‘We are Filipino’: Hawaii center seeks to strengthen connections — both past and present

One in four Hawaii residents have some Filipino ancestry, and most are from one specific region in the Philippines.
Published: Dec. 14, 2022 at 6:07 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 14, 2022 at 9:09 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - About 1 in 4 Hawaii residents have some Filipino ancestry and most are from one specific region in the Philippines.

Unfortunately, many young Filipinos in Hawaii have little knowledge of their heritage.

Leaders of the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu are trying to rebuild that connection, including through events and workshops like one about the Filipino martial art eskrima.

“It was pretty much a hidden art in Hawaii for a long time. It’s the national sport in the Philippines. But now people are getting to know more about their culture,” said Robert Garcia, eskrima grand master.

About 85% of the Filipinos in Hawaii are Ilocano, meaning they trace their roots to the Ilocos region in northern Philippines — mainly the provinces of Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur.

In fact, so many have ties there that Philippine Airlines was the only international carrier that continued flying to and from Hawaii during the COVID shutdown.

There even used to be a direct flight from Honolulu to Laoag, which Philippine officials hope to restart.

HNN traveled to Ilocos Sur to learn about its history and culture, first to Candon City, ground zero for Filipino immigration to Hawaii.

Fifteen Filipinos from this town were brought to Hawaii in 1906 to work on the sugar plantations.

A museum and memorial honor their legacy.

And while the plantations are gone, the immigrant wave continues. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says Filipinos make up the majority of new naturalized citizens. Rather than laborers, many are professionals from various fields — from healthcare to technology to education.

Since that first journey, thousands more followed, sending back money to Candon, creating jobs and opportunities for young people.

Today, the city is positioning itself as an eco-tourism destination and hub for snack exports, like fried corn kernels called chichacorn and sweet coconut sticky rice called calimay.

About an hour north is vibrant Vigan City, the capital of Ilocos Sur and a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its beautiful Spanish colonial architecture. Calesas, or horse drawn carriages, move about the cobble stone streets, transporting tourists to local sites.

Tourism drives the economy here, and Philippine officials count on Ilocanos in Hawaii. They’re planning to visit Honolulu next year to promote an Ilocos Sur global homecoming.

”If they put up businesses here, we’ll tell them exactly where they can invest, what to do,” said Vigan Mayor Bonito Singson. “We want to create jobs. We want to create business opportunities, distribution networks, storage facilities.”

Singson wants to make Vigan a household name through local delicacies like fried pork bagnet and longanisa sausage and heritage crafts like loom weaving and pottery.

Singson said Vigan is building a world-class museum and rail system through cultural sites to encourage Ilocanos to come back as tourists, especially future generations.

Today, newly arrived Filipino immigrants come from across its 7,000 islands, settling in communities like Kalihi and Waipahu where there is a strong support system.

Community leaders believe Filipino heritage is undergoing a renaissance in Hawaii, as young people develop an appreciation for the language and traditions of their ancestors.

“When we first arrived in Hawaii, I can sense the prejudice. discrimination but today we tell people who can stand up high and say we are Filipino and we’re proud of it,” said Eddie Flores, FilCom co-founder. “We built a center because of political empowerment. It’s a coming of age of the Filipino community in Hawaii.”