Life on the Bayou

Visitors to Manila Village, 1938

Little Carroll Ferniz finally got his shrimp boat in 1993. It had been his longtime dream to be a shrimper like his father and grandfather. Since boyhood he had loved the lakes, bays and bayous of Louisiana and felt at home on the water. Fishing and shrimping, a family tradition, was in his blood, and he felt destined to carry it on. His dream came true late in life, after he had retired from a supervisory position at an oil company. His father, “Big Carroll” Ferniz or Carroll Sr., on the other hand, became a shrimper early in his life because there was little else to do for a young Filipino American in New Orleans during the Depression of the 1930s.

Although Carroll Sr. was born and raised in New Orleans (note: New Orleans in this article includes the surrounding parishes or counties of Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines), his skin color and lack of higher education placed him at a disadvantage. Jobs weren’t easy to find and competition was stiff for the few jobs available. Like their compatriots in California, Illinois and Washington, Filipinos in New Orleans experienced discrimination especially during the early years of the Depression.

It hadn’t always been that way. During the early 20th century, when Filipinos arrived as students, domestic workers and laborers, they were generally tolerated as the “little brown brothers” from a newly acquired colony of the United States. Filipinos in New Orleans were relatively few at the time, so they weren’t seen as a threat or as serious competition for jobs. What little most Americans knew of their background came from stories about the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, where Filipino tribesmen were exhibited as primitive savages.

By the 1930s, however, the U.S. Census pegged the Filipino population in New Orleans at 328, an estimate long considered conservative. (Some estimates had 1,500 Filipinos in the 1920s; some 3,000 by the 1930s.) As their numbers grew, Filipinos were viewed as unwelcome “foreign” competitors for jobs and women in a country that had once opened its arms to them. “Filipinos just couldn’t find steady jobs in the city,” recalls Carroll Sr. Out of frustration and desperation, many Filipinos turned to the swamps and lakes to survive. There, they found sanctuaries where they were welcomed by Filipino trappers and shrimpers who had left the city earlier. There was little money to be made, but there was abundant food from the rich, fertile waters of Louisiana.

Watery Refuge

The swamps and lakes were so much friendlier that some men seldom ventured into the towns, and when they did, it was always in groups because invariably they would be subjected to racial slurs—they were called “niggers” or “Chinamen”—and brawls frequently resulted. To avoid racial incidents, some Filipinos established their own “clubhouse” near Myrtle Grove, where they met to play cards, sing and socialize. Some friendly whites even attended their functions. Generally, their relations with white Americans were limited to formal business dealings. “The (white) Americans almost always thought they were so much better than us,” said Carroll Sr.

The area of Louisiana where many of the trappers and shrimpers lived and worked was unfortunately also rife with prejudice and racism. In the 1930s, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and south Jefferson parishes were under the control of Judge Leander Perez, one of the most rabid segregationists in the South, whose views were shared by many residents of the parishes. Although blacks were the primary targets of their racism, Filipinos, especially those with dark skin, suffered too. Most trappers and shrimpers, exposed to abundant sunshine, were darker than most area residents. They often couldn’t enter bars and could only buy beer from a window and had to drink outside.

Sometimes the racism wasn’t so direct. For example, according to Carroll Sr., “You go to a grocery store to buy something, the grocer pays you no mind and won’t help you. And when you go to pay, he’ll take care of everybody else even if they came after you. There were a lot of places that do you that way.”

The relations with whites hadn’t always been so strained, especially for Carroll Sr. Born on the fringes of the French Quarter in New Orleans, of Filipino and Filipino-Irish ancestry, he blended well with the Filipino, Italian, Irish and Chinese kids in his neighborhood and public school. His lighter shade of brown made him acceptable to white New Orleaneans who were accustomed to all shades of racial mixture. Light-skinned “creoles” (blacks of African and French or Spanish ancestry) were more numerous in New Orleans proper than in any other Southern city. As a result, people in the city were more tolerant of other races than were whites, who lived in the surrounding parishes. Whereas miscegenation in other states was taboo, it was tolerated in New Orleans, where technically it was still illegal. As a result, Filipino men married whites, blacks, Creoles, Chinese and American Indians since there were very few Filipino women around. 

Herman Ferniz’s first motorized boat, 1921

Life on the Water

By age 15, Carroll Sr. had decided to abandon his education to join his father (Hermogenes or Herman) in the shrimping and trapping business. Reluctantly, the father accepted his determined son’s decision to join him in life on the water.

