Economic, political challenges lie ahead
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By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Catherine E. Toth
The growing number of Filipinos in Hawai'i in the next decade will change the state's economic, social and political landscape.
But as the community becomes the second-largest ethnic group in the state, it will have to wrestle with its own challenges.
Filipinos have come a long way from their sakada (migrant worker) roots nearly 100 years ago, but will need to find strength in their numbers to rise above the service jobs and low college graduation rates that have slowed advancement in the workplace.
"In terms of a socioeconomic status, there has been very little progress (within the Filipino community) in the past 30 years," said Jonathan Okamura, ethnic studies professor at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. "There are always going to be families where everyone went to college and got professional jobs. But for every one of those families, you can find three where that's just not the case."
Within the next decade, projected increases in immigration and birth rates are expected to catapult Filipinos over Japanese as the state's second-largest ethnic group.
But that growth is not without concern.
They may boast a higher percentage of high school graduates than most ethnic groups, but Filipinos and part-Filipinos — particularly men — are less likely to earn college degrees. Rising college tuitions nationwide may be a barrier preventing Filipino youth from earning degrees and, in turn, entering the professional work force.
Even though their numbers are rising in nonservice industry occupations, Filipinos and part-Filipinos are underrepresented in management and professional positions. Many young, educated Filipinos look for better opportunities in their careers on the Mainland.
According to the 2000 Census, 22.8 percent — or nearly one-fourth — of the state's population identified itself as Filipino or part-Filipino. They are the third largest ethnic group after Caucasians (39.3 percent) and Japanese and part-Japanese (24.5 percent). A consistent influx of immigrants — an average of 4,000 a year — and a higher-than-average birth rate are factors in the Filipino population growth.
"Filipinos in Hawai'i are on the up," said Belinda A. Aquino, director of the Center for Philippine Studies at UH. "Their growing impact will be felt in the economy, politics and in the social milieu, as the Filipino community grows in numbers ... in the coming decades.
"They will be part of the future economy and leadership in Hawai'i."
The mix of later-generation Filipino-Americans and recent immigrants makes this a dynamic community with varying needs and desires, and many believe that political representation is also key.
"We need a lot more leadership in the Legislature," said Rep. Alex Sonson, D-35th, (Waipahu, Crestview), who ran for office four times before winning his seat four years ago. "No matter what you think of politicians, children need someone to look up to, someone they can relate to and who came from the same place as them. You have to give them hope."
More Filipino women are in the work force than men — 60,633 women and 57,764 men in 2000, according to Census data — and they're also more likely to earn college degrees.
About 14 percent of Filipino women received bachelor's degrees in 2000, compared with 11 percent of Filipino men.
In the work force, women have clinched more management and professional jobs than their male counterparts.
"The females in the Filipino community are the doers, the movers and the shakers," said Sonson, who earned his law degree from Kent College of Law in Chicago. "They will certainly be a force to reckon with."
Carrie-Ann Agag, 17, is one of many young Filipino women who aim to move beyond the service jobs their parents and grandparents took to give them better lives.
A second-generation Filipino-American from Waipahu, Agag has lofty ambitions: to become a pediatrician, television news anchor and president of the United States.
The Waipahu High graduate plans to major in pre-med at Notre Dame de Namur University in California this fall.
The oldest of three and the first in her family to go to college, Agag — like many second-generation Fil-Ams — can't help but feel the pressure.
"It's overwhelming and scary at the same time," she said, breathlessly, "because you don't want to fail."
Census numbers show that Filipinos and part-Filipinos fall below the state average in earning college degrees. In Hawai'i, 15.1 percent of Filipinos and part-Filipinos earned bachelor's degrees or higher in 2000, compared with 26.2 percent statewide. Those figures are expected to rise — albeit slightly, if tuition increases continue — in the coming years, as more Filipinos and part-Filipinos enroll in college.
"Since I first came here to teach in the early '70s ... you could count with your fingers then the number of Filipino-American students," Aquino said. "(Now) more and more of them are going to college, seeking higher education, especially in the community colleges."
Still, the largest number of Filipinos work in service jobs such as food preparation, maintenance and hotel service. Part of the reason is accessibility: these jobs are plentiful and often don't require college degrees.
Mary Jane Millan, 32, has a bachelor's degree in economics from Divine Word College of Laoag in Ilocos Norte, Philippines. But when she moved to O'ahu two years ago, she was happy to get a job as a guest services agent at Hilton Hawaiian Village.
"I'm so thankful I started to work here where I could meet so many people," said Millan, who lives with her husband in 'Ewa Beach. "I'm so lucky. It's a lot of sacrifice, but it's worth it."
Millan is working toward certification as a nursing assistant. Her plan is to get a nursing degree from UH and work as a registered nurse. "It's higher pay," she said. "And it's always been my dream."
About 15 percent of Filipino men and 21.4 percent of Filipino women listed management or professional occupations as their careers in 2000. That's well below the 30.4 percent of men and 34.2 percent of women in these positions statewide.
Those numbers could rise, along with the number of college graduates, in the next decade.
But some experts worry that rising college costs will discourage Filipinos and other minority groups from enrolling.
"In the long term, what could happen is that fewer Filipinos will go to college — and that will impact access to professional and other white-collar employment and income over time," Okamura said. "That's a reciprocal effect ... so the numbers (in population) don't necessarily translate into any socioeconomic or political power for the community as a whole."
HOPES AND DREAMS
Just as their immigrant parents moved to Hawai'i for more opportunities, younger Filipinos are seeking jobs on the Mainland in pursuit of their own dreams.
Abe Lagrimas, a 23-year-old drumming virtuoso from Waipahu, plans to move to Los Angeles soon — just one year after returning from Boston, where he earned his degree in music education from the Berklee College of Music.
"I want to be in the hustle-bustle scene," Lagrimas said. "(But) you do realize you're a minority on the Mainland. In that way, I find it motivating. If you really want a gig that badly, you want to be judged solely on your skills. So you have to be that much better."
Lagrimas returned to O'ahu and started teaching private drumming lessons at Highlands Intermediate. The musician also plays regularly with local big names such as Don Tiki, Swampa Z.Z. and New Jass Quartet. But those outlets haven't been enough to hold him here.
"Hawai'i is a small market, and there are fewer opportunities," said Aquino, who has noticed more young Filipinos leaving. "There's no Silicon Valley or major research hospital here. ... The economy here dictates what kinds of opportunities are available."
Reach Catherine E. Toth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The percentages shown in the chart listed below of Hawai'i population by ethnicity added up to more than 100 percent because some residents report themselves in more than one ethnic category. That was not made clear in the chart.