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Community Voices: Plantation Worker Pride and Perspective

The plantation era is over in Hawaii, and a new generation of leaders will determine what comes next.

Like many of my friends, I am a product of our plantation history, stemming from seven generations of mixed-race workers here on Maui. My first job was picking pineapples at 14 years old to help my widowed mother with family bills. My friends, family, and I struggled, but we are proud of where we come from.

We are proud of our Portuguese, Japanese, Spanish, Filipino, Chinese, and pacific island ancestors who set sail through dangerous conditions in search of a better life. Some of these early immigrant workers were blackbirded victims of human trafficking, identified not by name but by bango (slave tag) numbers. Personally, when I feel weak, I remind myself of these bloodlines from which I come.

We are proud of our Native Hawaiian forebearers, who demanded jobs, then organized the first protests for fair working conditions and basic human rights–all this, after being stripped of their ancestral lands by ruthless sugar barons.

We are proud of the ILWU and the Sakada who helped organize workers and set forth Hawaii’s legendary labor movement that continues today. Some were met with violence, some were even killed by their lunas. But these brave workers, with support from their union, soldiered on.

And we are proud of the new immigrants who have carried forth this tradition into the 21st century, leaving their homelands for the sake of their children.

You see, plantation history is our history–written told through the stories everyday working families, Native Hawaiians, and immigrants. Not through slick corporate ads. So, as this era comes to an end, it is okay to reflect fondly. But our nostalgia should not be rooted in indebtedness and misplaced gratitude for what workers were given, but rather in somber pride for the better lives that workers fought for and earned.

We will remember that HC&S did not become the community-minded company it is today without pressure from ILWU and the public-at-large.

We will remember that stalwart workers were the heart of the plantation’s success, not corporate bosses, not the politicians, not the first missionaries, and not the Big Five.

We will remember that our entire economy, language, cuisine, and local culture stem from the workers. We owe them everything. They shaped Hawai’i.

So, as young leaders look ahead. We will do so with clear eyes, standing on the shoulders of our kupuna and working class giants. Because while corporate media may tell us one narrative, history tells us another.

We will continue our ancestors’ struggle. We will stand at the front lines to keep Maui green, improve the lives of working families, and preserve island culture–here on Maui, and across Hawaii.

With the final harvest comes a blank slate–an opportunity for self-sustainability through local food production and environmental growth.

May the end of the plantation era signal the end of the plantation mentality. May we, the people united, take Hawaii’s future into our own hands. We mahalo and unite behind HC&S workers and all who fought to bring us here. Now, it is time to hemo our internalized bango tags and forge ahead together.

Imua Maui.

Kaniela Ing

Kaniela Ing is a Democratic member of the Hawaii State House of Representatives (Kihei- South Maui) since November 2012. He serves as Chair of the Ocean, Marine Resources, and Hawaiian Affairs committee, making him the youngest Chairperson in Hawaii’s legislative history.

The Community Voices Column aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to contact (at) mauiwatch (dot) com

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