Those Who Came Before

Over the past century, more than 300,000 Filipinos have immigrated to Hawai'i. Among them are three generations of my family.

This month marks the start of the yearlong Filipino Centennial Celebration, honoring not only the first 15 Filipino plantation workers who arrived in Hawai’i in 1906, but the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who followed over the next century.

The author’s great-grandfather, Angel Miguel (second from left), with four of his children.

My own family represents three generations of Filipinos who came to the Islands–my great-grandfather, who worked on a Kaua’i plantation in the early 1920s; my grandfather, just 12 years old when he arrived in the early ’30s; and my mother, who earned a scholarship to study at the East-West Center in 1969.

As someone who has spent virtually her entire life in Hawai’i, I’m amazed at how so many who came before me could uproot themselves from the only home they’d ever known and travel more than 5,000 miles to a land they’d never seen.

My mother tells me: "I knew early on that my dreams would take me to America–it was and still is a dream for most Filipinos, a chance at a better education, better job possibilities and, hopefully, a better life."

Over the past century, those ambitions have inspired many Filipinos to leave for America. More than half of the 2.4 million residents of Filipino ancestry in the United States, including the more than 275,000 in Hawai’i, are immigrants.

"It’s a very vibrant community that continues to face the challenges of acculturation every year," says Dean Alegado, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Hawai’i. "They all bring with them something that’s hard to measure and appreciate–the determination and desire to make the sacrifice of leaving their home country and making it here."

I remember my great-grandfather, Angel Miguel, as a 90-year-old man who shuffled around with a walker, smelled like Tiger Balm and snuck quarters into my little hands, even when my parents told him not to.

He used words like "kaukau" and "bumbye," speaking that old pidgin I’d heard from my aunties and uncles. It did not occur to me then that he hadn’t always lived in Hawai’i. He’d spent the first 33 years of his life in the city of Laoag, a seaside town in the Philippine province of Ilocos Norte.

My great-grandfather came to Hawai’i in 1924, for the same reason that the first 15 sakadas, or Filipino farm workers, came–to work on the sugar plantations. The Hawai’i Sugar Planters Association considered the Philippines an ideal source for labor; it was a tropical U.S. colony, with an undeveloped economy, still struggling after more than 300 years under Spanish colonial rule.

Recruiters weren’t looking for educated men. They knew from experience with Japanese workers that educated men would try to organize laborers and demand better wages.

Filipino Centennial Celebration

Kicks off Dec. 10, 8:30 a.m.
Hawai’i Convention Center &
7 p.m., Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Historical records documented exactly how the local establishment viewed Asian laborers, the backbone of the Islands–sugar industry. "The Asiatic has only an economic value in the social equation," a 1903 Bureau of Labor Report stated. "So far as the institutions, laws, customs and language of the permanent population go–his presence is no more felt than that of the cattle upon the mountain"

With that mentality, HSPA agents recruited men from the barrios of the Philippines, not the capital city of Manila.

"They would ask them to read the contract, and if they could, they weren’t likely to get hired," Alegado says. "If their hands had calluses, they were in. Those were the pioneer Filipinos who came to Hawai’i, who would become the building blocks of the community here–not the urban types from Manila with the soft hands, but the raw muscle and brawn of the provinces."

By 1930, three out of every 10 Filipinos in Hawai’i were illiterate, according to Lawrence Fuchs’ 1961 book, Hawai’i Pono: A Social History. About half of all Filipinos in the Islands could not speak English.

But some literate Filipinos so desperately wanted to come to Hawai’i that they pretended not to read. My great-grandfather may have been one of them. Angel wasn’t an educated man, but I know he was literate, because he read the Bible aloud every day.

Between 1906 and 1946, Hawai’i’s sugar plantations brought more than 125,000 Filipinos to Hawai’i. Most were bachelors or men forced to leave their wives and children in the Philippines. In that sense, my great-grandfather was lucky. He got to bring his wife, Donata, then nearly eight months pregnant.

Upon arrival, Angel was assigned to Hawaiian Sugar Co. in Makaweli, Kaua’i. Laborers’ three-year contracts typically required six 10-hour days of work every week. Although Filipinos performed the most labor-intensive jobs (manually cultivating and hauling cane), they were paid less than other ethnic groups–an annual average of $467 in 1938 ($6,584 in today’s dollars), compared with $651 for Japanese workers ($9,178 today), according to a 1939 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

What strikes me most about these sakadas is that they never forgot about their families back home. They sent them what little money they could. In 1929, for instance, at the onset of the Great Depression, Filipino workers in Hawai’i collectively sent $276,000 each month, according to Roman Cariaga’s 1974 publication, Filipinos in Hawai’i.

