Mumbo Gumbo

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HOW are Filipino migrants – specifically seafarers – and Gumbo related?

Until recently, Creole and Cajun cuisine was not a familiar taste to the Filipino palate. Filipino cuisine is mainly considered to have Chinese and Spanish influences, but not British and certainly not French.

It is understandable too, that until Filipinos made their mark as a significant Asian-American community in the United States, not too many are aware that the first batch of Filipino immigrants to the US were seafarers during the galleon trade; that those who jumped ship sometime in October 1565 with Spanish ships moved further inland to avoid capture.

It is an established fact that the seafarers-then-landlubbers – set up the first settlement of Filipinos in the US in Saint Malo, Louisiana on or before 1763. Called “Manilamen” this first ripple of Filipino migrants were credited to have introduced the Filipino method of drying shrimp to the local Cajuns, methods that Cajuns still use today in recipes such as the Gumbo.


This plausible theory was put forward in the blog “Burnt Lumpia” by blogger Marvin Gapultos in October 2007.

Explaining the ingredients of Gumbo, Gapultos noted that “Africans are largely credited for Gumbo’s name since the term “kigombo” is an African dialect word for okra – a key ingredient in many gumbo recipes. The use of File powder as a thickening agent in Gumbo is credited to the Native Choctaw Indians who had many uses for the Sasafras leaves from which File is made. And of course, the French (by way of the French Acadians) are credited with the use of a roux as the base of any good Gumbo recipe.”

Burnt lumpia then posited that the Filipino fishermen settlers in Louisiana added shrimp to the Cajun dish, contributing to the distinct taste and emergence of Gumbo as an All-American and world-famous dish.

The Treaty of Paris of 1898 officially ended the galleon trade. Migration to the US increased from ripples to waves.

America pushed the need for mass migration at a time when the US was on its expansionist mode and Europe was overcrowded. Interestingly, it was the Republican Party platform with the participation of Abraham Lincoln which stated that “foreign immigration…in the past has added so much to the wealth, resources and increase of power of (the US)” and, therefore, “should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.”

“Buying” the Philippines from Spain for $20 million was part of this policy and the consequent waves of migration.

The first significant wave of Filipino migration consisted students (called “pensionados”), scholars of the colonial and US governments, sent to the US to learn how to govern – the American way under the Pensionado Act of 1903 under the administration of Governor General William Howard Taft. On the military front, Filipinos were also allowed enlistment in the US Navy.

By1912 there were about 209 Filipino students who graduated from American educational institutions. They represented the elite of the Philippine populace. At the other end of the spectrum, the US government – supporting American businesses – encouraged the recruitment of Filipinos from among the poor urban and rural folk to work the sugar cane fields of Hawaii, the grapes and produce farms of California and the salmon and sardine canneries of Seattle and Alaska.

Until July 4, 1946 when the Philippines was freed from its colonial status under the US, Filipinos did not need to apply for US visas. Since the Philippines was considered a US territory, Filipinos were “US nationals” and legally could travel to the US without the need for visas.

By 1946, the temporary Quota Act of May 19, 1921, which was followed by the permanent Immigration Act of May 26, 1924, was in force until 1952. The per-country quota then was limited to only 100 for each nationality.

On June 27, 1952 the Immigration and Nationality Act was signed into law, establishing a four-category selection system. Fifty percent of each national quota was allocated for first preference distribution to aliens with high education and exceptional abilities, and the remaining three preference categories divided among specified relatives of US citizens and permanent residents.

In 1965, the Nationality Act was amended, abolishing the national origins quota. Instead, migrants were classified as those coming from the Western and Eastern hemispheres. Migration waves then shifted from Europe to Asia.

By 1988, Asia posted the highest percentage of immigrants at 41 percent, followed by North America at 39 percent and Europe, 10 percent. The countries with more than 20,000 immigrants admitted yearly were Mexico, the Philippines, Haiti, South Korea, mainland China, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam and Jamaica.

Today, the countries with the most immigrant visa applicants – and are thus considered to be oversubscribed (more applicants than there are visa allocations) are China, India, Mexico and the Philippines. The current per-country allocation is pegged at 25,620, divided among the Family and Employment-based preference categories.

Immigrants, or permanent residents, are part of the Overseas Filipino communities – including Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). Among OFWs, seafarers constitute the biggest bloc of remitters to the Philippines – keeping the country afloat and the Philippine peso strong.

For the years 2009 to 2013, remittances of seabased OFWs constituted a third of total money sent home.

Gumbo20150202On August 15, 2014, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas announced that “cash remittances, or money sent through banks and transfer agents, grew by 7 percent to $2.224 billion in October from $2.062 billion a year earlier, the highest amount of monthly transfers on record.”

From January to October cash remittances from land-based and sea-based workers reached $15.2 billion and $4.7 billion, respectively.

The close to $5 billion remittances of seafarers are a far cry from what the Manilamen were able to send to their families back home at most twice a year on board galleon ships.

Not bad for Filipinos who have also contributed to earnings from the sales of the word-famous Louisiana Creole Gumbo.

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