An Immigrant’s Dream is Realized
and Karleen Chinen
Editor’s note: As most of you know, Frances Kakugawa, The Hawai‘i Herald’s “Dear Frances” columnist, was born in Kapoho on Hawai‘i Island, where she spent her early childhood. The eruption of Kïlauea Volcano in 1955 forced her family to relocate to nearby Pähoa, where they began a new life and quickly became calabash ‘ohana to Alberto Aguinaldo, a young, hard-working immigrant from the Philippines. Shortly after Kïlauea Volcano began erupting in full force in May, Frances sent me a heartwarming story about her family’s ties to the Aguinaldo family.
I Googled the name of Alberto’s only child, Gilbert Aguinaldo, and found a West Hawaii Today news story about a village of 20 micro-units in Pähoa that Gilbert had played a major role in developing for people who had been forced to flee their homes. I recalled watching news stories about how that village had sprung to life in the span of a day and reflecting on what is possible when people put their hearts, minds and hands together for the good of the community.
So, Frances and I are sharing the byline for this story that begins with her family’s flight from Kapoho and transitions to this year’s eruption and the Aguinaldo family.
Over 600 homes were destroyed when Kïlauea Volcano roared back to life on the Big Island of Hawai‘i on May 3, putting on lava shows that were at times hauntingly beautiful and yet, at other times, unbelievably scary.
Frances has followed the volcano news from Sacramento where she now lives, wondering when it will all end. As she stared at the online photographs of perfectly paved roads that suddenly split open from the earthquakes and of Madame Pele engulfing homes in her path, memories of her own family’s escape from their home in Kapoho more than six decades earlier came to mind.
During the 1955 eruption, Frances’ Kapoho house came close to being swallowed up by a huge crack in the earth beneath the house. The Kakugawa family had their house lifted off its foundation and moved to Pähoa, where they settled after having rented a plantation home in Kea‘au for a year while the land Frances’ father had purchased in Pähoa was being cleared. Their old houselot in Kapoho, which had remained vacant all these years, was recently covered over by a heavy carpet of black lava.
Three days into May, Pele roared to life, claiming homes and structures in her path and sending their owners and occupants into evacuation shelters with no home to return to and no clue of what the future held for them.
One month later, under a blanket of toxic clouds, a village of 20 micro-units sprouted up within a day on a vacant patch of land behind the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pähoa. The land is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Hawaii. Sacred Heart Village, as it is known, is being managed by Hope Services Hawaii. The units are for people who lost their homes to the volcano and were living in evacuation shelters. Priority is being given to people age 60 and older because the evacuation has been especially stressful for them.
All of the units were built with the volunteer labor of about 150 people — Hawai‘i National Guard members from Maui, contractors, union carpenters, union electricians from O‘ahu . . . anyone willing to lend a hand.
West Hawaii Today reported that the village began with a conversation between electrical contractors Gilbert Aguinaldo of Big Island Electrical Service, LLC, and Leonard Tanaka of T&T Electric, and building contractor Bronson Haunga of Haunga General Contracting, LLC. Aguinaldo worked for Tanaka prior to starting his own company. They took their idea to Darryl Oliveira from HPM, which provided them with building supplies through the company’s vendors at discounted rates. Hawai‘i County pitched in by waiving permitting for the shelters. Thanks to these people and others, the idea of building the village for the evacuees spread like wildfire.
The 12- by 10-foot tiny homes were to have been just basic structures: four wooden walls, two windows, a roof and a wood floor set on a cinderblock foundation so they could be lifted and moved elsewhere once the volcano emergency is over. They were not supposed to have any electricity in them.
“I kinda wen bend the rules,” Aguinaldo admitted at the opening ceremonies on June 30. He had electricians install one interior light and a smoke detector in each house with a light just outside the door “for safety reasons.” Above each unit number was installed the word “Hope.”
The units are powered by a Smartflower Solar System, which looks like a tree. It opens up during the day and folds itself up at night, like a sunflower. Leonard Tanaka’s T&T Electric donated the system, the first in the state of Hawai‘i.
Two of the 20 units were built with wheelchair ramps. A separate hygiene station has eight toilet stalls — four for women and four for men — and six showers stalls, including one that is Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant. Three septic tanks were also donated to the village.
The volunteers also built a pavilion with a concrete floor. It’s where the opening ceremonies were held in June. The pavilion can also be used for community meetings or as a place where people can relax and talk story. All of the organizers, primarily those with construction industry contacts, used their connections to build Sacred Heart Village.
“We jus’ wen do ’um,” said Aguinaldo by phone from Kea‘au, where his two businesses — Big Island Electrical, LLC, and Pacific Rim Construction — are based. “I was supported by many people,” he said, recognizing the many businesses and organizations that contributed to the community effort. Aguinaldo said the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) personnel who had been dispatched to Hawai‘i were surprised at the kökua that kept pouring in to help the displaced residents.
