Filipinos in the US: A hundred years of migration

Carmela Fonbuena

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Filipinos in the US: A hundred years of migration
Hawaii, the first destination of OFWs in the United States, is one success story for Filipino migrants

This story first appeared in Newsbreak’s December 19, 2005, issue. Rappler is republishing this in time for the visit of United States President Barack Obama in Manila on Monday, April 28, as Filipino Americans are pushing for reforms in America’s immigration policy.

ILOCOS SUR, Philippines – Casey Pugrad, 82, owns the biggest house in Purok a Bassit – literally, “a small barangay” in Ilocano – in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. He was born to a family of tenants to one of the oldest families in Vigan, the Florentinos. Pugrad worked overseas and came back richer than the rest, even contracting one of the Florentinos to design his retirement house.

His is an old story typical of many Filipino migrants. He left the country to seek better opportunities, struggled in foreign lands, and lifted himself and his family out of poverty.

His story also traces the centennial history of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). In 1946 and at the age of 22, Pugrad joined the last wave of sugar plantation workers bound for Hawaii. They called themselves sacadas, the first OFWs.

Today, the US is the top country of choice of Filipino migrants, and Hawaii – which became the 50th state of the US in 1959 – remains a major destination.

According to Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) statistics, 912,324 Filipinos migrated to the US from 1981 to 2004, accounting for 70% of total Filipino migrants worldwide. California accounts for 47% of Filipinos in the US. Hawaii comes in second, cradling 10% of Filipinos in the US.

Ilocanos also remain the biggest Filipino migrants in Hawaii – most of them petitioned for by the early Ilocano settlers. The same statistics show that of the total 62,366 Filipino migrants in Hawaii during the period 1998 to May 2005, 31,346 were from the Ilocos region – 50% of all Filipino migrants in Hawaii during that period. The Filipino population in Hawaii is now estimated at 300,000, or 15% of Hawaii’s total population.

Although historians discovered the presence of Filipinos abroad during the 1500s, the 15 sacadas, all Ilocanos, who left for Hawaii in 1906 were the first “formal migrants,” said Jose Molano, CFO executive director. The earlier settlers were laborers of trading galleons who jumped ship to escape harsh working conditions aboard. “They did not really intend to migrate,” he said.

Unlike the first 15 sacadas who were recruited by a representative of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) in Manila, Pugrad volunteered to work there. World War II had just ended.

“I wanted to leave because I knew I wouldn’t prosper here. What would have become of me and my family had I stayed?” Pugrad said in Ilocano.

The sugar plantation industry was the main economic activity in Hawaii, requiring a hefty supply of labor for preparing the soil, planting, weeding, harvesting, and processing sugarcane. Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Polynesians, among others, preceded the Filipinos as sugar plantation workers in Hawaii. At the time, Hawaii was not yet part of the US.

One of the houses of former President Elpidio Quirino in Vigan served as the immigration building then. They called it Balay Para Hawaii, or the house bound for Hawaii. Most of the sacadas recruited were Ilocanos from Abra, Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, and La Union.

“They discriminated against applicants from Cagayan because there were big lands there that were not tilled, suggesting that they were not very industrious laborers,” Pugrad said.

Big island

HSPA recruited in the Philippines because “there was a large rural population, precisely the kind of people that the sugar planters wanted, meaning people used to manual labor,” wrote historian Ruben Alcantara in the book, “Sakada: Filipino Adaptation in Hawaii.”

With a 5-year contract as a sugarcane cutter in Hawaii, Pugrad boarded in January 1946 the Manawili ship at the Salomague Port in Ilocos Sur together with a cousin and 3 nephews.

If the first sacadas brought a fighting rooster with them, Pugrad brought bottles of fish sauce and chili to keep himself from fainting at sea. He also brought a P20-allowance given by his father, but which he had to return in a letter after realizing he couldn’t spend it in Hawaii.

Aboard the ship, Pugrad witnessed how two men from Narvacan, Ilocos Sur, were thrown into the sea after dying “mysteriously.” A day before their death, they were playfully shooting birds which, Pugrad said, must have been encantos that punished them.

After 15 days at sea, Pugrad and his relatives reached Hilo or the Big Island – the same destination of the original 15 sacadas.

Plantation life was hard. After the sugarcane fields were burned at night, they went out in the morning to clean. At 5 am every weekday, a bell rang to signal them to board the buses that would bring them to the fields. They worked 12 hours a day and were paid a dollar an hour. “Charcoal marks were all over our faces. You got suffocated sometimes, too,” recalled Pugrad.

It was difficult to save enough money to send home because of the small compensation, Pugrad said. So he and his colleagues decided to pool their money every payday and take turns in sending the money home.

“It appeared in the Philippines that we were very successful because we sent so much money home,” Pugrad said, “but it was actually very difficult there.”

They also had to deal with racism.

The sacadas after World War II were in conflict with their fellow Japanese plantation workers. Those whose relatives were killed by the Japanese soldiers in the Philippines vented their anger on them, Pugrad said. “The Japanese were really scared of the Filipinos.”

But they eventually became friends. In restaurants, he related, the Japanese would help translate orders of Filipinos unable to speak English. It was hilarious, Pugrad narrated, how some of them would cry “ti-ti-laok!” for waiters to take their orders.

The difficult situation in the plantation led Pugrad to look for better opportunities beyond Hilo. After finishing his 5-year contract in the plantation, he moved to Honolulu and worked in a pineapple mill and later in restaurants.

When he got his US citizenship in 1974 – changing his name from Casimiro to Casey because the judge “found his name too difficult to pronounce” – Pugrad moved to Pasadena, California, and settled there. He worked various jobs in hotels and restaurants.

When Pugrad returned to Hawaii in 1978 to visit his relatives, Hawaii had changed a lot. The sugar plantation industry in Hawaii collapsed in the 1990s. Upon annexation to the US, the plantation owners couldn’t keep the workers at “slave” rates and operation costs shot up. Many Filipinos still remained and found other jobs while others moved to various parts of the US.

“I would have been able to land better jobs if I had a good education,” Pugrad said ruefully. He finished only Grade 4 because schooling in Ilocos Sur was disrupted by the war. But he earned enough in California to send his nieces and nephews in the Philippines to school. He later petitioned for them to join him. Pugrad is a widower and has no children.

He decided to go back to the Philippines 3 years ago, built a house, and tended fighting roosters as pastime. “It’s better here because there are relatives who will look after me.” He still goes to the US to visit friends.

“Leaving for Hawaii was a gamble,” Pugrad said, thankful that he has “lived long enough to enjoy the benefits of his labor.” Many of his colleagues died at work.

Still, Hawaii is one success story of Filipino migration. From the lowest paid sugar plantation workers to the professionals, “the Filipinos have integrated well” in the community and occupied high positions in Hawaii, CFO’s Molano said.

With a considerable population, the Filipinos have become a political bloc that politicians woo for support, Molano added. In fact, a past state governor has Filipino and sacada roots. Benjamin Cayetano, whose family is from Pangasinan, was elected Hawaii’s state governor from 1994 to 2002, serving two terms.

The sacadas have long been gone but they have left their indelible mark on history – and in shaping today’s Hawaii.

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