Sunday, March 11, 2007


(Note: This article was written in 1998, before Katrina)
MY fascination with the city of New Orleans goes beyond the Mardi Gras festival, although I must admit that I’d gotten a glow looking at the pictures of the fanciful floats and happy people in costumes and feathered masks. A dozen years ago, I had read that the first Filipinos in the United States were galleon seamen who jumped ship in Mexico and later found their way to Louisiana back in 1765. A Filipina living in New Orleans, Marina Espina Estrella, had corrected the historical misconception that the first Filipinos in America settled in the West Coast in 1903.

The first time I visited New Orleans a decade ago, I interviewed Marina who is Full Librarian at the University of New Orleans. I learned that these “Manilamen” married Cajun women, started the shrimp-drying industry, traded at the French market in the Quarter, and fought with Jean Lafitte in the Battle of New Orleans. They formed communities called “Manila Village” and “St. Malo.” Having left the Philippines in 1969 to settle in California, I felt a connection with these “Manilamen.”

That first trip to New Orleans was a rushed visit; my husband and I were there for four days on one of those great package tours you couldn’t refuse. We lived just outside the French Quarter, in an aging once-elegant hotel - part of the package deal. Aside from dining with Marina, we took a ferryboat ride up the Mississippi to see the site of the Battle of New Orleans. We toured the Garden District and scoured the French Quarter. The Quarter, the old section of New Orleans and tourist spot, is the area that the Frenchman, Bienville, had staked out at the curve of the Mississippi River for France in 1718.

Recently, my husband and I visited New Orleans. Because of a convention, we had difficulty finding an hotel room and in a fit of desperation I checked the internet, punching in “New Orleans Lodging.” Miraculously we found “Bed and Breakfast and Beyond,” and ended up in a huge suite in a three-story mansion built in the 1850s and fully restored with antiques and a delicious dripping three-tiered fountain on the patio.

The house even had ghosts, three of them - a 16-year old girl who had hung herself during the American Civil War, and a gay couple who had quarrelled and shot themselves. That was perfect as far as I was concerned; New Orleans and ghosts go together. Even though I did not experience any ghostly encounter during our stay, I walked around that house in a childlike state, expecting some ethereal appearance, or moan, or clatter - but no such luck.

When a girlfriend heard about her trip, she confessed that she hates New Orleans; she hates the seediness, the edge, the aura of danger, the Gothic quality of this old city. I think all these are part of the enchantment of the place. It’s no accident that Anne Rice, the author of Interview of a Vampire and other spooky novels, lives in a mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans.
After dinners, when my husband and I walked around the old narrow streets of the Quarter, I would suck in my breath at the sight of pale gaunt people lurking under the flickering gas-lit lamps. And whenever horse-drawn carriages came clopping by, with their drivers wearing dark flowing capes and huge felt hats, I thought of Anne Rice. I wondered if she copied New Orleans people or if the people mimicked her characters. Anne Rice has, by the way, an enormous fake police dog looking down from her second-story balcony; real dogs patrol her yard. And yes, her mansion is reportedly haunted.

Natives of the place pronounce New Orleans “nor-luns,” and Burgundy Street is pronounced “bur-GUN-dee street.” New Orleans is one of few American cities that is multicultural and multilingual. American Indians were the first settlers. The French showed up, and undaunted by the yellow fever that killed many, carved a city out of the swamp land fronting the Mississippi. African slaves were brought to work the plantations in the late 1700s, then the Spaniards had a 41-year turn at running the place. It was because of this Spanish connection that Filipinos have a history in New Orleans.

The Americans took over New Orleans in 1803. The Irish and Italians also migrated to the area. Then in 1861, the “battle of the Northern Aggression” as our tour guide said, occurred; he meant the Civil War.

So there you have it: patois, Cajun, and English are some of the languages spoken by the people; Cafe Du Monde serves heavenly beignets with cafe au lait; street signs are in Spanish and in French; there are buildings of stucco and brick with balconies of intricate iron grillwork like lace; and on the outskirts, antebellum homes hearken plantation days.

St. Louis Cathedral is walking distance from the site of the house of the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. Marie Laveau, it is said, went to church at St. Louis. She is buried in St. Louis Cemetery I. We went there and saw crosses and other inscriptions on her grave marker. In front, there were lighted candles and offerings of food from voodoo practicioners asking for her intercession. Voodoo practicioners also visit Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to pray to the statue of St. Expedite because he “delivers.” In fact there is no saint by that name. When the church was being built, some statues arrived in big crates. One of these was an unidentified statue with a sign on the box that said “Expedite.” And thus did St. Expedite come to be.

In the Quarter, the Ursuline Convent stands as the solitary French building because of a fire in the late 1700s. The other buildings in the Quarter have Spanish architecture. The Ursuline nuns, people relate, had prayed during the Big Fire, and a wind came along and shifted the fire away from the convent. These same nuns had prayed for Jean Lafitte’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

On Pirate’s Alley, a stone’s throw from St. Louis Cathedral, stands the house where William Faulkner lived in when he wrote his play Soldier’s Toy; it’s now a bookstore. A couple of blocks away is the house where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire; one can almost hear Stanley bellowing from the second story “Stella!” To my disappointment, there is no streetcar named Desire.

But there is little in New Orleans that causes disappointment. There are endless nooks and crannies to explore - an interesting brick courtyard, an unusual “cupid-design” iron grillwork, a “fish” water spout, a clump of lush banana trees, a voodoo museum, the building where Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte met, bookstores, antique shops, jewelry shops, poster shops. There’s famous Bourbon Street where many bars have live music, mostly jazz because New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. Preservation Hall, training ground for early jazz players, still holds jazz performances. And it is quite legal to walk around the Quarter with alcoholic drinks in your hands, so long as these are in plastic cups - beer and Daiquiris are favorites. There is an eternal Mardi Gras atmosphere along Bourbon Street.

You can take a trip to a plantation, explore swamps, or take a ferry ride on the Mississippi River. You can gawk at the fabulous mansions at the Garden District, go antiquing on Magazine Street, and indulge in world-famous restaurants - Nola’s, Antoine’s, Broussard’s, Galatoire’s, K-Paul’s. And don’t forget the downhome Praline Connection for mouth-watering fried chicken, jambalaya, and gumbo. (A favorite pasttime in New Orleans is planning where to go for your next meal.)

The list is endless. Four days was not enough to explore everything; but it was enough time to see another world as well as imagine another time and place. New Orleans feels familiar to me. Everywhere I went, I got the feeling I knew the place, a kind of deja vu.

Mark Twain, or someone said, the similarity between New Orleans and Asia is that in both places people eat rice and worship their ancestors. It’s that, and more, that I pick up.

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