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A Brief History of Filipinos in Hawaii

Prepared by Belinda A. Aquino and Federico V. Magdalena

Today's Filipino community in Hawaii traces its roots to 1906 when 15 sakadas (contract laborers) were recruited from the Philippines by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) to work on the sugar plantations in the then US Territory of Hawaii. The community celebrated its centennial anniversary in December 2006, and a State Commission to oversee the observance was named by former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano following a bill passed by the Hawaii State Legislature. The Commission of 15 community leaders included Dr. Belinda A. Aquino, professor and director of the Center for Philippine Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, to represent the university constituency.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 15 percent of the Hawaii state population or 170,635 identified themselves as "Filipino" (see Figure 1). However, the Census allowed citizens to opt for more than one ethnicity ("mixed race"), and another 105,728 identified themselves as "part-Filipino." Taken together, Filipinos and part-Filipinos constitute 275,728 or nearly 23 percent of the state population, slightly more than the Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian population. About 70 percent of the Filipino population live on the island of Oahu. While they are a minority population in the state, they form the majority (at least 60%) in Lanai island, Maui county.

Filipinos are the fastest growing ethnic minority in Hawaii, due to continuous immigration from the Philippines and high birth rates in the Filipino community. About 3,500 immigrants from the Philippines, mostly children, come to Hawaii every year. Nationally, Filipinos rank second to the Chinese in terms of Asian immigration to the US. There are roughly 2.5 million, not counting undocumented, Filipinos in America. Filipinos also lead in terms of foreign workers worldwide.

The vast majority of the Hawaii Filipino community, at least 85 percent, are Ilokanos coming from Northern Luzon, whose native language is Ilokano. There is also a significant number of Visayans (from the southern region of the Philippines), and Tagalogs, whose native language is the basis for Filipino, the national language of the Philippines. It is significant to note that Ilokanos, Cebuanos, and most of the more than 100 ethnic/linguistic groups in the country generally speak or understand Filipino/Tagalog, which is taught in all the schools and used in the national media.

Figure 1

The community is still largely working class, compared with other Filipino groups in the US, such as those on the East Coast and Midwest (see Figure 2). But there is now a growing number of management, professional and related occupations, with slightly over a fifth of adults reportedly found in this category. Among these professionals are doctors, nurses, therapists, lawyers, engineers and business executives. Sales and administrative support groups constitute 41 percent, while hotel workers, housekeepers, police and others in the service sectors make up 30 percent.

Other categories of workers are: operators, transport and materials moving (5.4%); small business and self-employed (4%); farming, forestry and fishing (1.7%), and repair and crafts (0.5%).

There are no Filipinos of great wealth in Hawaii, unlike other ethnic groups, such as the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. There is an emerging middle class, but the vast majority is still working class.

Underrepresented, relative to state population ranking, are Filipino teaching faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, particularly tenured or on tenure-track. It is barely one percent. Students of Filipino ancestry on Manoa and other campuses, and non-faculty personnel doing administrative or outreach work have higher representation.

Among professionals in the Filipino community, medical doctors constitute a significant group. Other health professionals like nurses, medical technologists, medical aides also form a sizable group. It is noteworthy that 95 percent of the care home owners or operators in the state are Filipinos, helping the state to deal with problems of the elderly and disabled.

Public school teachers are also a sizable group, though many are relegated to temporary jobs dealing with special students or students of limited English ability. Many state requirements preclude Filipino professionals, mostly trained in the Philippines, from landing comparable jobs in Hawaii.

Figure 2

Many of the sari-sari ("mom and pop" stores) and other small enterprises in Hawaii are owned or operated by Filipinos. However, they have not made their mark in the corporate arena, and very few have become top executives in the business world.

A great number are hotel workers, and many prominent labor leaders in the hotel and other industries have emerged from Filipino ranks over the years.

Filipino-American politicians are also increasing in both houses of the state legislature. There are five state senators (out of 25) and nine representatives (out of 51) of Filipino ancestry in the Hawaii State Legislature. They have formed a bipartisan Filipino-American Caucus. Significant also is that there are three members (out of 9) of Filipino ancestry at the City and County of Honolulu. Hawaii also produced the first governor of Filipino ancestry in the US, Benjamin Cayetano (1994-2002).

The 2006 Filipino Centennial Celebration in Hawaii was a great success with more than 200 major programs statewide, like international conferences, festivals, fiestas, arts and crafts fairs, concerts, youth projects, athletics, documentaries, movies, lectures, exhibits, and other educational and cultural activities. Then as now, the Filipinos have become a very vibrant community and very much a vital part of Hawaii's past, present and future.


For inquiries, please email fm@hawaii.edu.

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