Saga of sakada
|Video: Sakada share their memories of plantation life in Waialua|
|•||PDF: Waialua Filipino Fiesta schedule of events|
By Zenaida Serrano
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Zenaida Serrano
At 85, Alejandro Bonilla still remembers the rush of receiving a day's pay of about $4 to send home to the Philippines more than 60 years ago.
Cipriano Erice, 81, has vivid memories of playing baseball against other plantation leagues as far away as 'Ewa and Waipahu.
And Leonides Ramones recalls the 17-day trip aboard the S.S. Maunawili from the Philippines to Hawai'i a journey that would change his life forever.
"I came from a poor family and I came here to work to better my life," said Ramones, 80.
The three men are among nearly 40 living sakada from Waialua being honored at the Waialua Filipino Fiesta on Saturday at Waialua Bandstand and the Waialua Farmers Market.
Sakada were the contracted plantation laborers who came to Hawai'i from the Philippines between 1906 and 1946, organizers said.
Bonilla, Erice and Ramones came to Hawai'i in 1946 and worked for Waialua Sugar Co., formerly Waialua Agricultural Co., for nearly 40 years. The men retired in the 1980s, before the mill shut down in 1996.
"These (sakada) were the forefathers of the Waialua Filipino community," said event chairwoman Margaret Sagaysay. "It is to give them honor and respect, and to let our people in the community know that they were the pioneers here in the plantation."
The fiesta, which also celebrates the Filipino centennial, includes food booths, craft vendors and entertainment featuring folk songs and dances.
The event is sponsored by the Waialua Filipino Community Association, Waialua Public Library, St. Michael's Filipino Catholic Club and Waialua Farmers Market.
"We want to continue to encourage this generation as well as the future generation to continue this pride and joy, and to also work hard, just as our sakada had done for us," said Sagaysay, a social worker and daughter of a sakada.
The recognition of the Waialua sakada many of whom are in their 80s will be the highlight of the fiesta, Sagaysay said.
"You will see and you will talk to a sakada," she said. "You can shake the hand of a sakada."
As a preview to the event, Bonilla, Erice and Ramones spoke to The Advertiser to share their memories of life on a sugar plantation.
ASPIRATIONS, PERSPIRATION WOVE LIVES OF SAKADA
Gripping a wooden walking stick, Alejandro Bonilla slowly shuffled along a dirt road toward the old Waialua Sugar Mill, where he worked six decades ago.
Bonilla found a shady spot to rest at an open wooden structure, once the mill's assembly office. In its heyday, the sugar company would have trucks pick up workers throughout the plantation camp and bring them to the office, where they would receive their job assignments.
As Bonilla stared out toward the town's landmark smokestack a massive structure towering over the mill complex he talked about how Waialua Sugar Co. changed his life.
"I owe a big thing to Waialua Sugar Co.," Bonilla said with a strong Filipino accent. "I would say that is my big foundation, just like a concrete, solid foundation."
Between deep breaths and long pauses, Bonilla described how he left his homeland as a young man to pursue a better life a story similar to thousands of sakada who shared the same dreams.
WIFE, SON LEFT BEHIND
Bonilla was 25 when he left his barrio, or hometown, in San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte, Philippines. He left behind a young wife, son, mother and sister, among many other loved ones.
"When I left the barrio, my grandma, the last words she told me is, 'Son, maybe I cannot see you anymore,' " Bonilla recalled. He didn't realize then that her words would come true it would be 10 years before he could return home to see his family again.
As difficult as it was to leave, Bonilla said he believed it was the only way he could help his struggling farming family.
"Because of dry weather, we cannot (grow) anything," Bonilla said. "That's why I decided to come to Hawai'i to work and earn some money."
On Feb. 28, 1946, Bonilla headed for a pier in Salumagi, Ilocos Sur, where he boarded the S.S. Maunawili. That year, Bonilla would be among the last group of 6,000 Ilocano sakada imported from the Philippines by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association.
The one-way journey across the Pacific Ocean to Hawai'i lasted less than a month; Bonilla arrived in Honolulu on March 16.
