Back in the year, 1906, the agricultural people of northern Luzon, called “sakadas”, set out and found Hawaii. Almost immediately, these immigrants found themselves knee-deep in trouble.
Apparently, agents working for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association in Luzon had convinced these workers of housing, free transport—even $18.00 per month wages—to relocate to the Hawaiian Islands. Naturally and without hesitation, these “sakadas” imagined great wealth and in just a few short years, returning home.
Unfortunately, they had no idea how little of their hard-earned money would in fact be saved.
Hawaii’s plantations were already full of stable workers, which were mainly dirt cheap and fueled by the sweat of Japanese immigrants. But the Japanese were becoming weary of the lousy pay, all the legal restrictions and even the out-right bigotry toward them, something that dominated life in those times.
Plantation owners referred to the Japanese as the “yellow peril” which meant people who were trying to confiscate the land and somehow trade it to land barons in Tokyo. The Japanese were now at a point of organizing—even unionizing—to attempt better working conditions and treatment.
But the wealthy plantation owners, who were ruthless and corrupt, intimidated the Japanese by procuring people who were desperate, thus assuring and perpetuating cheap labor. The Filipinos became the lowest paid peoples working in Hawaii during this period.
Resentment by the lower classes, exploitation by the owners and having to endure the absolute worst in living conditions became a daily existence for the “scabs”, as the Filipinos were called. Sad times lay ahead for they were the first to be fired from inferior jobs, lowest for any promotions and the most discriminated against in respect to pay for equivalent work.
Just when the Filipinos believed that conditions could not get any worse, Hawaii found itself in political chaos. In 1898, just eight years previously, the United States had annexed the island kingdom, which was a boon for business and the plantation owners— but an outrageous maneuver for all of Hawaii’s social order.
The issue with the planters (owners) was to totally stop any chance of non-white residents to benefit from American-style privileges, such as the right to assemble to protest, the right to cast votes in an election—especially the right to negotiate via a union with an employer. Oddly enough, plantation owners started a campaign to gather up what they considered to be the most illiterate peasants in the Philippines. The thinking was to bring these people into the workforce in Hawaii as they would be the least likely to be aware of any rights.
In the early stages of the 20th Century, this new workforce, comprising of mostly men, found themselves far away from families as well as being totally isolated from their own village life. In addition to these depressing situations, none could speak English—which gratified the white elite
While being transported to Hawaii may have been a good thing for many, the fact remained that the Philippines themselves were going through harsh and repressive times. The Spanish had had a firm rule on them for over 300 years—a colonial rule unacceptable to the Filipino people. In June 1898, the Philippines became independent after winning a revolution from Spain. However, that independence was short-lived once the United States annexed them as a territory. The Filipino people were a free people but were referred to as U.S. nationals.
Migration to Hawaii by Filipinos (nationals) was common and simplistic. Some 8,000 of them came to Hawaii in the 1920s annually. Not much time would elapse before Filipinos exceeded Japanese numbers, thus becoming the biggest ethnic group laboring in the fields of Hawaii.
Unfortunately for the Filipinos, the Great Depression created massive unemployment throughout Hawaii. These people now found themselves in really dire straits! The United States had granted the Philippines their independence in 1935 and now Hawaii’s Filipinos discovered themselves stranded with no status anymore as a “national”—in effect, “a man without a country”. These poor and forlorn citizens of “nowhere” came to accept the notion that of all the ethnic groups in Hawaii, Filipinos most assuredly had been dealt the worst cards.
To state that Filipinos are the most diligent people in Hawaii would be an understatement. A case in point is the story of a Filipino who set sail from Honolulu, Hawaii, all alone, in a 24-foot craft, headed to the Philippines. During his voyage of eleven months, he had encountered several typhoons and unimaginable hardships. When arriving safely in the Philippines, many people had questioned his motivation. His reply was that he needed to prove the Filipino will and spirit!
That will and spirit has been the framework of survival for the Filipinos in Hawaii. Consider the fact the Philippines consist of over 2,000 islands with 80 languages and dialects. The early islanders saw a continual influx of cultures and bloodlines. Spain was influential in unification of the islands’ diversity, Catholicism and the demeaning customs of 300 years brought on by colonialism
Sadly, the U.S. Census in 2000 referred to Filipinos—not as a group— but as “Asian”.
In today’s Hawaiian culture, Filipinos consist of 15% of the islands’ population, but only 16.4% of the workforce. Most workers within this group are women. This is significant as other cultures have mostly men workers.
Like the rest of the United States, Hawaii remains at a low point where Filipinos must work menial jobs. However, a positive shifting of this concept is evident as Filipinos are teachers, political leaders, sports figures, lawyers and administrators. Filipinos continue to migrate to Hawaii more than 1% annually. Only the Vietnamese are the “other Asian” people increasing their numbers in the state. Nearly 50% of Hawaii’s Filipino families continue to speak their native tongues. Within this group, less than 20% speak English.
Notwithstanding the many challenges facing Filipinos in Hawaii, the point can be made that they as a people will be influential in all aspects of life throughout Hawaii—most notably over the next century. The most tell-tale sign of this positive trend is illustrated by the fact that between 1994 and 1998, nearly 60% of the total annual immigration of Filipinos to Hawaii became naturalized citizens of Hawaii.
That is truly a fitting image of the Filipino community embracing the “Aloha Spirit”.