27 January 2017

Pedro Manlapit, the Lipa-Born Batangueño Instrumental in Fil-Americans’ Search for Labor Justice in Hawaii and California

Pedro Manlapit (left) lived to uplift Filipino sugarcane workers in Hawaii.  Image credit:  Asian American His/Herstory Blog and Fil-Am Experiences 1930-1945,

Understandably, in the present day, mention the name Pedro Manlapit, even in his hometown of Lipa in the Province of Batangas, and you will likely draw a blank. This Filipino, however, occupies a place not just in Philippine but also in American labor history. His activities have been studied not just by writers of history but also by academicians interested in the development of labor in the United States, particularly the former American territory and now state of Hawaii.

Before going into the particulars of Manlapit’s exploits, let us first examine the historical background. In 1907, the United States and Japan, a rising world power in the Pacific at the time, agreed on the so-called informal “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” which was never ratified by the United States Congress but which was nonetheless enforced until 1924. The agreement called for Japan “not to issue passports for Japanese citizens wishing to work in the United States, thus effectively eliminating new Japanese immigration to America.1

In Hawaii, an American territory at the time, there was a burgeoning sugar industry. Its growth since the early nineteenth century was so rapid that sugar plantation owners had to import labor from China and Japan. The Japanese, which had an estimated migration of 200,000 to Hawaii from 1885-1924, were the larger ethnic group.2

These immigrants were regarded as “cheap labor” and worked under difficult conditions in a strange land. Moreover, the wage structure was intrinsically unfair. Portuguese, Puerto Rican and sugarcane workers of other ethnicities were being paid a dollar a day; while the East Asian immigrants were only paid $18 for 26 days or just ¢69 per day.3

This inequity prompted Japanese sugarcane workers to go on strike in 1909. The strike, along with the aforementioned Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, encouraged the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA) to “intensify the search for Filipino labor.4

The HSPA brought in Filipinos mostly from the Visayas, and preferred those who were less educated. These were mostly adult single males; and each was given three-year contracts to work as plantation workers.5 These Filipinos arrived with high expectations of improving themselves economically, something that the recruiting agents back home promised them. They were to be disappointed in no time at all.

Hawaiian plantation owners preferred Filipinos from the Visayas who were not educated.  Image credit:  Hawai'i Digital Newspaper Project.

Among the earliest Filipino immigrants was Manlapit, somewhat an anti-thesis of the typical recruit in that he was not from the Visayas and that he was reasonably educated. Manlapit was born in the then-town of Lipa in Batangas in 1891. He finished his elementary and secondary education in the public schools of the town.

After graduation from high school, he worked in various capacities at the Manila Railroad Company, the Bureaus of Civil Service and Forestry and at an electric construction company in the island of Corregidor. He was dismissed from his last employment because of his involvement in labor unions, something that would probably dictate how the rest of his life went.

Early in 1910, he boarded a boat bound for Hawaii, likely to the displeasure of his parents, who twice had tried to prevent him from doing so. Upon arrival in Hawaii, he was quickly sent by the HSPA to a plantation on the Big Island. After working there for two years, he was dismissed for being involved in a labor strike.

After his dismissal, he moved to the town of Hilo where he put up a pool hall and also worked as a salesman. In 1912, he would marry the German-American Anne Kasby, whom he had known from his time at the Big Island plantation. The couple would later move to Honolulu where he edited a local Filipino paper and also worked at the docks as a stevedore.

Manlapit was fortunate to have worked as janitor for a Honolulu lawyer by the name of William J. Sheldon, who encouraged him to study law on his own and probably gave him access to his law books. In 1919, he obtained a license to practice in the district courts, in so doing becoming the first Filipino lawyer to practice in Hawaii. Most of his work in Hawaii, however, would involve organizing Filipino labor in the territory to help them win not only better wages but also better living conditions.