"So after that, we (were) assigned to Waialua Sugar Co.," Bonilla said.
'A DIRTY, DIRTY JOB'
Hunched over and hard of hearing, Bonilla spoke loudly to describe the work he did as a strapping young "concrete products man," his first job at the plantation.
"That was a dirty, dirty job. And heavy," Bonilla said.
Bonilla was among a group of men who mixed cement and made concrete flumes used to irrigate the sugar cane fields. Sections of the flumes weighed 400 to 600 pounds, Bonilla said.
"We cannot lift them up, that's why we have to 'cocky-cocky,' " Bonilla said, shimmying his shoulders.
But he said the back-breaking labor was worth the pay about 40 to 50 cents an hour.
"So I figured that, 'Oh! I going get about $4-something, and then send them to the family,' " Bonilla said with a big smile. "Plenty, plenty dollars. That's why more than happy I am to come to Hawai'i."
Still living in Waialua, Bonilla remarried in 1971 after his first wife died. He has two grandchildren and six great-grandchildren from his son from his first marriage.
After nearly 40 years of service to the company, Bonilla retired on Dec. 31, 1982. Following retirement, he pursued his high school degree and a general building license.
Today Bonilla has a well-deserved leisurely lifestyle a far cry from his hardworking plantation days. He spends his time gardening, doing carpentry and traveling to places like Canada and countries throughout Europe.
"That's the main thing that makes me very happy," Bonilla said, "to see the other places and people."
Bonilla also has gone back to the Philippines several times to visit family still a priority to him. Bonilla suffers from asthma, and despite the air pollution that plagues Manila, he doesn't mind making the trips, he said.
"That's the one not too good the cars, smoke and dust but that's OK," Bonilla said. "As long as we visit the relatives, that's OK with me. I don't care what kind sick I get."
Cipriano Erice's face lit up as he shared plantation memories as colorful as his outfit a blue jacket over a red and white T-shirt with dark brown pants, grayish Velcro sneakers and a light blue baseball cap.
With bright eyes, the jovial 81-year-old recalled how he spent his free time as a young man in the plantation. Playing baseball after a long day at work, catching Filipino movies at the neighborhood theater and watching town parades with old-timers donning festive barongs were among Erice's favorite diversions.
"I enjoyed the life," the thin and fit Waialua resident said, beaming.
Erice came to Hawai'i in 1946, when he was 21. He left his home and his parents in Laoag, Ilocos Norte, to join his brother, who was already in the Islands.
"We heard so much about Hawai'i that's a good thing ... that we can earn dollars, and the dollars in the Philippines so very valuable at that time," Erice said. "So that is why I decide to come here, to earn that money."
Erice's first job with Waialua Sugar was working the fields as a grass cutter. He would eventually become a tractor operator, then a welder.
"I moved around because I try to find a better way to earn that money," Erice said.
Whatever the position, the work was always physically demanding.
"Plantation life was hard before," Erice said. "We have to work hard to raise the canes."
PAU HANA FUN
Erice played just as hard as he worked. "After work, pau hana, I used to play baseball and (other) sports," Erice said.
The sugar company created various sports leagues for its workers and the teams would compete against other plantation communities, such as 'Ewa and Waipahu, Erice said.
"They create all those for the workers because we don't have no other recreation before," he said.
Erice was an active volleyball and basketball player, and amateur boxer, as well.
"After eight hours work, (I) go to the gym, practice," Erice said. "That is my life."
Going to the neighborhood movie theater to watch Filipino flicks in the national language of Tagalog was another popular pastime for the sugar workers.
"Most of us Ilocano, but we still understand little bit the Tagalog," Erice said. "We like go movies."
Music also was a big part of plantation life, with musicians playing traditional Filipino songs at informal gatherings, baptismals and weddings.
"Like in the camp before, plantation life, that is where you can see that Filipinos ... playing music," Erice said. "We get the Filipino community band before."
Erice tinkered a bit with a guitar and was a member of a string band.
"I played a little, but not much," Erice said and laughed.
Filipino fiestas were common back in the day, Erice added. The cultural celebrations often lasted for several days and included parades and carnival-like events at the park, where the Waialua Bandstand is today.
