What We Can Learn from The Sakadas
Updated: 5 days ago
There is something calling you in the wind. Somewhere in distant lands, someone named “opportunity” is making promises for a better life. And you think, for the briefest of moments, while staring at all that you know and have ever known until this point, that life somewhere else is where you need to be. Somewhere in distant lands, you will now be known as a Sakada. For your family, for yourself, all for opportunity.
S.S. Maunawili left Port Salomague, Ilocos Sur for the first time on January 14, 1946. At the end of WWII, the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA) constructed a recruiting station in Vigan, Ilocos Sur with the intention of hiring farmers to work on pineapple plantations across Hawai’i.
Over 100,000 Filipino men were brought to the archipelago between 1906 to 1946, with the last 6,000 men arriving to Hawai’i in 1946, ending the wave of labor migration. 70% of HSPA’s workforce was said to be comprised of Filipinos in 1932, due to them being a “reliable, responsible, and hard-working group”. However, despite the positive review of our work on the plantation, we were the least paid among other ethnic groups. In comparison to the Japanese workers who made $651 annually, Filipinos averaged only $467 (in 1938).
Living off of only 77 cents per hour, while attempting to send money back home to your family, the living wage of Sakadas was mostly spent on basic necessities bought at the plantation company stores. Other times, they lived off of the land surrounding their plantation houses, where five of them would stay in a room 10 square feet wide.
Of all the things to imagine after 17 days out at sea, from Ilocos Sur to Maui, was 10 long hours of manual labor, carrying 75-pounds of cane that left the skin around your neck raw and infected, working under the scorching sun of “paradise”, what you thought of? Was this what opportunity had promised you when it changed your name?
Unlike the Japanese, who had spaces to celebrate their culture, like temples and storefronts, young men’s associations and the like, Sakadas had none of these things to call Hawai’i their home. In HSPA’s isolation of the ethnic groups present on plantations, the lack of community roots surely impacted the mental well-being of the Filipinos.
Still, as hard as life was for you, there were dreams to be had and dreams to be made.
‘Sakada, sakada, sacrifice’
Most Sakadas could not speak English and had no education. This made them a target for the European Americans that oversaw operations on the plantation.
As Cipriano Erice recalls in the mini-documentary “The Sakada Series”, because the majority of the workers could not speak English, “what the boss says, that’s it.”
There was a severe lack of workers rights amongst all the plantation workers, thus leading to the first workers strike against the HSPA in 1920. Tensions between the Japanese and Filipinos were at an all time high, but the need for increased wages and shorter work days overshadowed their differences for the time being. The two groups filed their demands to the HSPA separately, even though their petitions were identical. Both were denied.
Sakadas continued to strike on their own afterwards, but were met with little to no response.
Home continued to feel farther and farther away. You were lucky; paradise looked the same as home. Wind blew like a wet kiss, the sun burned its own space in the big blue ocean sky; palm trees danced to the same songs, sea salt scattered in the air. And yet, life was harder.
Before you came, they told you not to read books or magazines because the recruiters would think you couldn’t tend to a field. When you arrived, they call you a good worker but you’re “hot-headed, knife-wielding” and “sex hungry”. They keep telling you you can go back home to your paradise, but you have to harvest pineapples for 250 days for three years. And if you don’t, you have to pay back $100 - the price of how much it took to take you away to Hawai’i.
Sakada, sakada, sacrifice.
Suddenly, all your sacrifices come into question. What was this all for?
Education stands as the key to all freedoms. It was the marker of success; of being somebody who could traverse the social ecosphere without being questioned. Being educated took you from grass cutter to Journeyman. Knowing things, arbitrary-White man-things, meant that the White Man himself could not fool you. And if you could not have that yourself, you were going to make sure your children, and your children’s children, would live in that reality.
Like so many Sakadas who settled in Hawai’i, sending their children to school in order to receive a formal education was the pinnacle of their dream. Sometimes, it was their only dream.
Fortunately, the children born on the plantation were able to go to school. They became teachers, office workers, and so much more.
Hard work for the new generation was a luxury to them. Finally, something a Sakada could afford.
Living under racial discrimination on an island so similar to your own, yet so different, not knowing when or how your life would expand, or contract, was a challenge in and of itself. In a world that told you you were small, you could not think that of yourself.
A century and some change since its initial start in 1906, Hawai’i’s sugar and pineapple plantation industry ended in 2016. Throughout that time, multiple generations of Filipino labor workers tended fields, killing grass, harvesting cane, and planting seeds for Hawai’i’s economy to reach fruition.
The Sakada story continues in all of us today, especially in those living in Hawai’i.
Filipinos all across the world immigrate to other lands in search for new opportunities, only for those opportunities to bring on hardship. Their struggles and sacrifices continue to pave the way for newer generations to thrive in the world’s revolving modernity. Change is slow, but it is here.
We must never forget the ancestors that live among us. We acknowledge them in deep bows, and eternal praise, for allowing us to continue to shape the Filipino identity in spaces they could have never imagined being in.
I have learned through the stories of Sakadas that life is most fruitful when you serve others - even those you cannot see in front of you. I have also learned that, despite racism still persisting a whole century later, that we are still standing. Filipinos, to a fault, are resilient. Yes, we are tired, but we never stop.
Lastly, and I believe this is my greatest takeaway since learning about Sakadas, is that dreams are never simple. They are dreams for a reason because it is only us, the beholders, that recognize their long lasting impacts. So dream whatever you have in mind. And don’t let anyone get you down.
For more information on Sakadas…
We are releasing an episode on our podcast that will feature the descendants of Sakadas. In this episode, we will listen to the narratives of Emily Erika, Erin Enriquez, Carlo Farinas, Demiliza Saramosing, Ashley L, Tyler Santos - all of whom are descendants of Sakadas. Romel Dela Cruz will also be featured on our episode, who is both a former plantation worker and a descendant of a Sakada.
Below are list of resources I have used throughout this article:
"Appreciating the Sakada Connection in Hawai‘i" from the Lyman Museum and Mission House
"The Last Mass Migration of Workers to Hawai'i" as told by the perspective of ANASTACIO LUIS to the Hawaiian Journal of History
"Being, Belonging, and Connecting: Filipino Youths’ Narratives of Place(s) and Wellbeing in Hawai′i" by Stella M. Gran-O'Donnell
"Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association" by Densho Encyclopedia
"The not-so-sweet story of how Filipino workers tried to take on Big Sugar in Hawaii" by Shoshi Parks
"A Brief History of Filipinos in Hawaii" by The University of Hawaii: Center for Philippine Studies