An inside joke among the Filipino community in Hawaii has been passed down from generation to generation. It goes something like this: the “luna” (overseer) in one of the sugar plantations asked a new worker whether he was a Filipino. The worker replies, “No, I’m Ilokano.” Obviously, this joke unmasks the reality of the massive migration of the Ilocanos to Hawaii and to the United States.
The Ilocano people are the third largest ethnolinguistic group in the Philippines. This ethic group is also the most migrant of all Filipino groups. You can find an Ilocano in every region of the country as well as in the United States. In fact, puns are thrown at Hawaii for being the lost or extension of the Ilocos province.
Migration of the Ilocanos
Due to the harsh environment and geographic location of the Ilocos Region, the Ilocanos have found their way out of their hometown in search of greener pastures. The narrow plain situated in between the Cordillera Mountain Ranges and South China Sea is not enough to feed the growing population of the Ilocanos. In the mid-19th century, this ethnic group has moved from the Ilocandia to the Cagayan Valley, Cordillera, Central Luzon, and Metro Manila and to Mindanao.
The Ilocanos started migrating to the United States particularly in Hawaii and California in the hopes of better quality of living. They became the first overseas contract workers in a predominantly sugar and pineapple plantation.
In 1906 to 1919, roughly around 29,800 Filipinos migrated to Hawaii. The second wave was from 1920 to 1929 wherein there were 73,996 Filipinos migrates. In spite the limitations set by the US government as stated in the Tidings-McDuffee (Philippine Independence) Act, around 14,760 Filipinos. The fourth wave was in 1946 right after World War II wherein 7,361 moved to the US. Majority of these migrates were of Ilocano ancestry.
In Hawaii, the Ilocanos make up the 85% of the Filipino community. In fact, there were so many Ilocanos and they were rather influential that they were able to make Benjamin Jerome “Ben” Cayetano (a full blood Ilocano) the fifth Governor of Hawaii.
Sakada of 1946
Due to the casualties in the Second World War, many of the plantation workers of Hawaii were made to do defense work. Thus, it caused a shortage of labor production in the Hawaiian plantations. To keep the operation afloat, the US granted Hawaii’s request for an exemption to the immigration law (as stated in the Tidings McDuffee Act). They have imported thousands of Filipino labor before the granting of the Philippine Independence on July 4, 1946.
This batch of migrates were called Sakada ’46. It was the last organized Filipino migration to the US, in which the majority is of Ilocano decent. Around 6000 men, 446 women, and 915 children were migrated to Hawaii. It was a different group compared to the earlier groups of migrant Filipinos because they were more educated since they were products of the American colonial education in the Philippines.
The Filipinos lived and worked under harsh conditions in Hawaii. They had to deal with prejudicial attitudes from the Americans. Although the Filipinos were spared of beatings and physical abuse, they suffered a psychological damage. It strengthened their sense of inferiority and weakened their self-esteem. This was something Filipino overseas workers have struggled to deal with, change and overcome.
In the 1920’s, the Hawaii Sugar Plantation Association (HSPA) ceased the recruitment of Filipinos as plantation laborers. But in spite that, Filipinos, particularly Ilocanos, continued to arrive in Hawaii for better living opportunities.