The year was 1987 – the summer before my senior year in high school. I had gotten my first real job working at Dave’s Ice Cream in Waimalu. It was the perfect gig for a workforce newbie. Dave’s was air conditioned and just down the hill from our house.
The job required little skill or brainpower and offered an unlimited supply of ice cream. It was the summer of making minimum wage, breaking up with my first boyfriend (ok, maybe it was my second), scarfing down chocolate malts, lip syncing Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and staying up until dawn sewing crazy outfits and talking on the phone.
Rewind to 1954. Hawai‘i had yet to achieve statehood. That year, my father, Alfredo Lagaso, turned 17 and my mother, Natividad Torres, sweet 16. Each lived in a plantation housing camp for workers of the Puna Sugar Mill in ‘Ōla‘a, today referred to as Kea‘au, on Hawai‘i Island. Dad grew up in what was referred to as Camp 3 (one of 5) in Pāhoa and mom in the so-called 9 1/2 Mile Camp in ‘Ōla‘a, named for the distance between the camp location and the town of Hilo.
I didn’t know these things about my parents while growing up. In fact, I only learned the details of their histories when we sat down to talk story recently. What was it like to be a teenager in Hawai‘i, when the sugar cane industry dominated the physical, cultural and economic landscape? Was the quality of life better then? Did they long for those days gone by?
To hear my dad talk about it, you’d think that Pāhoa back then was the land of milk and honey. “We had fresh air, open skies, open land and wild fruits to go and harvest,” says Dad, “and back then you could trust everyone.”
Mom chimes in, “Life was simple then. I remember the beautiful cane fields, the silver tassels of the cane stalks blooming in winter, and in the distance, snowcapped Mauna Kea. This was our view as we walked half a mile down the road to school each day.”
There’s an intensity and tenderness in their recollections that I’ve never seen before. I ask if they miss the plantation days. Their responses are mixed, hesitant. Although my dad has fond memories of the past, he stops short of saying he’d like to return there.
“It’s easy to be trapped by nostalgia by staying back and not furthering yourself,” dad says. “A lot of my classmates stayed back and continued to work on the plantation, but I sought to escape the plantation life in search of better opportunities.”
When my dad was 12, he realized he came from a family of have-nots. “All of my Japanese classmates came from families whose parents owned land or independent cane fields, grew sugar cane, vegetables and fruits,” he recalls.
“They had flushing toilets. They had all of those things. At the time, I worked for 25 cents an hour as a yard boy, and then at age 14, I started working summers in the cane fields in order to make money to buy school clothes and equipment. Since my father was the only one working to support our family with seven children, I had to find a job.”
Meanwhile, throughout her high school years, my mom worked in Hilo as a live-in nanny and cook for a haole family named the Mists. On weekends she sold homemade cancanen (a sweet Filipino mochi dessert) door-to-door and did the laundry for six single men in the camp.
During the summer, she joined the rest of her family to pick coffee beans on the hot hillsides of Kona. Mom never saw her wages. Her earnings went straight to the family till.
After hearing my parents’ varied accounts of plantation life, my experience “working” at Dave’s Ice Cream seems almost comical in comparison.
To be 17 again? No thanks. I am humbled by my parents’ individual and collective hardships. Their steadfastness and sacrifice – and those of my grandparents who migrated here from the Philippines – have paved the way for the life I am privileged to have today.