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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Filipinos determined to fulfill obligations

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Danilo Jose, a cook from Kalihi, hands money to cashier Mia Pintor to send to his father in Ilocos Norte, Philippines.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Glenda Julian pulled a crumpled $50 bill out of her jeans, smoothing it onto the counter at the Lucky Money 24-Hour Express branch in Kalihi to be forwarded to her mother and sisters in the Philippines.

The $50 is all that Julian can afford since she was laid off from the Golden Coin Bake Shop & Restaurant after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Julian has no choice. As bad as the economy has become in Hawai'i, she and thousands of other Filipinos and Filipino Americans know that life is even harder back home.

"You know the Philippines is a poor country," Julian said. "We have to send money to them, that's why."

The Sept. 11 attacks triggered massive layoffs in Hawai'i, particularly in the hotel, tourism and restaurant industries, which employs thousands of workers of Filipino descent.

The result is that the estimated $300,000 to $400,000 that flowed daily in cash from Hawai'i to the Philippines before Sept. 11 has since been cut by about a third. The balikbayan — or homecoming — packages of canned goods and clothes are now smaller and less frequent. The hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash that's carried back to the Philippines by airline passengers each day has probably been cut as well, said Filipino bankers, scholars and business people.

But Filipinos in Hawai'i continue to ship, wire and fly whatever they can to their relatives. It's part of a deep-rooted commitment they made when they left home. And it's a promise they intend to keep.

"It's a moral obligation," said Belinda Aquino, director of the Center for Philippine Studies at the University of Hawai'i. "It's expected."

Aquino has been sending as much as $1,200 per year to her sister in La Union Province for the past 25 years.

The idea of remittance, or sending money home, was born in the Philippines in the 1920s, even before the first workers left for the sugar plantations of Hawai'i. They were young, single men, mostly from the poor Ilocos region to the north. They came with a simple plan: Work hard and send as much money back within their three-year commitment, Aquino said.

Many of them ended up staying in the Islands. Today, Hawai'i is home to 180,000 people of Filipino ancestry. Many of them continue to send a third to half of their paychecks to the Philippines on a regular basis, Aquino said.

The practice spawned a profitable cottage industry of a dozen or so banks and businesses that wire money instantly to the Philippines and another dozen that specialize in shipping balikbayan boxes.

They are businesses that also have suffered since Sept. 11.

Some customers now send balikbayan boxes only every other month at Filipino Air Service and Transport. Or they're shipping smaller, less expensive boxes, said owner Tom Adachi.

"They're cutting back," he said. "Business is off 10 to 12 percent."

At Philippine National Bank, which dominates the remittance market in Hawai'i, the amount of money sent to the Philippines has dropped from about $200,000 per day to as low as $100,000, said Joe Guevara, the assistant vice president and general manager.

But even people who have been laid off continue to send money, he said.

"The Filipinos here are very, very industrious and very, very helpful to their relatives," Guevara said. "Of course, they have to be."

The Philippine economy relies on exporting workers who then give money to their families, said Dean Alegado, chairman of the UH ethnic studies department. Alegado's parents have been wiring cash and ferrying balikbayan boxes to the Philippines since the 1950s.

The business of exporting workers is a highly organized, national phenomenon in the Philippines, Alegado said. There are now 4.5 million to 5 million Filipinos outside of the Philippines. And back home, 20 percent of Filipinos claim their main source of income comes from overseas, Alegado said.

And so people like Eufrocina Cabanting, a 62-year-old grandmother, continue to dig deep.

In better times, Cabanting and her husband would send $400 to $500 every month to their four children in Santa Maria in Ilocos. Three of their grandchildren are in college. The other five attend private high schools.

The Cabantings sent their money each month despite working-class wages. She pulls shifts at a Jack-in-the-Box. He works at Liliha Bakery.

Then Sept. 11 hit. Cabanting's hours were slashed. And her husband could no longer expect the 10 hours of overtime each week from the bakery.

Still, the other day Eufrocina pulled together $200 and sent it to the family she left behind in Santa Maria.

"We have hard living," Eufrocina said. "But this is for the future of my grandchildren."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8085.