My Family’s Immigration from Spain to Hawaii and Life in the Sugar Plantation
[The following memoir was written by Ángela L. Plumbo (née Puerta León), in about 1979, at the age of 76. Because it was written from memories more than 70 years old, some of the details are likely to be inaccurate. Be that as it may, this is an extraordinary and rare first-person account of the Heliopolis crossing and of plantation life. Document and photograph courtesy of Clifford Ramos, via our friends at the Hawaiian Spaniards Facebook Page.]
The Puerta family originated in Jaén, province of Andalucía, Spain.
My father, Manuel Puerta Calero was the youngest of three sons born to Alfonso Puerta and Teresa Calero. Their forefathers had been wealthy land owners in Jaén but the family fortune had gradually diminished.
My mother, Dulce León Padilla, was the second daughter of the 7 children born to Clemente León and Manuela Padilla, wealthy and socially prominent in Jaen.
In 1886, Manuel and Dulce met and married in Jaén, shortly after his military discharge for a 4-year term of service. They settled in Jaén and for a number of years he managed some of the León enterprises –olive groves and olive oil mill. Eventually he became independent and established a soap factory in Jaén that prospered well for a number of years.
By 1906 we were a family of 12 –10 children, father and mother– and business had dropped considerably. In the latter part of that year an announcement appeared in the local papers soliciting family immigration to “Beautiful Hawaii” land of promise and opportunity. To my father this must have seemed the ideal opportunity for change and adventure, because he lost no time in disposing of the factory and registering for immigrations, much to the amazement and dismay of relatives and friends.
Thus it was that on March 6, 1907 the Puerta family of 12 departed from the port of Málaga, Spain, on the SS Heliopolis for the long voyage around the Horn to a Hawaii with a stop for supplies in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
My recollection of the voyage is vague due to my age at the time –4 yrs, 9 mos. But I know this segment of our history well from repeated telling in family conversations through the years. Furthermore, for confirmation of dates, accuracy of data and fill-in of missing links, I recently consulted with two of my oldest sisters, then teenagers and now in their mid-eighties, which proved rewarding.The crossing was not altogether unpleasant in spite of cramped quarters, dull monotonous meals and stormy seas, though this cannot be said in my father’s case, who sept almost the entire voyage in his bunk deathly ill with sea sickness. But the young folk had gay times in the evenings playing games and dancing in the recreation rooms. There was a large hall for dancing where the band played nightly and additional entertainment was provided by some of the passengers gifted vocalists or instrumentalists, my father among them. He played the guitar exceptionally well but was unable to perform except on the very rare occasions when the sea was extremely calm.
Apropos of my father’s unfortunate sea-sickness: Canned milk provided for the babies was rationed but extra could be purchased in the ship’s store. With a baby in our family this privilege was available to us, fortunately for my father who survived the voyage solely on a milk diet, the only nourishment his stomach could tolerate.
After 52 days at sea, broken by a 24-hour stop for supplies in Buenos Aires, Argentina, we arrived in Honolulu late in the afternoon, April 26, 1907, where an enormous crowd of natives, waving joyfully, greeted us with shouts of welcome and shower of flowers, while the Band played “Aloha.” The surprise of such a warm welcome and relief of safe arrival moved us was another delightful surprise: rows of endless tables piled high with tropical dishes and fruits. We were lodged in tents equipped with comfortable sleeping accommodations. Breakfast equalled the dinner in service, quantity and variety, as were al the meals that followed during our 5-day stay in Honolulu, location of the Company’s headquarters.
Routinely, after breakfast, the heads of families would report to Headquarters for assignment of destination. They system of distribution was 10 families to each plantation, where furnished homes awaited them, including meal upon arrival with several days’ supply of staples; such as coffee, sugar, rice, salt, etc. The Company Store provided credit and all accounts deducted from monthly wages which the families patronized until they had saved enough money to buy in town where the same merchandise sold for less.
Our family was assigned to Papaiko on the Island of Hawaii not far from Hilo. In early morning on the 5th day we boarded a Company boat and arrived in Hilo late that afternoon, where a group of Puerto Ricans waited to escort us to the plantation. Incidently [sic], while disembarking my oldest sister, Josefa, fell in the water and was rescued by a native Portuguese youth, son of a prominent family in Papaiko at that time, by name of Cunha. Courtship followed and marriage a year later.
The house assigned to us in Papaiko was the largest in the village, since we were the largest family, not only there, but in the entire ship’s list of 220. To our great surprise and relief, after the long weary walk from Hilo to the plantation, we found the banquet-size table laden with platters of codfish rice and tropical fruits prepared by a Puerto Rican woman. Ironically, our farewell dinner in Spain had been Codfish Rice!
To our great surprise and relief, after the long weary walk from Hilo to the plantation, we found the banquet-size table laden with platters of codfish rice and tropical fruits prepared by a Puerto Rican woman. Ironically, our farewell dinner in Spain had been Codfish Rice!
At this point let me explain that all aides, from landing time on, were Puerto Rican because they spoke Spanish, much to the relief and delight of the “Strangers in Paradise.”
We also had a bigger plot of land, where my father immediately planted pineapples,
bananas, papayas, sweet potatoes, etc. The coffee tree front of the house was ornamental as well as productive in the last year of our stay. My father also built an oven, which tumbled with the first earthquake the following day. The second oven was built by a native Portuguese. It was earthquake-proof and served my mother well with baking and roasting coffee. To a Spaniard bread is truly the “staff of lie” because it constitutes a great part of the meal, beginning with soup and ending with cheese. Therefore baking was a major household chore in our family. I recall the ease with which my mother managed the long handled paddle to remove the enormous round loaves baked on banana leaves.
TERM: 4 years
WORK: Planting and cutting sugar cane –6-day week.
WAGES: Men -$24.00 per month. Increased to $30.00 the 2nd year
Women –$10.00 per month. Increased to $15.00 the 2nd year.
HOME: Rent free (with land for gardening)
BONUS: Gift home on completion of the 4-year term.
EDUCATION: Adult evening classes in English, tuition free.
The plantation life proved very disagreeable and undesirable for my parents and grown children, who missed the culture and comforts of city life they had known in Spain, They yearned for better social life and surroundings, therefore a few months previous to the termination of contract my oldest brother, Frank, obtained employment on merchant ship bound for San Francisco and made several crossings, returning each time with glowing reports on the beauty of the city and countless employment opportunities with better wages. In view of such bright prospects my parents decided to make the move on termination to the contract, which was near expiration. He forfeited the “bonus gift home” and as son as freed from contract we moved to Hilo in preparation for the final move to San Francisco. My father and two brothers went ahead and soon were employed, rented the largest flat on Telegraph Hill and arranged transportation for Mother and the rest of us. In early Spring of 1912 we embarked on the SS Wilhelmina in Hilo and arrived in San Francisco 5 days later. We have all remained in California, except for Remedios (our baby in the voyage from Spain) who returned to Spain after her retirement in 1974 and remains there enjoying the Spanish way of life among our countless cousins.
Mother passsed away in June 1919, age 52, victim of that year’s deadly epidemic of influenza.
Father passed away in December, 1934, from intestinal hemorrhage.
The seven of us remaining and well:
Angela L. Plumbo, Immigrant