Herman Ferniz, according to Carroll Sr., was a native of Bohol, Philippines who came to America on a four-masted schooner laden with cedar logs (probably from Mexico or Cuba). The schooner was beached by a hurricane near Pensacola, Florida. Twenty-one-year-old Herman eventually made his way to Louisiana before the turn of the century and survived by doing odd jobs, mostly as a laborer in the sugar mills of south Louisiana and as a trapper and fisherman. Around 1900, he settled in New Orleans and married a Filipino-Irish woman whose Filipino roots traced back to the early 19th century in New Orleans.

It was his wife’s illness that led Herman to a life on the water. Upon her doctor’s recommendation that she get fresh sea air to improve her health, she and Herman moved to a “camp” they had in Barataria Bay near the Gulf of Mexico. Herman decided to make his sideline enterprise into his life’s work. He would now be a shrimper and trapper and join other Filipinos in the waters of Louisiana.

Filipinos had long found refuge in the watery wilds of Louisiana. A few may have settled there as early as the late 18th century, definitely by the mid-19th century. Some speculate they may have been in Louisiana as early as 1763. However, no documentary evidence sufficiently supports that claim.

Trapping for muskrats in the winter, and shrimping in the late spring and summer allowed Herman to support his family. Muskrat fur was to Louisiana what beaver fur was to the northeastern United States and Canada. The Cajuns of South Louisiana began trapping them soon after their arrival in the 1760s. The Louisiana muskrat fur industry flourished during the early 1900s and reached its peak in the 1920s when the “Flappers” popularized fur coats. Herman and his son, Carroll Sr., took part in the boom. On good days they could gather 80 pelts and make up to $1.25 per pelt. Business was so good that they could afford to buy more rowboats for shrimping. 

Many Filipinos turned to the swamps and lakes to survive, where they were welcomed by Filipino trappers and shrimpers who had left the city earlier.

Muskrat trapping, however, was very hard work—cold, dirty and often, according to Carroll Jr., it meant “dragging 100-pound sacks of skins across the swamps.” By the late 1920s the muskrat had become an endangered species, pushed aside by the nutria, an intruder from Brazil. The nutria, cousins of the beaver, were brought to Louisiana as an experiment. They were supposed to eat the water lilies clogging the lakes and bayous, but a hurricane released them into the wild and, before long, they began to eat not only the water lilies, but also the swamp grasses that the muskrat thrived upon. The nutria multiplied so fast that by the early 1930s they had virtually wiped out the muskrat fur industry. That left Herman and Carroll Sr. with just shrimping.

Shrimping as Livelihood

Filipinos were actually old hands at shrimping. During the late 1860s, after slavery ended, Chinese laborers were brought to southern plantations to replace the newly freed blacks. Among these were a few hundred Chinese-Filipinos who were recruited from the Philippines. In the 1870s, other states like Arkansas and Mississippi joined Louisiana and imported hundreds of Chinese laborers. The practice, however, was stopped by the late 1870s when it became too costly—the workers regularly ran away before their contracts ended. Besides, the railroads out West and the textile mills throughout the South offered higher wages, and plantation work was as hard for the Asians as it had been for Africans. Many Chinese-Filipino plantation workers left Louisiana when their contracts expired, or simply ran away without finishing them. Some ended up as trappers and shrimpers.

Shrimping in Louisiana during the late 1800s and early 1900s was done using “seine” nets. Herman put together the first all-Filipino seining crew in Barataria Bay. According to Little Carroll, they were so hardworking and successful that the French Cajun fishermen became very jealous. Herman’s boats were usually 25 to 30 feet long, powered by lateen sails and six oarsmen on each side.

Seining for shrimps was arduous. A large rowboat dragged two smaller skiffs to which long seines were attached and kept open with floats on the top and weights below. The nets were dragged several hundred feet and maneuvered in a semicircular sweep toward the shore. As the boats approached the shore, some men waded out behind the nets to hold them up as others pulled the ends from the shore. The nets laden with shrimp, fish, crabs, etc. were emptied, and the catch was separated.

Grandpa Herman Ferniz from Bohol, with grandson Carroll Jr.

Herman and Carroll Sr. later were able to acquire a motorized vessel through the generosity of “Mr. Foster,” one of the wealthy landowners in the area. Under the arrangement, Herman got the boat at no cost, but in return, he was to “maintain” the boat and sell all his catch of medium 40-50 count/lb. and large 20-30 count/lb. to Mr. Foster at the going rate. Thus, Mr. Foster had a “guaranteed” supply from the best shrimper in the area. The small shrimps, 60-70 count/lb., were sold to the Chinese, who by the 1930s controlled the shrimp-drying business. Herman and Carroll Sr. were paid $6 per 200-lb. barrel of large shrimps or $.03/lb. and $1.75/lb. for small shrimps.

