- Islanders in the Empire: Filipino and Puerto Rican Laborers in Hawai‘i by JoAnna Poblete
JoAnna Poblete’s Islanders in the Empire is a richly detailed account documenting the lives of Filipino and Puerto Rican laborers in Hawai‘i under U.S. imperialism during the early twentieth century. A comparative analysis on labor and migration, Poblete describes the ways in which citizenship was experienced by both Filipinos and Puerto Ricans, who were neither citizens nor foreigners, based on what she refers to as their “ambiguous political-legal status” (p.2). To analyze this relationship more critically, Poblete coins the [End Page 199] terms U.S. colonial, which she notes, “highlights the liminal and subordinate political-legal status of multiple groups who have come under direct U.S. authority,” and more importantly, the term Intra-colonial, which describes “colonized people living in a second colonized place,” in this case, Hawai‘i (pp. 2–7). She uses these terms to help chronicle the impact of colonialism on each group, how it affected their relationship to each other, and in response, how these migrant laborers were able to challenge the conditions they faced.
Focusing on the Ola‘a Plantation on the island of Hawai‘i, Poblete demonstrates how Filipino and Puerto Rican intra-colonials experienced some similarities under U.S. colonialism, but more so, how their differential treatment affected their daily lives. With regards to their similar colonial experiences, because of their ambiguous political-legal status, Filipinos and Puerto Ricans were not able to exercise the privileges of full citizenship. Both Filipinos and Puerto Ricans were also subjected to intense Americanization programs and indoctrinated in colonial U.S. education, yet had very limited access to constitutional protections, which left them vulnerable to exploitation by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA). They also both experienced what Poblete calls open colonial mobility—their exemption from U.S. immigration restrictions that other groups experienced during the early twentieth century (p. 3). This allowed the HSPA to recruit both groups to labor on their plantations. Despite these similarities, differential treatment of Filipinos and Puerto Ricans was much more pronounced. For example, Puerto Ricans were eventually granted statutory U.S. citizenship with the Jones Act in 1917, upon becoming an unincorporated territory. Filipinos however, remained U.S. nationals until the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, which reclassified them as foreigners with immigration restrictions.
In Hawai‘i, the HSPA began their recruitment efforts with Puerto Rican workers after they sought opportunities in the aftermath of Hurricane Ciriaco in 1901. Recruits included both individuals and entire families. Ultimately Puerto Rican recruitment failed because of the poor working and living conditions on the plantations. Because these conditions did not improve, nor were laborers given funds to return to Puerto Rico, workers in Hawai‘i and their families back home were able to counter the HSPA with their own anti-recruitment campaigns. Letters back home detailed the horrible treatment and isolation workers in Hawai‘i faced, which discouraged further migration from Puerto Rico.
Learning from their failures with Puerto Ricans, Filipino recruitment and retention was more successful. The HSPA offered more enticements and accommodations, including perks once workers completed their contracts. These included free return passage, family and friend reunification programs [End Page 200] and more mobility, which resulted in large numbers of Filipino recruits to migrate to Hawai‘i. Only obedient workers however, could take advantage of these accommodations. If Filipinos went on strike or were suspect of being labor agitators, they were not eligible for these programs and benefits. This was one way the sugar plantation industry could control the behavior of their workers.
Given that Puerto Ricans had no local representatives in Hawai‘i and felt abandoned by their home government, and Filipinos had a labor commissioner that served the needs of the HSPA over their own interests, both groups turned within their own communities to find leaders who could help them with their everyday issues and labor troubles. As Poblete notes...