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PLANTATION LEGACY IN HAWAII

FILIPINO-AMERICAN CULTURE IN HAWAII

by Helen R Nagtalon-Miller..Reproduced from the Winter 1996-1997 issue of AMPERSAND

 Pagdiriwang. To most American- an exotic, unfamiliar word. To the people of the Philippines, a celebration, a festival. To the Filipino-American community in Hawaii, in 1996--triple commemoration: the 100th anniversary of the Philippine Revolution, the 90 anniversary of the first arrival of Filipino contract laborers (sakadas) in Hawaii, and the 50 anniversary of the arrival of the last wave of Filipino plantation workers.

 Pagdiriwang 1996 has been celebrated across Hawaii and throughout the year ending with film and arts presentations, a traveling photo exhibit, exhibitions for works by Filipino-American artists, community forums and other programs. Woven into the commemoration have been two recurring themes- the history and identity of Hawaii's Filipino Community. Both are closely linked with the memory of life on Hawaii's sugar and pineapple plantations- the fertile soil in which so many people spent their formative years, and often, their whole lives.

The concerns of Filipino youth in Hawaii during the years for my childhood and adolescence in the 1930s and 1940s revolved mainly around the question of group identity: getting along with people of all ethnicities, respecting the cultural values of one's parents, reconciling those values taught with American cultural values taught in school, and dealing with the ethnic and cultural slurs and stereotypes- blatant and subtle- that quarreling children and adults of all ethnic groups hurled at each other.

 Like earlier immigrant groups, Filipinos came to Hawaii to improve their lives. They struggled, fought for better wages and working conditions, used their culture's coping skills, and continually strove for dignity and abetter life. If we look at what plantation life was like, we will see that today's Hawaii is a legacy of the early plantation days where the good will and aloha spirit of the Native Hawaiians influenced all of Hawaii's many immigrant cultures. Filipino-American cultures in Hawaii today amalgamates influences from many of these cultures with the cultures that Filipino migrants brought with them to Hawaii.

 Intermingling of cultures was mirrored in the very language used on the plantations. Since the Native Hawaiians, and the Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Puerto Rican immigrants all spoke their own languages and knew little English, it was inevitable that a pidgin would come into being that would permit laborers to communicate with each other as well as with English-speaking supervisors. This was essential to the newcomers' survival. In time, this make-shift patois evolved into a language with its own structure that was passed on from one generation to the next. I had become what linguists call a Hawaii English Creole. Like all other languages, it was a vital and inseparable part of the culture- the plantation culture- that gave it birth.

 When the first Filipinos arrived in Hawaii in 1906, they too began contributing to the development of Hawaii English Creole, introducing Filipino words. It is not surprising then, that the ethnically mixed plantation work crew that eradicated weeds was called "sabidong (Ilokano for poison") gang," or that the Filipino grammatical pattern of beginning as sentence with a verb ("go already the boss") was accepted in Hawaii Creole English. Today "Pidgin," as people in Hawaii call the local idiom, is a language that children have to learn- alongside the "Standard English" taught in the class room-in order to get along with their classmates.

 Plantation life enforced early generations of Filipinos a variety of experience in common. We lived in houses provided at no cost by the plantation. Our homes were organized in camps that were segregated from other ethnic groups. We bought most of our food and clothing from the plantation stores and, if our families were short of cash, credit would be provided. Some children were born at home, but most of us were born in and treated for our illnesses at the plantation hospital. We were entertained at the Filipino Club House, a recreational building provided by the plantation. Our young people, especially the males, enjoyed the ballparks provided-again- by the plantations. In the case of the minority of us who were Protestants, we worshiped in church building provided by plantation management for the large groups who worshiped and conducted religious instruction in the language of their members. The great majority of Filipinos worshiped in the multi-ethnic Catholic churches where the liturgy was (in those days) still in Latin.

 While the public schools in the rural areas of Hawaii were not under direct control of plantation management, they were looked upon as an extension of the plantation because virtually every child had parents who worked on the plantation. School principal and teachers were often included in the social milieu of the plantations hierarchy, and school program tended to represent middle-class American values of hard work and upward mobility, which have motivated second generation Filipino-Americans from the early 1930s to the present. Although Filipino immigrants did not own their own homes or lots (everything was owned by the plantations, which provided for most of their needs), our families were largely content with this economic support system. I any case, for most people there was no alternative. Most laborers had little or no schooling. We lived in groups where language and cultural values were shared. While wages were meager, women took in laundry, made and sold ethnic foods, and did sewing to supplement their husbands' pay, and many people were able to send money regularly to parents, siblings, or wives and children who remained in the Philippines, enabling them to buy property or finance an education.

 In those days before television and shopping malls, our lives centered around work, school, church, playgrounds and, when there were no cockfights to attract the single men, the plantation social halls.

