I was born Rhonda Lee Richoux in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1952. My father was Joseph Dudley Richoux, a Cajun, and my mother is Lillian Mae Burtanog Richoux, a 5th generation Filipino descendant. Although my mother traces her family history from the 1800’s with Felipe Madrigal of Manila (spelled Philippe Madriaga on some documents 1) and Bridgett Nugent of Ireland, the women in our family line married Filipino men up to my mother’s generation, so the Filipino identity was evident and the descendants easy to recognize.
| ...what kept our Filipino identity alive was family oral history shared by the elders, and relationships with Filipinos we met in our neighborhood. That, more than anything else, compelled me to identify myself, if anyone asked, as “Filipino”.
Not so today. We look like America, the “melting pot”, with most of the distinguishing signs of our ethnic past melted away from our faces. Yet, my blue-eyed niece, Brooke Faxon, will proudly tell people “I’m Filipino!” How is it that a family so far removed from the Philippine Islands can still so strongly identify with its people, listen with interest to news from the Philippines, and greet a Filipino as though they were family? We have eight generations of American descendants since Felipe settled here in Louisiana. What makes the roots on this old tree so strong?
Our family has been interviewed and documented by some kind and interested people, such as Marina Espina 2, Renee Tajima-Peña 3 and James and Isabel Kenny 4. They, and people like them, have educated the American public about the Asian presence in this country further back than many imagined. They have also given us a glimpse into the present day lives of the descendants of these immigrants, and how they have assimilated into the American landscape. But before the books and documentaries came into our lives, what kept our Filipino identity alive was family oral history shared by the elders, and relationships with Filipinos we met in our neighborhood. That, more than anything else, compelled me to identify myself, if anyone asked, as “Filipino”.
Lillian Martinez Burtanog
Our neighborhood was close-knit, with family scattered throughout. We moved up and down Rampart Street, then over to Spain Street, but family would always follow to the first available house close by. Visits to my Grandma Lillian’s house were frequent. The first house I lived in, she was in the other half of the double we occupied. There was a door upstairs that led to my Aunt Audrey‘s room, and if the weather was bad, Aunt Audrey would leave it unlocked so that we could visit Grandma without going outside. There was always someone at Grandma‘s house, either visiting for a while, or staying until times got better. There were always cousins to play with.
On the corner of Touro and Rampart was Aunt Irma‘s house. She was my Grandpa “Buddy” Burtanog’s sister. Her husband, Frank Reyes, was an important man in the Filipino community. He helped Filipinos get jobs on the ships, and had rooms for board. Their son, Frank Jr., lived there with his family . . . more cousins to play with. Across the street from us was my Grandma Richoux, my dad‘s mother. My dad, divorced from my mother, lived there, as did my Aunt Mary, my Aunt Judy, my Uncle Norb, and my sweet Grandpa Richoux. I was surrounded by people I loved and who loved me. It was a great way to grow up. It was this extended family, as much as my mother, who raised me. It was their love, their craziness, their strength that formed me.
Stories Handed Down
My great grandmother, Rosalie Borabod Martinez, usually lived with my grandma Lillian. She was a wonderful storyteller, and when we went to Grandma’s house, we’d often take her by the hand and lead her to the rocking chair for a good story. She told us the story of her husband, Benito Yabut, and how he came to live in America. She said that he was a crewman on a boat that came to America when he was just 18 or 19 years old. When he learned that war between Spain and America was imminent, he decided to jump ship. He changed his name to Martinez, his mother’s maiden name, and found his way to the Filipino community in Louisiana. He became a fisherman, met my great grandmother, and started his family.
| Many Filipino mariners had settled in the area; some of them found jobs or started businesses in the city, while others lived on the bounty of the Louisiana waters as fishermen. The organizations were formed to keep them all together as a community.
She also told us of her son-in-law, Alfred Sedillo, Sr., who survived a hurricane after his shrimp boat fell apart. He had waited too long before heading inland. He was besieged by a strong wind in Lake Borgne, and tied himself and his crewman to the mast. He tore the doors off of the cabin and gave one to the crewman, telling him to cut his rope and jump when the boat started to sink. When the time came, however, the crewman refused to jump. Uncle Al, knowing the alternative, cut the rope and jumped into the lake. He floated in the water for days, holding onto the door, until he was rescued two weeks later. When he was finally found, his face was unrecognizable because of the swelling from insect bites and exposure to the sun and water . . . His crewman, a seventeen-year-old boy, was never found. Such tales as these, as well as her ghost stories that she swore were true, stirred our imaginations and taught us the art of listening. I have no doubt that her listening skills are what made her the storyteller of the family. She had to know English, Spanish and Tagalog to communicate with the people around her when she was a child; sadly, we were taught nothing but English.
Benito and Rosalie
Martinez with infant Lillian, author's grandmother.
Much of what I learned was from listening as the family elders remembered “back when”. We were always together at picnics, baptisms, weddings, holidays, or just to share a meal, so I had many opportunities to learn. While my father’s family had gatherings, too, family history was never discussed and my Grandma Richoux didn’t sit with us to tell us stories. So, my ethnic education was pretty one-sided.
New Orleans Filipino Community
There were also the Filipino social and benevolent societies around the neighborhood, where Filipinos and Filipino-Americans could get together and talk, dance, eat good food, and play cards. Filipino organizations have a long history in New Orleans. Many Filipino mariners had settled in the area; some of them found jobs or started businesses in the city, while others lived on the bounty of the Louisiana waters as fishermen. The organizations were formed to keep them all together as a community. The oldest organization, The Sociedad de Beneficencia de los Hispano Filipinas formed in 1870, purchased a tomb with sixteen vaults for the members and their families. The tomb still stands in St. Vincent de Paul No. 2 cemetery in New Orleans, but it is in a state of disrepair, with many of the stones gone.