He was eloquent – he spoke Tagalog, Spanish and English fluently – and was able to deliver long speeches without the benefit of written notes. Because he was technically banned from the plantations, he brought with him a wooden box upon which he stood wherever he came across fellow Filipinos who were prepared to listen. Essentially, he was calling for a $2 daily wage, which he only deemed fair. He was a firm believer in the American dream, and that hard work ought to bring with it the opportunity to advance and better one’s condition.

His labor efforts and his ideals, naturally, brought him into conflict with the powerful HSPA. The association took him to court on several occasions on dubious charges of various wrongdoings; and even tried to have him disbarred from practicing law. In 1925, he was sentenced to Oahu Prison after he was found guilty of one of these charges. He would also be disbarred from practicing law the following year.

He was paroled in 1927 but had to leave Hawaii as one of the conditions set by the governor of the territory. He headed out to Los Angeles in California, where he was briefly involved with the Filipino Federation of America. The association was brief because the federation’s founder had him branded as a communist and had the local police going after him. Despite his short stay in Los Angeles, the historian Howard A. DeWitte credits him with “introducing the idea of a Filipino labor union to Filipino field workers in California.6

Manlapit was able to return to Hawaii in 1932; and while he was not officially part of the unions, he nonetheless resumed agitating for the rights of unemployed Filipinos. He also succeeded in having Cayetano Ligot, the Philippine Resident Labor Commissioner to Hawaii, recalled back to the Philippines to face charges of collusion with the HSPA and, therefore, failing to serve the interests of Filipinos in Hawaii.7

In 1934, Manlapit was arrested on yet another of the HSPA’s trumped up charges, for which he would be convicted. In place of going to prison, he offered to serve his sentence on probation whilst also offering to leave Hawaii. The court accepted his offer. This would come at a heavy personal price because his wife and children refused to accompany him on his trip back to the Philippines, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Back in the Philippines after being away for almost a quarter of a century, Manlapit would initially be connected with an organization called the National Civic Union during the Commonwealth Government of Manuel L. Quezon before the outbreak of World War II. After the war, he would serve as adviser and consultant to Filipino Presidents Manuel Roxas. Elpidio Quirino and Sergio Osmeña.

Although he was branded a communist in Hawaii and Los Angeles, Manlapit did not support the Hukbalahap movement and encouraged President Quirino to have Congress outlaw communism in the Philippines. While his life’s work was dedicated to the upliftment of the lives of Filipino laborers in Hawaii, he also believed that this should be done within the principles of democracy.

Manlapit’s efforts to uplift the lives of Filipinos in Hawaii had come at great personal expense. His wife Anne had divorced him and remarried and his children were growing up while he was in self-enforced exile back in the Philippines. He was pardoned in 1952 but, by then, the Philippines was already independent of the United States. The Hawaiian governor, in issuing the pardon, also made it explicit that he could only enter Hawaii as an “alien with no claim to stay.”

Manlapit died in 1969 likely a frustrated figure. His groundwork in taking on the powerful capitalist group HSPA, however, would subsequently bear fruit and help provide for better working and living conditions for Filipino and other migrant workers in Hawaii.

Notes and references:
1 “Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907,” Wikipedia.
2 “Sugar plantations in Hawaii,” Wikipedia.
3 “Japanese Workers Struck for Equal Pay for Equal Work,” online at the University of Hawaii Center for Labor Education and Research.
4 “Labor Immigration Under Capitalism: Asian Workers in the United States Before WWII,” Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich, Ed.
5 “Pablo Manlapit’s Fight for Justice,” by Melinda Tria Kerkvliet, published in the “Social Process in Hawaii, Vol. 33, 1991.” Other details about Manlapit, unless otherwise annotated, are from this source.
6 The quotes are cited by Kerkvliet from deWitt’s paper entitled “Pablo Manlapit: A Filipino Labor Organizer and the Hawaii-California Years.”
7 “The Filipino Piecemeal Sugar Strike of 1924-1925, Volume 3,” by John E. Reinecke.

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