 The Filipinos and Japanese on the plantation where I grew up (the Oahu Sugar Company) both had their own social halls. For us it was called the Filipino Club House, a large frame building in the same plantation style that is now depicted at the Waipahu Cultural Garden Parks' Plantation Village Museum. Attached to our club house was a pool hall with a cigarette and candy counter, a kitchen where small plantation-provided staff prepared meals (my father worked there for a time under the supervision of his future father-in-law, my maternal grandfather), a dining hall, and a large social hall for programs and dances.

 The kitchen served some of the day-to-day needs for the single men, but it was the weekend activities at the Filipino Club House that were most important, especially the "box socials." Most of the relatively few single young Filpinas would attend, bringing with them a gift box meal to be raffled or auctioned off to interested single men. The winner would then be able to share the meal with the young woman and, perhaps, even have the first and last dance with her.

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Important events in Philippine history were often celebrated in the club house. Jose Rizal, the foremost martyr of the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish, was remembered each year on December 30, the anniversary of his execution in 1896. In some years there were special programs to mark his birth as well. After 1936, when the US granted the Philippine commonwealth status and promised the independence for which Filipinos had fought and Rizal and many others had died, Commonwealth Day was celebrated annually in the club house or at the nearby ball park.

 Filipino community groups as well as families or individuals would use the social hall's facilities. The Waipahu Filipino Women's Club met there as did the Legionarios del Trabajo, a sort of Filipino Masonic Lodge.

World War II brought major changes to Hawaii's plantation communities. The great increase in military presence in the islands created a demand services that the pre-war civilian economy was unable to meet. Martial law authorities and plantation management both imposed sanctions in an effort to keep workers from leaving their jobs and reducing production in the field and mills. The military governor issued an edict that made it a crime to leave a plantation job without permission, and the plantations told their workers that those who quit their jobs would not be rehired after the war.

 Nonetheless, many workers did leave the plantation for higher-paying service jobs on military bases and in surrounding communities. The sanctions threatened by the authorities were rarely invoked because of the clear need to provide services for hundreds of thousands of military personnel. The plantations' sanctions could not be invoked until the war was over.

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At the end of the war in August 1945, efforts were made to return to the pre-war status quo. Plantations generally refused to rehire workers who had left for higher-paying jobs on and around military facilities. Thus was created a new groups of Filipino men who were called "bulakbul." The word, a Filipino "adaptation" of an English work (and used as noun, adjective and verb alike), was first used in the Philippines in the early years of the century for those Filipinos who took part in the American phase of the Philippine Revolution (known in American textbook as the Filipino Insurrection). These Filipino soldiers were banned from all employment-"blackballed." Just as in the Philippines in the early years of the century, there were many bulakbul in Hawaii's plantation communities after World War II. They generally relied on friends and relative for support and took short term jobs where they could find them. However the circumstances were such that, through no fault of their own, they appeared to be shiftless; so to many bulakbul took on the meaning "lazy."

 Other changes followed. Because of impending Philippine independence in July 1946 and tight US immigration laws that would treat Filipinos as foreigners once independence was achieved, the last group of contract laborers, the 1946 sakadas, was recruited. The ILWU organized sugar and pineapple workers into a multi-ethnic union and began a series of strikes- in which the 1946 sakadas too, though only newly arrived, played a role- that culminated in the unionization of the plantation and the beginning of the end of the old paternalistic system.
 

Other big changes were in store for Hawaii's Filipino Community. The Immigrations Act of 1965 made possible the unification of families.: thousands of relative of Filipinos already in Hawaii began to arrive. Other provisions of the Act allowed professionnals to settle in the United states: new immigrants from the Philippines had a far higher level of education thant the sakadas who proceded them. Meanwhile, larger economic and political developments saw tourism eclipse agriculture as the dominant force in the Hawaii economy. Sugar and pineapple shrank not only relatively but absolutely, and many plantation workers moved inot other occupations.

The old plantation system is gone now. Yet its influence lives on among all those who still carry with them memories of a time and place where everyone shared what they had, helped each other, and were concerned about the well-being of the group. And thought the number of people who carry such memories is slowly dwindling, there is much in the culture-even the language- of newer generations that is a legacy of that earlier time.

For the Filipinos in Hawaii, it is an element of our culture worth remembering, and celebrating. A reason for PAGDIRIWANG.
 
 

Reproduced from the Winter 1996-1997 issue of AMPERSAND, a publication of Alexander & Baldwin, Inc @Alexander & Baldwin, Inc. (Any inquiries or requests for permission to reprint should be addressed to Howard E Daniel, Publication Manager, Alexander & Baldwin, Inc., PO Box 3440, Honolulu, HI 96801-3440; tel 808-525-8439; FAX:808-525-6677.)

 Helen R Nagtalon-Miller, Ph.D., is president of the Filipino-American Historical Society of Hawaii. A retired faculty member and administrator at the University of Hawaii, she grew up in a plantation camp in Waipahu, on the island of Oahu.
 

-------------------------------------------------------- Read my other oldtimer from Hawaii--

Elario Questas, 112 years Aug 6, 1886-Feb 20, 1999