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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 3, 2006

Dreams will wither with fields

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Mainland visitors are always shocked that Hawai'i people don't eat pineapple. Not all local people avoid it, of course, but if anyone in your house ever worked in the fields or even spent summers in the cannery, that sharp, cloying smell suggests no romanticism. The scent of pineapple is not the smell of suntan lotion or rum drinks or any sort of leisure item. It is the smell of hard labor, of backaches, of never-ending rows of thorny fruit, of rash on your skin, of sun and dirt and wind in your eyes, your ears, under your fingernails.

For many, many families, the scent of pineapple is also the smell of opportunity, of college educations for the children, of piano lessons, of new shoes for baseball.

A hundred years ago, the first Filipino immigrants came to Hawai'i to work on the plantations to follow their hope. Like other immigrants before them, they believed that the future could be made better by the force of their will and the strength in their hands. They invested in that hope day by day, hour by hour in the hot sun, arms covered to protect from the caustic juice, legs wrapped to ward off centipede bites.

To look at the images of the Del Monte pineapple workers as they learned Wednesday of their fate from the luna, except for the Macy's bag in one worker's hand and the high-tech backpacks here and there, it could have been decades ago.

The hope of the plantation workers never dimmed over the years. The commitment never failed. It was passed along. As families moved out of plantation houses into homes paid for by their toil, they were always more willing to sign on to the promise. But one by one, the sugar and pineapple plantations that grew sweet dreams are dying.

Hawai'i is marking the centennial of Filipino immigration with nostalgic remembrances of the hard labor and simple life of the plantation workers. For some, that era is not in the past. That hard work is every day.

There are myriad questions since Del Monte's announcement. One need only look at the acres of housing developments in Waikapu on Maui, the years of economic and social hardship in Ka'u on Hawai'i, the vines of tourism that are choking Koloa on Kaua'i to see what happens to a plantation town when the plantation closes. What do you do when the way you fed and clothed and housed and educated your children doesn't exist anymore? Pick up an application from Wal-Mart?

Boiled down to the essence, the end of Del Monte's pineapple operation is the end of the dream that security for the future can be built by strong backs and blistered hands.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.