I did hear about Pinoys settling in LA from my son who did a sociology paper on it. But you made the story so enjoyable here. Thanks for a beautiful article and for the delish recipe, TN !

  • Cris said...

    Hi sweetie, I love, love your stories and the bayanihan act of friendship is lovely. What a beautiful way to move the food from one fil-am to another and you created a beautiful dish!

  • Midge said...

    Great post! It's amazing to know that there have been Filipinos in Louisiana for the longest time and how their community survived the tests of time.

    Oh, and those enchiladas look muy delicioso!

  • Anonymous said...

    I just came from and indeed she has delicious looking shrimp made from this mix.

    Your interpretation is interesting, both of my loves (seafood and mexican food) all in one bite. Thanks for sharing.


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