During my last trip to Oahu, I stayed with my aunt, uncle, and great Aunt Mercedes (we call her Grandma Mercy). I grew up hearing from my parents that my Grandma Mercy was born on a plantation in Hawaii. So I decided to finally ask my aunt how my Grandma Mercy got to Hawaii and this is the story she shared with me:
My Grandma Mercy was born on a sugar cane plantation in Kapa’a, Kauai in 1928.
Her mother Flora (my great, great Aunt) and her uncle (her mother’s brother) were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Cane Planters Association (HSPA). Apparently large ships came to the Philippines to recruit Filipino workers to meet the labor demands of the sugar field industry. The sugar cane industry promised a better life to the Filipinos. When the ships came, Flora and her brother didn’t have time to tell their parents they were going to journey to Hawaii. They saw the ship and boarded it together. Flora was only 14-15 years old at the time.
A Quick History on How Filipinos Made their way to Hawaii…
Between 1900- 1930, over 100,000 Filipinos immigrated to Hawaii to work the fields. Thousands of Filipinos left the Philippines seeking a better life. Many left their homeland in hopes of saving up and returning home to build their lives.
Several things contributed to this incredible migration. First the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 banned Chinese and Japanese workers from immigrating to the United States. Since the Philippines was a US territory (1898-1946), it was technical legal to hire Filipinos to work the fields.
Additionally, Filipinos were the cheapest form of labor, even with the free boat ride the HSPA provided to Hawaii. The HSPA preferred to hire uneducated workers who weren’t aware they could ask for better working conditions and legal rights. These Filipino workers worked at 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and only took home 90 cents a day. It wasn’t until 1920 until the Filipinos and Japanese laborers banded together to demand higher wages and remove wage discrimination based on ethnicity. (Source A)
Lastly, since the Philippines was an agrarian society, the sugar cane industry thought they would make great field hand workers.
When my Grandma Mercy was a year or two old, her father died.
My aunt who was telling me the story doesn’t exactly know what happened to him. My great, great Aunt Flora was left with three children under the age 4. She decided that she couldn’t raise her children on a sugar cane plantation. Especially since in the 1920s, men out numbered women 7 to 1. She made the decision to take her three children on the several month long boat ride back to the Philippines.
My Grandma Mercy, her sister, and brother grew up in the Philippines. And years later when she started her own family, her mother told her that she was an American citizen since she was born on US territory and Hawaii became a state. (Hawaii became a US territory in 1898 and an official state in 1959).
Her mother encouraged her to go back to Hawaii and bring her family over to the United States.
So in 1970s, my Grandma Mercy journeyed back to Hawaii. She got her papers straightened out and brought her family over. A decade later, she convinced my grandpa (my father’s dad) to also come to Hawaii. Since my grandpa had fought in WW2 with the Americans against Japanese forces, he also had the opportunity to fight for his US citizenship. My grandpa immigrated to Hawaii and went to live with my Grandma Mercy and her family (my aunt who was telling me the story).
My grandpa went on to work with Senator Daniel Inouye and petitioned his children (my dad and his brothers) to receive US citizenship. Since my dad was the youngest and the only minor, he immigrated to Hawaii first at 17 years old. My uncles and aunt came shortly after. But my dad, grandpa, and all his brothers and sister lived with my Grandma Mercy’s family.
My Grandma Mercy and Hawaii served as the the pathway from the Pacific to the United States for my family.
I was blown away when my aunt shared with me my Grandma Mercy’s story and her efforts to bring our family over to the United States. I knew I had to record and publish a piece of my family’s history. So when I become the great, great aunt or grandmother one day, my great, great grandkids will know how our family came over from the Philippines, to Hawaii, to the mainland.
Today, my grandma Mercy is 90 years old.
She still lives on Oahu with my Aunt and Uncle and we visit her when go back to the island! Thank you Grandma Mercy for everything you’ve done for our family! We love you!
Coming Full Circle – and back to Kauai
This past December/January, I traveled to Kauai for the first time. I got to visit Kapa’a – the town where Grandma Mercy was born. (All of these photos in these post were taken in Kapa’a!) Seeing Kauai meant so much more to me knowing my Grandma Mercy’s story.
So I encourage you today to ask your parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great aunts/uncles, their stories. How did they get to where they live today? What major moves did your family take? Why did they move? Hopefully you learn something new or where your family was in specific periods of history!
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Thank you for reading!
Photos: Mallory Francks