Platform Living

South Louisiana’s waters today are dotted with oil-drilling platforms; but in the 1920s and ’30s, there were platforms of another kind on the water, used for drying shrimps and fish for export to Asia. Several of the platforms were built and owned by Filipinos. The most famous was “Manila Village.” The others were Camp Dewey (where Herman had his camp), Leon Rojas, Bassa Bassa and Bayou Cholas. The “Manila Village” platform was developed by Quintin de la Cruz, a shrimper who worked with Herman in the early 1900s. 

The platforms were built on stilts or piles driven into the ground leased from the parish for a few dollars a year. The treated woodpiles were screwed several feet into the soft bottoms using a special “key.” The platforms sloped slightly and had channels serving as drains. Freshly caught shrimps were boiled in brine and dried on the platform. On the sides of the platform were eight or 10 “camps” (housing for workers), which the camp owner subleased from the platform owner.

Besides spreading the shrimps, the workers had to shell them when they dried. Shelling then was done by “dancing the shrimp”—a slow, rhythmic shuffling movement (also called the “shrimp step”)—with workers trampling on the dried shrimps to remove the shells. Later, more modern techniques (a revolving, perforated barrel and fans) were used.

Filipinos had long found refuge in the watery wilds of Louisiana. A few may have settled there as early as the late 18th century, definitely by the mid-19th century.

Manila Village in the 1930s was a beehive of activity, especially in late spring, summer and fall—the peak of shrimping season. The platform population increased dramatically. Some men brought their families to live in the camp. A grocery store sold everything the shrimpers needed, and a post office was even set up. Only during the coldest and windiest part of winter were the platforms and camps abandoned, although some hardy souls remained year-round. Only hurricanes drove them off.

Many shrimpers and other fishermen moved to dry land off-season to rejoin their families, a break from the three-weeks-at-the-camp-and-two-days-with-the-family ritual during the season. Single men, who moved to New Orleans off-season, stayed in several boarding houses in the French Quarter. Seamen whose ships stopped in New Orleans often stayed in the same boarding houses where, among their own kind, they found comfort and security. These cheap boarding houses lodged as many as 20 or 30 men, who reportedly paid $20-$30 a month for shelter and three meals a day. Not all Filipinos made their living on the water. Some were successful in their professions and trades, while others worked in restaurants and hotels. 

Economic Boom

By the end of the 1930s, Louisiana’s economy began to pick up, and Carroll Sr. was able to find a job at a new fiberboard plant. He earned almost as much shrimping, but the work was less arduous, more dependable and closer to home. More jobs came as new shipyards opened up, and by the early 1940s unemployment had just about vanished in Louisiana. For Carroll Sr., shrimping now became a sideline activity.

World War II was in a way a godsend for some Filipinos in the state. In New Orleans, the Higgins shipyards built P-T boats for the U.S. Navy. Other local shipyards also provided jobs. As shipbuilding boomed, jobs in the shrimping industry declined. By 1940, Carroll Sr. had a better job as a shipyard foreman.

During the war years the shrimp catch declined significantly. “Louisiana’s coastal waters had been over-fished by the larger boats which came into use during the 1930s, and by the 1940s the big boats began using double rigs and that really killed shrimping,” said Carroll Sr.

World War II was also helpful to Filipinos because it made many Louisianians aware of them. As news reached home about American and Filipino soldiers fighting and dying side by side at Bataan and Corregidor, many Louisianians became much more tolerant of Filipinos in their midst. 

Many Filipinos in New Orleans also served in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Returning Filipino soldiers joined their “American” counterparts in various veterans’ organizations. Moreover, during the late 1940s the rise of the “Fighting Ducosens” further eased the racial tension, as all Louisianians claimed the renowned boxers as their own. Bernard and Maxie Ducosen, born in New Orleans of Filipino and American parentage, gained fame in the ring for their quick hands and feet and their skills as defensive specialists.

Carroll Ferniz, Sr. with Carroll Jr.

Of the two, Bernard attained the greatest fame when he fought the legendary champion Sugar Ray Robinson in 1948. Bernard lost the fight but gained further recognition when Sugar Ray, upon being asked later who his toughest adversary was, responded: “Bernard Ducosen.” Filipinos in New Orleans were proud of the Ducosen brothers as they were of other Filipino boxers who gained local popularity in the ’30s and early ’40s—Freddy Balbon, Babe Manila and J.C. Flores among them.

The late 1940s marked the end of one era and the beginning of another in Filipino American history in Louisiana. A massive hurricane roared through the state in 1947, leaving in its wake the ruins of Manila Village and the other platforms near the Gulf of Mexico. Some say it was just a matter of time anyway. Manila Village and the other platforms were already dying. New technology had taken over the shrimp-drying business. A new platform industry was emerging in the Gulf waters, but this time the product was oil.