Empathizing with the evacuees’ sense of loss and helplessness, Aguinaldo and his good friend Ikaika Marzo, who owns Kalapana Cultural Tours, were also instrumental in starting “The Hub,” also referred to as Pu‘uhonua O Puna, just days after the eruption started. They set up tables with open-sided tents on a vacant lot Aguinaldo owns in Pähoa and began collecting an array of donated items — tents, sleeping bags, butane, towels — and distributing them to anyone in need. Aguinaldo arranged to have two shipping containers donated to The Hub to store the goods. In the early days of the eruption, The Hub was open every day and staffed by volunteers who also provided free, hot meals to the evacuees. The Hub also served as an information center for those displaced by the volcano. Best of all, says Aguinaldo, The Hub is completely community-driven. With life a little less helter-skelter four months later, The Hub is now open only Mondays and Fridays.
At the opening ceremonies, Hawai‘i Island Mayor Harry Kim, who lost his vacation home to the eruption, said that although Puna residents suffered great losses and still face uncertainty in their lives, “this eruption also brought Puna together.”
Gov. David Ige thanked the organizers of the new micro-unit village and the volunteers who built it. He thanked Aguinaldo and Marzo for launching The Hub and the community that came out to help, saying the village and The Hub exemplify “always finding the way to yes, regardless of what the issue is.”
“That’s what the aloha spirit is all about,” Aguinaldo told the Herald.
Frances Kakugawa does not know Leonard Tanaka, or contractor Bronson Haunga, or Ikaika Marzo. But she does know Gilbert Aguinaldo. She’s known him for all 46 years of his life.
When Gilbert was born, his father Alberto told me, “My son, he’s going to be a lawyer, Frances. Not like me.”
“Alberto,” I said, “Your son can be anything he wants to be. Just make sure he’s like you — you are a good man. Raise him so he will someday help his community and this country. America is good to us, Alberto, so we have to say thank you by returning what we can.”
“No worry,” Alberto assured me. “My boy, he will be a good man.”
After Kapoho was demolished in the 1955 eruption, my parents purchased three acres of land in Pähoa and started their lives all over again. It wasn’t easy acquiring the land. I detailed it in my book, “Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Pompeii.”
My father hired Alberto, then a young bachelor from the Philippines, to help him clear the land. After my father died, Alberto became our sole “yard man.”
One day, my mother offered him a piece of our property to build a little cottage. But she had one stipulation: “If you no marry, you can live here. Woman, they make humbug.”
“Thank you, Mama,” Alberto said. “Someday I want wife and family.”
And that’s exactly what Alberto got. In time, he married Gloria, from the Philippines, and built a house in our neighborhood.
Before he married Gloria, Alberto never set foot in our house due to his own sense of ethics — he always stopped at the third step from the ground. So, we took drinks and food down to him on the third step . . . until the day he brought Gloria to meet us. He walked her up the stairs and into our living room. From that day on, the stairs disappeared between us.
After their son Gilbert was born and learned to walk, his footsteps were often heard in our house.
One day when Gilbert was in high school, he confided his dream to me. “Aunty Frances, after high school, I want a job in the shade. I don’t want to work in the sun.”
Gilbert had spent most of his childhood with his parents on their papaya farm in Kapoho, where the best of Puna papayas are grown. He worked in the fields with his parents without complaint.
His mother, Gloria, worked morning to night. She said she could handle the hot sun.
“This is better than working in the Philippines,” she told me. “In the Philippines, I had to work in the mud with snakes and other things all around me. This is easy, Frances. Better than working in rice fields.”
Alberto and I had other fine-tuning to do in our relationship.
He often walked home after work. One very rainy day, I offered to drive him home. When I went to the car, he had covered the back seat with newspapers to protect the seat from his wet clothes.
“No, Alberto,” I said. “You sit in the front.”
It reminded me of my college years, when I worked as a live-in maid for my room and board. I struggled with “sugar plantation white manager syndrome,” feeling I was a lesser human being in a house of haoles, let alone being their maid-in-residence.
My mother and I spent New Year’s Eve with Gilbert and his family. Always thoughtful, Gloria added sushi to their buffet table of authentic Filipino food.
As Gilbert grew, my mother became “Grandma” to him. To this day, he still refers to her as “Grandma” when talking about her.
Gloria offered to take “Mama” into her home to care for her after she was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She visited my mother after I moved her to O‘ahu to live with me.
When it was time to let go of my mother’s house after she had passed, I sold it to Gilbert. In time, Gilbert donated our old house to the Hawai‘i County Fire Department to use as a “live burn” structure to train firefighter recruits. On my last visit to Pähoa, he proudly showed me the trees he had saved in my mother’s memory.
I’m not at all surprised that Gilbert had a role in building the micro-unit village for the Kïlauea evacuees. He is the good man his father hoped he would become.
Alberto passed away in 2005 at the age of 96. The former crane operator for what was once Puna Sugar Company had made Hawai‘i his home. He spent his entire life building a good home for his family in his adopted homeland and making the Big Island a better place for all to live.
Alberto, you and Gloria raised more than a good son. Gilbert and his wife Tracey are continuing your legacy of compassion and kindness by sharing their humanity. I hope their two young children — your grandchildren, Isabella, 14, and 10-year-old Rylan — are watching their parents and learning from them. The next generation will continue your family’s legacy in Hawai‘i and your contributions to your community. I know you are smiling on your son from above. He is a good man, Alberto.
Frances Kakugawa was her mother’s primary caregiver during her five-year journey with Alzheimer’s disease. A native of Kapoho on Hawai‘i Island, she now lives in Sacramento.