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The Closing of Sugar Plantations: Interviews with Families of Hamakua and Ka‘u, Hawai‘i

Plantation house with corrogated-iron roofed porch with steps leading to yard.
Interviewee Stanley Mendes sits on porch of his plantation house, Honoka‘a, Hawai‘i, 1996. (COH photo.)

In Hawai‘i, sugar plantation companies, in addition to creating many thousands of acres of cropland, irrigation ditches, tunnels, wells, reservoirs and railroads, and building huge mills to process the raw sugarcane, provided modest wages, housing, fuel, and other perquisites to the workers. Company towns with schools, churches, businesses, hospitals, and recreational facilities emerged as workers raised families on the plantations.

“Well, the plantation has been really the only way of life we knew, growing up as children. And at that time, we just assumed that the plantation would be here forever. And growing up in the plantation town, you knew about the company, you were familiar what was going on, you knew who was doing what, and so it was an easy transition for me, coming out of school and needing a job and going to work.” —Clyde Silva, former Ka‘u Agribusiness Company worker

“Before, when we was growing up Pa‘auilo, everybody had love for one another. You do something, you invite the other one, or you make party, you invite these people. In sports, you play together. Work together. There was no more dog-eat-dog kind, you know. . . . Before, our community was our community—togetherness was there all the time.” —Stanley Mendes, former Hamakua Sugar Company worker

With the closing of the three remaining sugar plantations on the Big Island of Hawai‘i—Hamakua Sugar Company in 1993, Hilo Coast Processing Company in 1994, and Ka‘u Agribusiness Company in 1996—residents of surrounding communities faced a daunting challenge: coping with a future without the area's major source of employment. To document these changes, the UH Center on the Family asked the Center for Oral History (COH) of the Social Science Research Institute to conduct life history interviews with displaced workers of Hamakua Sugar Company and Ka‘u Agribusiness Company who were surveyed in an earlier research project assessing the impact of job loss.

The interviewees represent two generations of sugar workers—one generation retired, the other laid off due to the closure of Hamakua Sugar Company and Ka‘u Agribusiness Company. Interviewees talked extensively about what the end of the sugar industry in Hawai‘i meant to them and their families—how the closings affected their sense of security and their individual and community identity.

“I used to always hear [from the old-timers] like, ‘Ah, you young guys, you don’t care. How come you folks not out looking for job? How come you folks still here?’ kind of questions. So I gotta explain to them, ‘You know, I see you guys work thirty, forty years on the plantation. . . . We always wanted to work for the plantation, you know, drive truck . . . or tractors. . . . For see this [sugar industry] just put away on the side is really hard to accept. Even for us, being the younger generation.’ ” —Darren Gamayo, former Hamakua Sugar Company worker

“I remember one evening, this was about the last time that they were harvesting the cane field that is right close to our home. And we all decided that we were going out there and we were gonna watch the last time that they were harvesting that field. And there was my father-in-law, there was my husband, and there was my son, and they were all standing together. . . . And something just struck me as three generations here, and we’re seeing this—it’s as if they were burning up our lives.” —Cynthia Juan, Honoka‘a resident

“At one point I just sat on the steps, and I just listened to the mill, and then I finally felt what the workers were talking about. Like the mill was tired, like it was time, like it was dying. And I could actually feel all of that: The plantation took care of us. The plantation was everybody’s mom over here. They held us. I mean, you had plantation life, and then you get the real world. And we were so sheltered. . . . I don’t think the hurt ever going go away.” —Dardenella Gamayo, Pa‘auhau resident

Yet at the same time they were able to reflect upon the values they gained on the plantation—values such as hard work, reliance on family and neighbors, respect for the older generation, and concern for future generations.

“I want [my children] to remember that the parents, grandparents were part of that company, the sugar company. The parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, you know, down the line, the older generation. I want [my children] to think about the older generation, what they gone through for make you possible, as a young generation coming up, eh? That the sugar made you a family, too.” —John Mendes, former Hamakua Sugar Company worker

 

Link to audioDaryl Ke talks about the last day of harvesting at Ka‘u. (.mp3 sound file, 748K).

 

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