Filipino Migration to Hawaii: A Tale of Tears

Filipinos migrated in waves to Hawaii beginning in the very first years of the 20th century, when the island was a newly annexed territory of the US. Hawaii’s economy then was dominated by the owners of big sugar plantations.


Migrant Watch

HONOLULU — Hawaii is a popular destination not only for tourists but also for migrants, and not without reason. But for the forebears of the Filipinos there, who now comprise one of the biggest Asian ancestry group on the island, getting there and planting their feet there was far from being a walk in the park.

Filipinos migrated in waves to Hawaii beginning in the very first years of the 20th century, when the island was a newly annexed territory of the US. Hawaii’s economy then was dominated by the owners of big sugar plantations. “The first Filipinos in Hawaii were sacadas (seasonal farm workers),” said Cora Avinante, an immigration lawyer who is also an expert on the history of Filipino migration to Hawaii.

“During the heyday of the sugar plantations, they recruited workers from the Philippines, starting in 1906, particularly from the Ilocos Region and the Visayas,” said Felipe Tan, a Filipino who works with the City and County of Hawaii, in a separate interview.

Based on a series of articles written by Grace Mateo for the Philippine History Site (, a project funded with a grant from the Hawaii Center for the Humanities and co-sponsored by the Filipino-American Historical Society of Hawaii and the University of Hawaii (UH) Office of Multicultural Student Services, the recruitment of Filipinos to Hawaii was organized by the Hawaii Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA).

The HSPA, founded in 1895, “was an unincorporated, voluntary organization of sugar plantation owners in the Hawaiian Islands,” Mateo writes. “ts objective was to promote the mutual benefits of its members and the development of the sugar industry in the islands. It conducted scientific studies and gathered accurate records about the sugar industry. The HSPA practiced paternalistic management. Plantation owners introduced welfare programs, sometimes out of concern for the workers, but oftentimes designed to suit their economic ends. Threats, coercion, and divide and rule tactics were employed, particularly to keep the workers ethnically segregated.

“The HSPA also actively campaigned to bring workers to Hawaii. For instance, they opened offices in Manila and Vigan, Ilocos Sur, to recruit Filipino workers and provide them free passage to Hawaii. Similarly, the HSPA became a powerful organization that its tentacles reached as far as Washington D.C. where it successfully lobbied for legislation and policies beneficial to the sugar industry of Hawaii.”

The labor recruiters for the HPSA went to the Philippines and set up recruitment centers in Vigan, Ilocos Sur and in Cebu.

In 1906, the first group of Filipino recruits – composed of 15 Tagalogs – went to Hawaii. Eventually, however, a great bulk of the succeeding waves of Filipino migrant workers would be recruited from the Ilocos Region and the Visayas.

By 1907, there were 150 Filipinos in Hawaii. The number would swell to 639 by 1909 and 2,915 by 1910. An estimated 3,000 Filipino workers went to Hawaii yearly from 1911 to 1920. By 1919, Filipino workers in Hawaii numbered 10,354 – by then the second biggest ethno-racial group of workers on the plantations, next only to the Japanese who numbered 24,791. By the 1930s, the Filipinos had replaced the Japanese as the biggest ethno-racial group of migrant workers on the island – this, despite a temporary slowdown in the arrivals of Filipino migrants in the early 1930s due to the onset of the Great Depression.

The Tydings-McDuffie Law, passed in 1935, created the Commonwealth Government in the Philippines and also limited Filipino migration to the US and its other annexed territories to 50 Filipinos a year. But the HSPA successfully lobbied before the US Congress for an exemption. Their members were thus assured of a steadily growing supply of Filipino labor until the outbreak of World War II.

During the war, many Filipinos were transferred from the plantations to the defense industry, as a result of which the sugar plantations suffered from a shortage of labor. Between the end of the war and the granting of Philippine “independence,” the plantations organized another major recruitment campaign, and over 7,000 Filipinos – known as Sacada ‘46 – went to Hawaii.

Hawaii became the 50th state of the US on Aug. 21, 1959. In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act was passed, allowing for the influx of petitioned relatives of previous migrants, as well as of occupational migrants (professionals like nurses and teachers). Filipinos went to the US, including Hawaii, within this particular wave of migration – which continues to this day.

The Filipinos had to contend with racial discrimination, including by fellow Asians, in Hawaii as in the mainland US and in other US-annexed territories. They were willing to work for the lowest wages (and were actually paid the lowest wages among the different ethno-racial groups on the plantations, according to Mateo), and were thus perceived as taking jobs away from workers of different ancestry.

“In Hawaii the Filipinos were looked down upon because they were usually laborers at the plantations, and the totem pole there is the laborers are at the bottom, and at the top would be the manager, who would usually be some Portuguese guy – white but not really white,” Avinante said. “They eventually started employing some Japanese as managers.”

Today, Avinante says, many Filipinos in Hawaii bear the marks of their forebears’ sad experiences with racial discrimination. Not only that: they continue to contend with racial discrimination, albeit of the more subtle kind.

“There’s this thing where they don’t say it to your face, the other races, but they make you feel they’re better than you,” Avinante says. “And that is why a lot of Filipinos here, when you ask them, say, ‘Oh, I’m Spanish’, or ‘I’m German”, and so on, but also say they’re part-Filipino, like their grandfather was Filipino, or something to that effect.”

Today, Filipinos in Hawaii number an estimated 175,147 out of a total population of 1.29 million, based on the American Community Survey of 2008, and make up one of the largest Asian ethno-racial groups on the island. (

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3 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. My unclde Paciano C. Tagab was among those who went to Hawaii to work in the sugar plantation. He died in the early 60s, but left a son Alfredo Tagab. I want to have contact with him. Please help.

    My contact numbers are as follows:
    Tel No. 2950213
    Cell No. 09157831513

  2. this helped with my project for college.

  3. many ethnic Filipinos who were born in Hawaii and the U.S. have a difficult ethnic identity issue.

    however, access to valuable Philippine/Filipino historical literature is available at the the University of Hawaii at Manoa's excellent Center for Philippine Studies.

    Very few ethnic Filipinos has taken advantage of this resource.

    "To find oneself, one MUST know his past history"-(written by those of his own race)

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