The Visayans in Aloha-land (Part II)

DIYANDI - DIYANDI By Linda Kintanar-Alburo () - July 30, 2006 - 12:00am
"Ang Hawaii Mao ang Ispidno sa mga Mamumuong Pilipinhon," says the caption of a 1925 cartoon in Bag-ong Kusog. On the left are a number of young and healthy men going up the gangplank of a ship that would bring them to the plantation. Opposite that were the same workers coming down from perhaps the same ship, looking haggard and old.

Such propaganda, however, did not discourage the many Visayans from going just the same. The pull of money and adventure, as well as encouragement of kin already in Hawaii, must have been as strong as the push that brings today's OFWs to many other places abroad. In cases featured in the local press, some of the OFWs have returned in a wheelchair or coffin.

But what was "ispidno" really like abroad? Some theologians would say that hell is the absence of God, and translating that, it would be the absence of family that seemed like hell, for the family is at the core of existence for many Filipinos. Without the company of women and children, the sakadas arrived at the plantation, which was to become the only "family" for most of them. Isolated and far from town or city and surrounded by a vast sea of sugar cane, the plantation settlement wasn't anything like the familiar barrio setting at home. Part of the come-on were the houses and the hospitals, but the houses were impersonal and crowded, and medical facilities unsatisfactory.

Aside from discrimination, there was hard work. Workers would wake up at 4:30 a.m., walk or ride to work, start hoeing or cutting cane at 6:00, breakfast, work again, take a lunch break, more work, and head for home around 3:30 p.m. They washed at a common bathhouse, played some ballgame, ate supper, and retired early. On weekends, they would hire or share a car for a visit to town or Honolulu. The daily wage was only $1.50, hardly enough for one adult. Unlike the thrifty Ilocanos who regularly sent money home, the Visayans were known to be happy-go-lucky, spending money on gambling and on taxi dancers (so-called because these were "metered").

According to Emma Porio, a USC alumna then taking a PhD at the East-West Center, the sex ratio among Filipino workers (that reached a high in 1927 of 97 men for one woman) had grave consequences in forming families and households, in capital accumulation and in their economic and political advancement. The Japanese, in contrast, were able to form families and households much earlier, to accumulate capital with the help of working wives and children, and to avail of credit. The Filipinos were slow to advance because of their predominantly bachelor status and its accompanying effects, like crime, especially "cowboyay," or kidnapping women. Only in later years were there more women who would provide a more stable environment for the workers.

Mirang Filvera-Labrador, born in Sibonga and the oldest living female sakada in Kauai in 1988, spoke in an interview conducted in Cebuano: "When I arrived in Hawaii [in 1922] I cried constantly. Not long after I became a sakada, in March, I gave birth to my oldest child, now 66 years old. I told my husband I was very tired, taking care of the baby. A Japanese working in the plantation helped deliver the baby, not in hospital. I delivered 6 babies. No labor pains. Was always working, doing laundry, selling snacks, sewing with an antique machine which I can still use. We could buy a dollar's worth of food a day, how nice, food here was very cheap. . . . Some would ask why we had tobacco in the mouth while asleep. . . . I didn't open the house because I was afraid of them. My husband was not around, the men here were maldito. It was good to plead with those maldito, once I opened the door someone wanted to force me out and I hit him with a big ladle. I was pregnant then, asked them not to harm me, someone already owned me, they said they only had something for me to sew, Bisaya, Tagalog. There were only two women here. . . It was indeed a hard time. We had no automobile nor tartanilla, we would even carry the sugar cane on our shoulders. For water, we had a big tin can. We chopped wood. My sewing helped a lot, by the grace of God. There were gamblers - from Honolulu and Maui - who would borrow money from me after losing theirs."

In the meantime, the workers formed linkages through the compadrazgo system, which had as many as 100 godparents sharing expenses for a baptism or wedding. Fiesta and funeral, as in the homeland, became social occasions. Associations based on language or origin were formed, like the Visayan Capizeño Club, the Balaan Catalina Society (of Carcaranons) and the Circulo Boholano. Although these groups had the practical purpose of mutual aid, they were as much a response to marginalization as an expression of ethnic consciousness. But again, unlike the Japanese associations, they didn't take on long-range social goals.

Many workers who remained single hoarded their money, which went unclaimed on their death. A long-haired Moncadista (belonging to a cult founded by Cebuano Hilario Moncado) who forgot even his name, said that all his savings that he had stuffed into an old mattress were gone, eaten by termites. Inting Tabora, another oldtimer whose foreman was a Vicente Alburo (no relation) of Labangon said: "An old man here too didn't put money in the bank, the money went to the government. Many like him who just died without leaving anything to anybody, should have gone to the Philippine government since they were not citizens. It's good to live back home on your pension, but if you return home and are not on a pension, like my father, he came here in 1907, 13 years old, and returned in 1933 with only a little money. We brought home only $900, gidaugdaug sa iyang pamilya didto."

The Visayans, especially after the strikes in the 1920's, moved on to other plantations or to the city. Work in the pineapple plantation and cannery, however, was not much better, although the pay was. Noy Inting narrated: "It's true work and was mechanized, but if you're a new worker, you're made to clean the weeds, using pesticide, and sometimes you can't endure the fumes. Each can weighed 65 pounds, I was only 75 pounds heavy. I'm only 98 pounds until now. One week's work was difficult, it was odorous. I told my foreman I couldn't eat my lunch because of the smell, he transferred me to the bundling section. Got pain in my waist, you had to bundle for planting, I endured it, it was better because I could eat, pay was $2 an hour at the start. It was dusty planting the sugar cane. After 6 months, I became permanent. I could save some money."

For the fun side, bachelor Martin Embudo of Mahayahay, Argao who came in 1925 said: "After work, we used to play volleyball, sometimes I'd fish, went to cockfights then but now, I haven't had a fighting rooster of my own, it's illegal... I always went to dances on weekends, danced with haoles (whites) and Filipinas. Saturdays to the dance, Sundays to the cockfight. We told jokes. We also practiced boxing." He added: "I receive $84 pension, but I'm not going home anymore. I'm afraid to go home, can't even sign my own name."

Nang Ika, born Francisca (later Frances) Generalao-Sasan whose father is from San Fernando and mother from Dalaguete, told of benefit dances, to which she liked to go, even lying about her age. She got 20 cents for one dance (10 cents went to the benefit) and made 6 dollars a night. The children used to play sungka with balugbog marbles, jumpstick and racing, but she didn't know biko, syatong or bulanbulan.

The cartoon exaggerates, and the sakada children would grow up in a paradise of their own as they went on doing hard work. Manang Lorraine of Kauai, for example, who spoke English during the interview (her baptismal name was Encarnacion) didn't feel deprived, even if her mother had 18 children, and she spoke of harmony among the sakada children: "Everybody had warm feelings of their neighbors, the Japanese, we all got along, there's no fighting, they share whatever, like vegetables."

Growing up in Argao, I knew only about the pensionados from Hawaii who had ordered brides and retired in their new concrete houses. The stories that I have collected from the workplace have showed me a truer picture of their industry and courage and determination to survive, in spite of loneliness and material need.

Indeed, the main source of strength of the Visayans and the other Filipinos in Hawaii was their own Filipino culture - the strong sense of bonding that kept them from the breadline during the depression, saving the U.S. government countless dollars in relief service.

They have remained unhailed today but surely, they are also to be considered as heroic as our OFWs anywhere else.

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