- Islanders in the Empire: Filipino and Puerto Rican Laborers in Hawai‘i by Joanna Poblete
Joanna Poblete’s Islanders in the Empire: Filipino and Puerto Rican Laborers in Hawai‘i is a well-organized and fascinating discussion of the intracolonial experiences of two ethnic groups whose histories are inextricably bound together by U.S. colonialism since the 1890s. This comparative history spans the U.S. colonies of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Territory of Hawaii in terms of both state and sugar plantation labor policies and firsthand perspectives of Filipino and Puerto Rican laborers and community members.
In the first two chapters, Poblete provides a comprehensive overview of how Puerto Rico eventually became supplanted by the Philippines in sending laborers to Hawaii’s sugar plantations between 1910 and the 1930s. Poblete’s case studies show that Puerto Ricans were long-term migrants whose home government had brokered their emigration to reduce Puerto Rico’s population, unemployment, and social unrest in 1900, but then did not enable their well-being in Hawaii or support their repatriation. By 1901, mislead and exploited Puerto Ricans made claims for repatriation from Hawaii to Puerto Rico, a futile effort that highlighted the duplicitous work of labor recruiters and plantation overseers in Hawaii, as well as the false idea that migratory workers could easily return home. Even in 1921, when several volatile years of labor organizing among Filipinos led the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) to negotiate with the Puerto Rican government to resume labor recruitment, the lofty promises of increased wages, free medical care, and fair housing and work conditions again proved to be hollow for Puerto Rican laborers. From these community histories, Poblete synthesizes poignant observations, such as, “Puerto Rican and Filipino recruitment to Hawaii thrived only when it represented the free will of these groups and supported their personal needs and desires” (46).
Poblete offers several analytical concepts rooted in the U.S. imperial complex—U.S. colonials, intracolonial migration, and open colonial mobility. These terms address the multilayered factors that facilitated the recruitment and exploitation of Filipinos and Puerto Ricans in “the second colonized space of Hawai‘i” (2). Poblete identifies the logics of colonialism and labor exploitation as the driving forces for the rise and eclipse of Puerto Rican labor migration (43), as well as the strategic turn to Filipino labor recruitment (59). More than three and a half centuries as a Spanish colony followed immediately by U.S. military occupation and colonial territory status severely underdeveloped the Philippines and created the circumstances for labor migration and concomitant remittances back home. Although U.S. exclusion acts against foreign nationals prohibited Chinese and Japanese immigrant laborers, Filipinos’ liminal status [End Page 222] as U.S. nationals, or colonials, meant that they were exempt from U.S. immigration restrictions and were capable of open colonial mobility, which led to their increased incentives to emigrate and to be recruited to the Territory of Hawaii. Poblete explains, “HSPA cooperation with Filipino Bureau of Labor policies fostered a supportive political environment to develop and sustain intra-colonial mobility to Hawaii” (54). Poblete further explores the intracolonial mobility of Filipinos as “impermanent male migrants” (61) through HSPA policies for return passage to the Philippines and paid transport of male relatives to Hawaii.
In their legal status as “impermanent wards,” Puerto Ricans faced discrimination, mistreatment, and harassment because of a lack of dedicated officials in Hawaii. Their intracolonial grievances, moreover, were slowly processed in a “hierarchical,” “bureaucratic,” and “circuitous global complaint procedure” (76–77) that could require as long as seven and a half months for resolution. These circumstances for both Puerto Ricans and Filipinos necessitated labor mediators to advocate for colonial workers’ claims and help navigate bureaucracies. In chapter 4, Poblete outlines the careers of Cayetano Ligot, the U.S.-influenced and often proplantation, antiworker Philippine Resident Labor Commissioner in Hawaii, and Pablo Manlapit, the Filipino grassroots labor agitator who worked “outside the direct influence of the...