Romanticizing sugar plantation life is pure fantasy

By Trinette Furtado
March 7, 2016
Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Most people like romance. Some like the exotic. Some like both and blend the two.

Still others, elevate both to the point of fantasy and that’s what makes them good writers.

Fiction is something we all like to dive into once in a while, but fiction is not fact. It is not history. No matter how vivid you paint your picture.

Such is the case with Lee Cataluna’s article (“Sugar plantation life good to those who really lived it,” Star-Advertiser, Feb. 26).

I grew up in plantation housing as well, the child of kanaka maoli who worked the plantation for several generations.

Thankfully, I did not have to grow up in segregated housing (something that was prevalent for much of early plantation history across the islands).

I did not have to worry about the kind of company-town mentality that some of my ancestors had to deal with.

Sure, there were all sorts of goods at the store not available anywhere else — but when most housing was clustered around the mill and could be miles away from the nearest town, the company store was quite literally the only game in town.

I’m also grateful that I did not have to live through the 1946 sugar strike mentioned in the column.

As the ILWU Local 142 website states: “… it was a turning point in the social and economic revolution that would transform Hawaii from an almost feudal plantation society. … Hawaii’s 28,000 sugar workers were struggling to bring dignity and fairness to their working lives.”

Should we actually believe Hawaii’s sugar industry is being remembered “unfairly” because the strike happened over 70 years ago and we now see it for what it was?

Should we also forgive plantation owners for the major role they played in the overthrow of the rightful sovereign of Hawaii in the selfish and singular pursuit of their own interests?

I grew up a mixed kanaka maoli in plantation housing right behind a mill. The smell of burnt cane, fluttering ash and respiratory issues came with it.

It wasn’t something we could move away from. It wasn’t something we moved to and decided to complain about it.

It was a byproduct of the industry that had been marginalizing kanaka maoli and many other people for decades before I was born.

It was a way of life for us all — not imagined — and it was something I just had to live with.

Now that I have a keiki, it’s not something I want my keiki to have to live with.

It is a skill to weave a wonderful story. But that’s all it is: a story. It is a singular thread in a massive tapestry that includes racism, bigotry, prejudice, segregation, theft, continued use and abuse of aina and our resources, poverty and blatant disregard for our health.

You can pretend that history didn’t happen. You can deny it by crafting tales that tug at your heartstrings. But you would be wrong.

One comment