"We come over here because this is the center before," Erice said.
MISSING THE COMMUNITY
Erice, married for 56 years with three children and two grandchildren, retired from Waialua Sugar in the late 1980s.
One of the first things the outgoing Erice missed about working was the camaraderie among his co-workers, especially socializing during lunch breaks.
"I miss all those things because I (had) good fun with them," he said.
But like his younger self, Erice quickly learned to adjust to his new life.
"Oh, I enjoy retirement because I forget to wake up every morning," he said and laughed.
Still active and healthy a possible result of his athletic youth Erice has become an avid traveler. One of his favorite destinations is Las Vegas, which he visits often, sometime three times a year.
But to Erice, nothing quite compares to the hustle and bustle of Waialua's plantation life, which ended after Waialua Sugar shut down in 1996.
"There was a big difference in the community because people moved out because no more jobs," Erice said. "So it come out like ghost town in Waialua."
Erice hopes the upcoming Filipino fiesta will spark a revival in the quiet North Shore community.
"Maybe the youngest (generation) will see this and will continue this," he said.
The four-digit identification number assigned to Leonides Ramones is as ingrained in his memory as his birth date. Plantation owners assigned what was called a bango number to each employee.
Ask him and he'll respond in an instant: "7457."
"In place of calling me Leonides, they would call my number," said Ramones, 80. The number also was used to charge goods at the plantation store.
Ramones has many distinct plantation memories. He remembers the plantation homes, with outdoor toilets and the community hot bath, sectioned off for men and women.
He recalls the respites from work, such as traveling to downtown Honolulu for dances.
"You should see lines of Filipinos going into ballrooms that were on Beretania and King street(s)," Ramones said. " ... In my mind, (I thought) that's where we Filipinos throwing away our hard-earned money."
A BETTER LIFE
Born in Bacarra, Ilocos Norte, Ramones was in the service under the United States of America Filipino Infantry of the Philippines, he said.
He was discharged in 1945, and a year later, at age 20, heard that the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association was in the Philippines to recruit workers.
"I accepted and signed a contract for three years," Ramones said.
He left his country with just a fourth-grade education and no English, but Ramones knew he would somehow manage in his new home.
Like thousands of sakada before him, Ramones made the 17-day trip from the Philippines to Hawai'i aboard the S.S. Maunawili.
"I came from a poor family and I came here to work to better my life," Ramones said.
'WE HAVE TO SACRIFICE'
At the Waialua Agricultural Co., Ramones was immediately assigned field work. His jobs included cutting grass along the rows of cane, cutting and loading cane onto wagons going to the mill to be processed into sugar.
"It is a hard work, but we have to sacrifice to (do) the work because that was the intent of coming to Hawai'i," Ramones said. "We knew the job here was very hard."
From production work, Ramones transferred to another department to do leaf and soil sampling, and measure cane growth.
He transferred again, to tend to the Wahiawa reservoir, which delivered millions of gallons of water to irrigate the cane fields.
He eventually was promoted to section irrigation supervisor, overseeing local and nonlocal workers.
After nearly 40 years of service, Ramones retired in 1985 at the age of 58.
A SUCCESSFUL FAMILY
A framed photograph of the old Waialua Sugar Mill hangs in Ramones' Waialua home, a reminder of how far he has come in 60 years.
"What I have today, I'm very thankful," said Ramones, sitting in the spacious living room filled with family photos. Many shots are of his only son, Edwin, founder of the local group The Krush, popular for songs such as "More and More," "Regrets" and "My Hawai'i."
"At least my family (members) are on the way to a successful life, so I have no regrets," Ramones said.
Ramones looks forward to the Waialua Filipino Fiesta on Saturday and is honored to be recognized with fellow sakada.
"I feel great appreciation," Ramones said.
And to event-goers and the younger generations of Filipinos, Leonides Ramones, not 7457, hopes to pass on a lesson:
"Be honest, work hard and be polite. That's all. To me, anybody could have a successful life from honesty and (hard) work."
Reach Zenaida Serrano at email@example.com.