Our third day in Kauai presented us with a choice: either visit Waimea Canyon or dig up the history of my grandparents in Kauai. Tough choice. Deciding that the latter couldn’t wait and the former would give us a reason to return, we headed out in search of my heritage.
Born and raised in the north of Italy, my maternal grandfather Ernesto Ghezzi, migrated to Hawaii in 1905. An engineer by profession, he found work as a machinist at a sugar mill in Kaelia, in Kauai’s north shore. Born and raised in Malaga, Spain, my grandmother Remedios Salado was recorded as entering Hawaii two years later, in 1907. Somewhere along the line, they met and married in 1908. My grandmother was 17 and my grandfather was 26. A visit to the History Center at the Old Town of Kaloa, the Kauai Historical Society and the Kauai Museum (both in Lihue) gave me the opportunity to visualize the kind of lives they would have led and a peek into Kauai’s plantation past.
Evidence of the Chinese technology of producing crystals from sugar cane, an exportable commodity, became evident around 1802 in the island of Lanai. Introduced by the immigrants, this resulted in sugarcane becoming a powerful economic force in Hawaii. In 1835, the first successful sugar plantation was established in the old town of Koloa (Kauai).
Workers and managers in the plantations were hired on contract for up to 5 years. They were imported in groups and assigned to the plantations. Contract terms provided for food, housing, fuel, medical attention, public school education for the children, and a monthly wage. Communities were built around the sugar mills, and the field and factory workers and their families were housed within those communities. My grandparents would have lived in such a community in Kaelia. The Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Portuguese and Filipinos constituted the main work force in the sugar fields and mills. This explains how my grandmother, a natural linguist, picked up the use of so many languages: Tagalog, English, Japanese and Hawaiian. She also learnt how to dance the hula.
The plantation that my grandfather worked at was owned by the Makee Sugar Company, which was established in 1877. Sugar plantations are a unique hybrid, being both industrial as well as agricultural. It’s crop is considered a trade commodity rather than a farm product. Harvested cane is perishable and must be taken to the factory without delay. The field and factory worked closely together to determine how much acreage will be harvested each day. Distance from the fields to the factory can be critical in production as loss of the sugar result in loss of profits.
Leaving Hawaii in 1913, my grandparents, along with the first 3 of their 12 children, migrated to the Philippines. There, in the province of Iloilo, my mother was born and raised. Several decades later, after my mother met and married my father, my brothers and I were born in Manila.
The old town of Kaelia still exists in Kauai’s north shore, though time had run out for us on this trip and we were unable to check it out. It will definitely be on the agenda on our return journey next year. What I find amazing is the fascination I developed for Hawaii over 8 years, which started way before I was aware of my grandparents’ history in the islands. Coincidence? I think not. I prefer to believe that the Spirit of the Hawaiian Islands beckoned us to discover her shores in the same way as my ancestors.