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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 5, 2006

COMMENTARY
Way of life dies with plantation

By Rep. Michael Y. Magaoay

When I heard the news about Del Monte closing its Kunia pineapple operation, and of 700 men and women faced with unemployment, it brought back memories of the Waialua sugar plantation closure and its effect upon my own family and the community where I grew up. As a result of the closure, Waialua was a community that chang-ed in many ways, large and small, and we can expect many of the same issues for Kunia.

The welfare of those affected by the closing should be the top concern. And it's important to recognize that even today, life for those living in a plantation community is dramatically different. These families have come to rely on many things provided by either the company or by their friends and other families. Most have lived in company housing all their lives, and surely one of the first questions that needs to be answer-ed is whether Del Monte will allow the workers to stay in their homes. It's encouraging to see a plan circulating that would allow workers to purchase their homes at below-market prices. Even if so, it remains unclear whether many workers will be able to afford them. If not, community associations must work together to coordinate such issues. And with the lack of affordable housing in the Islands, we need to brace ourselves for the fact that pineapple workers will add significantly to our housing crisis.

The union, the ILWU, must implement a strong plan to re-tool and retrain pineapple workers to enter the workforce in other areas. Some may be able to retire, but many will find it difficult to obtain other jobs, having worked in the pineapple fields all their lives. It is possible that Maui Land and Pine may acquire nearby Galbraith estate lands to plant pineapple. This would help tremendously in transitioning workers to other plantation-type jobs, especially those whom we may not be able to retrain.

With people forced to find employment elsewhere, families will move to follow the work. Schools and businesses in the Kunia area may then suffer. There were 142 seniors in my graduating class at Waialua High School in 1971; these days, there are fewer than a hundred. We can expect decreasing enrollment in the schools and a loss of revenue for the small businesses, services and mom-and-pop retailers.

Like most local folks, however, the news hit me hard emotionally because it symbolized the loss of a way of life in Hawai'i. I grew up in the Mill Camp of the Waialua sugar plantation in the 1950s and '60s. Several ethnicities were represented in our plantation community Filipino, Japanese, Portuguese each living in their own camp, but without barriers. It was in the plantation camps that so many of Hawai'i's rich cultural traditions were preserved, shared, and passed on through the generations.

Kinship existed between the cultural groups, with mothers watching over all the kids no matter what camp they belonged to and watching, too, over the many single men who came to work in the camps without wives or families. People helped each other without even being asked. If you needed to fix your house or move your wooden garage, your neighbors were always there to pitch in. Meals were always shared. At Christmas, each group put on large and festive cultural pageants with pride, and though no one had much money, toys and gifts were handmade and exchanged from the heart.

People trusted each other. There was mutual respect for how hard everyone worked for what they had, and for the homes and possessions of others, so no one saw the need to lock their doors. At the plantation store, you paid for your groceries or merchandise with a bango number, which was basically your credit account number, and everyone trusted you to pay what you owed.

I know that this way of life changed for most of us years ago, but many of the values of the plantation communities are still alive today. In 1990, when my son was born, I made the decision to move my family back to Waialua, because I wanted them to experience a way of life that I knew was changing and that we would never see in Hawai'i again. I wanted my children to develop these values kinship, trust, ethnic tolerance and appreciation; values that were forged in the sugar and pineapple plantation camps.

It is ironic that as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Filipino immigration to Hawai'i, we say goodbye to the plantation era that promised them a better life so many years ago. For me, the loss of this way of life is as important as the end of an industry. We now have a serious obligation to help the workers transition to another livelihood and a responsibility to remember the plantation camps with gratitude for the values they instilled in generations of Hawai'i's people.