The bittersweet emigration to Hawaii

The bittersweet emigration to Hawaii
  • A documentary by Eterio Ortega

  • The film, which is currently being finished in the USA, portrays the exodus of people to work in the sugar cane plantations in 1907 and is based on research by Miguel Alba into the thousands of families who made the trip to escape from misery, but did not find the promised land

His grandmother was dying and Albert Marques, from California, spent some time visiting her in hospital. On one occasion he found her arguing with a nurse and, to his great surprise, telling her off in Spanish. He remarked on that, and her reply left him speechless: “I am Spanish, but I've never spoken in my own language because of the discrimination.”

That confession opened up a new world to Marques, one of the descendents of Andalusians who emigrated to Hawaii at the end of the 19th century, because he had no idea of his origins. Now, research by historian Miguel Alba has revealed this story and that of thousands of others who set off from Malaga for Hawaii in 1907 to work in the sugar cane plantations.

Sadly, the promise of a fortune and a better world turned into an inferno for many Andalusians, most of whom were from Malaga. Film director Eterio Ortega has made this the subject of his new documentary '1907. Hawai o miseria', ('Hawaii or misery'in English). After spending some time filming in Malaga, he is now putting the finishing touches to the work in the USA.

It was in 1907 that the SS Heliópolis left Malaga with the first group of emigrants from Andalucía to Hawaii. “They needed labourers for the sugar cane plantations, and they discovered that there were also cane fields in the Guadalhorce valley and on the Malaga coast, so they offered workers free passage and a monthly salary of22 dollars,” says Miguel Alba. The promised salary was indeed huge, bearing in mind that many people from Malaga sold all their possessions and raised 6,000 reales, which was the equivalent of about 25 dollars. A lifetime's accumulation of possessions in Spain was worth one month's work in Hawaii.

“They were living in poverty and that's why many of them left their families and their roots to go to Hawaii, but the conditions on board the ship were dreadful because they were slave ships,” says Miguel. The problems actually began in Malaga before the journey started, when they were given rancid food and coffee made with sea water. Of the more than 3,000 who had planned to make the trip, “around a thousand left the ship before it had even hoisted its anchor.”

“This is like Andalucía”

The trip wasn't exactly a pleasure cruise. Nineteen people died and 14 babies were born - many of the women were pregnant and were hoping for a better future for their children - before they arrived in Honolulu. And when they arrived, the conditions on the plantations were nothing like they had imagined: there was segregation, as Albert Marques' grandmother had told him.

“In the early months many Spanish people fled from Hawaii to California and then sent letters saying “This is like our beloved Andalucía,” explains Miguel Alba, who is a historian from Malaga and who tells this story in his book 'SS Heliópolis: la primera inmigración de andaluces a Hawai (1907)', about the first wave of immigration by Andalusian people to Hawaii in 1907. The documentary is based on his book.

“Around 80 per cent of those Andalusians went to California,” explains Miguel, who says there were about 8,000 Spanish people on the first ships which left for Hawaii from Malaga and Vigo.

“The documentary goes further than the book because an amazing amount of information has been found and generated since it was published,” he says.

Miguel calculates that these days about one million Americans are the descendents of those pioneers. “Many of the first generation died without being able to speak English and the present one, the fourth, is so American that it has no memory of Spanish,” he says.

With director Eterio Ortega and the Cedecom production company, he is now recording testimony from many people in Hawaii and California who are the descendents of those pioneers who suffered such hardships. In fact, the banks wouldn't even accept money from those exiles so they were forced to keep it at home. But when the crash came in 1929, not only were the Spanish not ruined, but they used the money hidden in their mattresses to buy land and companies.

“They climbed the social ladder and many of them became respected business owners,” says Miguel, putting a happy ending to this bitter history of the sugar cane industry.

He hopes the documentary will be premiered in the place where it all began: at the next Malaga Film Festival, to recall the memory of local people who sought a better future a long way away but who never forgot their roots.