Rosalie Borabod Martinez
These organizations helped Filipinos feel at home in their new country, and allowed their growing families to experience the camaraderie of Filipinos when they gathered together. I met some wonderful people through these organizations, which reinforced my identity as a Filipino-American. I wanted to be a part of these people, with their kindness, their ready smiles, their strong opinions. Looking around me at the old men, I hoped I’d get some of my ancestors’ genes. They all looked 20 years younger than they were! Most of them were seamen, and since most of the men on both sides of my family were also seamen, I felt right at home around them. And, like my grandfathers, who were ships’ cooks, they loved to prepare a good meal for their friends. There were many feasts at the Filipino clubs, which usually included a traditional dish such as sinigang fish, pork adobo, or pancit.
Mardi Gras Queens
Mardi Gras is a big thing in New Orleans, and the Filipino organizations used the Carnival Season to create a few traditions of their own. They decorated floats made of bamboo, flowers and other available foliage to ride in the Elks Krewe of Orleanians parade on Mardi Gras. In 1935, their float actually won the prize for being the best of the 75 floats entered in the parade. My grandmother’s cousin, Agnes Ferniz, was the Queen on that float.
| The costumes were sewn by my mother; and the girls in the family would gather at Grandma Lillian’s house for a beading party. We hand-beaded every costume, and the results were breathtaking.
Mardi Gras queens are not born, but voted into their position. The Queen Contest was used by the local chapter of the Caballeros de Dimasalang to raise money for their charitable endeavors. Anyone could vote for their favorite candidate. It was a penny a vote, with the queen getting half of the money collected to help with the cost of her gown, and the other half going to the organization. You could, of course, vote as many times as you liked, so it added up pretty quickly. The candidates would also sponsor dances on the weekends, collecting a small entry donation, to raise money for the contest. You’d be surprised how much the young ladies collected!
In addition to Cousin Aggie being elected Queen, my mother, Lillian Mae Burtanog was crowned in 1946. And in one of the last balls held by the organization, my mother’s cousin Soledad “DeDe” Martinez wore the crown. The queen’s entourage always included children from her family, and so, I was the escort of the scepter bearer when I was four years old. My mother made my gown, and I’ll remember it forever: it was a deep peach color, lacy and full of sequined flowers that she had decorated by hand.
By the time I was a teenager, we were involved with another organization in the neighborhood. The Filipino Goodwill Society, founded in 1946 by Mr. Frank Jumawid, was formed to give Filipinos a social outlet, to assist them when needed, and to act as a voice in local politics. As the families of the membership grew, the name of the organization was changed to “The Filipino-American Goodwill Society” to include Americans of Philippine descent. It was their headquarters on Touro St. in New Orleans that I remember with affection.
There were monthly meetings, Saturday night dances and holiday parties, but it was when the Goodwill Society, with the help of my mother, re-instituted the traditional Mardi Gras Queen Contest that the organization drew the attention of the community. The first couple of balls were pretty ordinary, but as interest picked up and my whole family got into it, the balls were like the Ziegfield Follies. The members voted on a theme, and my uncle, Carroll Burtanog, designed the costumes based on the theme. The costumes were sewn by my mother; and the girls in the family would gather at Grandma Lillian’s house for a beading party. We hand-beaded every costume, and the results were breathtaking. I don’t think there is one family member to be found who did not participate in the annual production in some way.
Although there were no more floats to ride on, the balls were beautiful to see, and one of the area Asian-Pacific organizations asked my mother and I to give a presentation for the delegates of the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans. The maids were young women from various Asian and Pacific Island countries, and I had to learn about each country in order to write my presentation. I spoke with the participants to be sure of my pronunciation, and to be sure that I correctly stated the current and historic names of their respective countries. As a symbol of the enduring legacy of immigrant families in America, we chose my cousin, Donnell DeLong, a 6th generation Filipino descendant, to reign as Queen. The presentation went well, and we were given a standing ovation when it was over.
The Filipino-American Goodwill Society Of America on Touro St. in New Orleans
The Filipino-American Goodwill Society is no more. The founders are long gone, and the elders and their children are spread out to different communities, even different states. People get busy, life’s priorities change, and there is so little time to get together. I’m glad that I was able to be a part of the Goodwill Society. It gave me a sense of belonging and helped me to find my voice. It was an important part of the family that shaped me, and I miss the fellowship of familiar faces.
Rain From Heaven
Some things that I’ve learned growing up have stuck with me. I learned that while the men were the breadwinners in the family, the women were really the leaders. Grandpa liked to play games with us, but Grandma would change diapers, teach us the importance of education, and get on our mothers if she thought we needed to be taught better manners. With the men at sea more than they were at home, our family was matriarchal, and the girls were raised to be strong and independent.
I learned from my grandmother, Lillian Martinez Burtanog, that family always comes first, that I should never forget that I come from good Filipino stock, and that I should never be ashamed of who I am. I learned from the women in the family how to live with strength, grow old with grace, and die with dignity.
My family story is important. American History is not really about George Washington and Andrew Jackson and those other impressive names in schoolbooks. It’s about ordinary people who came here, populated the country, and made something of it from the swamps to the mountains to the sea. Ordinary men and women are the heart and breath of this country, and they deserve to have their stories remembered by their families. Like my Grandma Rosie, my aunt, Audrey Burtanog King, took it upon herself to tell the stories and honor our history. With her death a few years ago, it has fallen on me to keep it alive. I don’t take the task lightly.