This money pouring in from overseas, known as padala, not only supported family members in the Philippines, it made them want to follow these immigrants to Hawai’i, which became known as "the Land of Glorya."

I never knew my grandfather, Ambrose Bolante Sr.; he died in 1978, the year before I was born. But when Ambrose immigrated to Hawai’i in the early ’30s, he was a 12-year-old who had just completed the sixth grade. Relatives tell me that he lied about his age to HSPA recruiters, to travel to Hawai’i. Later, he would marry Angel Miguel’s daughter, Flora, who’d give birth to my father, Andy.

The author’s grandfather, Ambrose Bolante (center), with his daughter, Anita and son, Andy.

My grandfather came to Hawai’i during the Great Depression, which dealt political and financial blows to Filipino immigrants, who then made up 70 percent of the plantation labor force. In 1932, the HSPA sent 7,300 workers back to the Philippines, because of the slowdown in the sugar business. Many more returned voluntarily.

On the Mainland, the Depression fueled anti-immigrant sentiment, with the press lobbying against the so-called "Asiatic Peril." So when Congress approved the Philippine Independence Act in 1934, which set a 10-year deadline for the United States to restore the country’s autonomy, it also imposed a strict quota on Filipino immigration, allowing only 50 Filipinos to come to the United States annually. During the interim decade, the federal government would treat Filipino immigrants as it would treat immigrants from many other countries–as aliens.

In the decade following the passage of the Philippine Independence Act, handfuls of Filipinos trickled into Hawai’i, compared with the waves of immigrants who’d flooded the Islands over the previous two decades.

"It’s not an exaggeration to say that there was an attempt to freeze the composition of the U.S. population to ensure that most of the population would remain WASP," Alegado says. "It was in response to the mass immigration of the so-called unmeltable ethnics, which included eastern and southern Europeans, Catholics, Jews, as well as Asians."

After World War II, Hawai’i’s plantations again needed more laborers; a stronger economy drove the need for more sugar production. So in 1945, just months before the Philippines gained independence from the United States, the HSPA received permission to recruit 6,000 more Filipinos to Hawai’i–the last immigrant group of laborers to arrive through the association.

By the time my mother, Remee, immigrated in 1969, Hawai’i was a completely different place. It had become the 50th state a decade earlier, and the federal government had developed a more compassionate attitude toward immigrants, due in large part to the civil rights movement. In 1965, Congress had passed the Immigration and Nationality Services Act, which abolished race-based quotas on immigration and allowed 20,000 immigrants from every country in the eastern hemisphere to enter the United States–a policy upheld today.

The act made family reunification a priority, compelling Filipinos in the United States, especially Hawai’i, to petition for the family members they’d left in the Philippines.

It’s a pattern that continues to this day. Since 1970, an average of 4,000 Filipinos have immigrated to Hawai’i every year. Some citizens who petitioned to bring their siblings to the United States in the early 1980s, for example, are only now having their cases reviewed.

Remee Bolante, the author’s mother (left, with a student) in 1968, the year before she immigrated to Hawai’i.

The wave of Filipino immigrants who arrived in Hawai’i after 1965, including my mother, were very different from the waves of plantation laborers who preceded them. Part of the reason is that, in addition to family reunification, the 1965 U.S. Immigration Act recognized the importance of bringing in skilled workers in short supply, such as doctors, teachers and engineers.

These newer arrivals were educated, accomplished and more assertive than their predecessors. I can see those qualities in my mother, Remee. In 1969, she was one of 19 Filipino college graduates, selected from thousands in Manila that year, to study at the East-West Center at the University of Hawai’i. She earned two master’s degrees–in educational psychology and education administration–and worked as a teacher before becoming a vice principal at Sacred Hearts Academy, a local Catholic school.

"Occasionally, I felt self-conscious about being from the Philippines," my mother says. "I mispronounced words, but I worked very hard to fit in here."

This wave of Filipino immigrants shared at least one thing in common with the sakadas who came before–the practice of sending money to their families in the Philippines. As a university student, my mother lived off the stipend she received from the East-West Center, saving as much as she could to send to her family. Today, more than 30 years later, she still mails a monthly check to her surviving brothers and sister.

Last year, close to 10 million Filipinos working overseas sent a total of $8.5 billion back to the Philippines, equal to about 10 percent of the country’s gross national product, according to the Central Bank of the Philippines.

I can see today why Hawai’i still seems like a "land of glorya" for many in the Philippines. Even if my great-grandfather came for the work in 1924 and my mother came for the education in 1969, they were the same as every other Filipino immigrant of the past century. They wanted better lives for themselves and their families, both here in Hawai’i and in the Philippines.

Every day, more than 100 Filipino immigrants come to Hawai’i. Every day, the story begins all over again.