In 1948, the first Philippine Consulate opened in New Orleans, marking the beginning of an era when a new generation of Filipino Americans would be able to take advantage of new opportunities for a better life. Their paths would be less difficult because of the sacrifices of those who came before them. 

Little Carroll had no difficulty finding a good job with one of the oil companies operating a platform in the Gulf of Mexico, and his children have had no problem at all with being accepted by American society. His new shrimp boat is a fitting memorial to his father and grandfather, who helped make all of this possible.

Dr. Carmelo Astilla

Dr. Carmelo Astilla

Dr. Carmelo Astilla, a professor of history at Southern University in New Orleans where he was department chair for more than 12 years, is co-president of the Philippine-American United Council of Louisiana. Article was originally published in Filipinas Magazine, October 1998.


Manila Village

Filipinos in Louisiana, led by Dr. Carmelo Astilla and Dr. Ned Valen, have launched a campaign to raise funds to install a marker for Manila Village. In this exclusive interview with veteran broadcaster Lloyd La Cuesta, Dr. Astilla and Dr. Valen talk about their dream of commemorating the memory of the Filipino fishermen who settled in Louisiana.

"Manila Village" (video transcript)

Lloyd LaCuesta: Tell me what this is about, this plaque here?

Dr. Carmelo Astilla: The marker we decided to put up to commemorate the efforts of the first Filipino in the shrimping business. They established this at the turn of the century and a lot of people have heard about Manila Village but there's no place that you can visit any longer because when hurricane Betsy hit in 1965 the whole Manila Village was wiped out. What remained of it? It's heyday was probably during the 1920's and 30's. But it continued all the way into the 1940's, the 1950's, but no longer the major platform that it had been before. Technology bypassed them because they use new types of machines to dry the shrimp and to de-shell the shrimp. 

Lloyd LaCuesta: Is this an indication that Filipinos may have been, the first or one of the first Asian immigrants to the new world [so to speak]?

Dr. Carmelo Astilla: I wouldn't go that far because, the Filipinos came to California as early as the 1500's but Louisiana had Filipinos in the mid 1800's. Some people contend even in the mid 1700's but no documentation to back that up. But we know definitely by the mid 1800's they were already here. And so they began to filter in, in small numbers, in small groups. It's not like the Irish or the Italians who came by the hundred thousands to Louisiana, but tens of thousands. Filipinos filtered in slowly, and then into the 20th century more and more came. And of course during the 1960's the professionals began to come in bigger numbers.

Lloyd LaCuesta: So especially for young Filipino Americans, I guess this is another indication of what we call “Pinoy Pride.”

Dr. Carmelo Astilla: Yeah, it sure is. They were here early, and they worked hard, they prospered. And many of their descendants are still here. In fact the mayor of the city of Lafitte is married to a Roxas, who was one of the founders of Manila Village. And although she's blonde, blue eyed, very fair skinned she is nevertheless part Filipina. 

Lloyd LaCuesta: So doctor, tell me, what are the efforts that are under way to try and remember and immortalize the Filipino presence here in Louisiana?

Dr. Ned Valen: We are actively campaigning to install this marker of Manila Village. So we are asking people to help out with the bricks to buy, so that we can inscribe the names of the contributors to this marker and this area. Hopefully, we will call it Manila Village Plaza. Some of them, some of the descendants of these Filipino fishermen are my patients. And they are proud to say they have Filipino in their blood, and that really intrigued me and got me interested to be involved with this venture to commemorate the memory of those Filipino fishermen here in Louisiana. 

So what we are doing now is soliciting donations from families, Filipinos, as we as non-Filipinos to donate money to make this a good plaza. This will also commemorate the memory of the Filipino fishermen, as well as the Filipinos who are living in this area.

Lloyd LaCuesta: How many do you have now and how many more do you hope to get?

Dr. Ned Valen: Right now, I think we have 80 individual bricks that were donated but we need a whole lot more as you can see. We also would like to have benefactors. People who are willing to donate more than a hundred dollars a brick. Benefactors will be requested to donate at least 500 dollars and their name will be inscribed as benefactors for this plaza.

Lloyd LaCuesta: Any estimate when you want to have this project finished?

Dr. Ned Valen: We hope to finish this project by June of 2014, when we the first anniversary of this marker. 

Lloyd LaCuesta: Personally, what has this project done for you? Has it created pride and..?

Dr. Ned Valen: It's created pride for us. Now we have something concrete to show the whole, you know, the whole nation that there were Filipinos here and they were one of the first to settle in the United States.