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Hilarion Salas: Achieving a Dream, Sacrificing a Life

He left behind six children—four boys and two girls— who, most likely, were unsure of what their future would be, orphaned by circumstances beyond their control.

The recent Smithsonian Institute commemoration of the centennial of Filipino migration to Hawaii that opened in Washington D.C. reminded me of my grandfather, Hilarion Salas. A native of Dingras, Ilocos Norte, he was among the migrant Filipinos who came to Hawaii in the 1930's to seek greener pastures. His story of striving for success amidst the harsh conditions in his native land as a farmer-fisherman and in Hawaii as a sacada turned-coffee-farm-owner is both inspiring and tragic.

I was not able to see him personally. My memories of him were accumulated from pictures and stories related by my late father, Irineo Salas, a civil engineer by profession who visited him in Hawaii and who also worked there for a time.

"Natarake ngem nagaget ken naanus" (well-poised, industrious and patient) was how my dad remembered Hilarion. He was also a "musikero" who inspired his children to be musicians themselves. Hilarion's violin (which he played during fiestas and special occasions) was left in the care of an uncle in Dingras who was a member of a band. My dad, a musician on the side, was given the violin whenever there was a request for him to perform in a program. The violin was eventually given to me during my elementary years in Baguio City when I started taking music lessons. I still occasionally play the violin, reminding myself of its rich tradition and its original owner.

When my grandfather Hilarion made the bold and adventurous move to go to Hawaii in the 1930's, he was a widower in his mid-40s. He left behind six children—four boys and two girls— who, most likely, were unsure of what their future would be, orphaned by circumstances beyond their control. But Hilarion had a vision to pursue, and he would not let them go hungry nor allow them to remain hopeless.

Frustrated, the wrath of the offender was directed at Hilarion who was repeatedly stabbed by his worker. He bled to death at his farm before medical help came.

For the same reason that most Filipinos became migrant workers in Hawaii to support those whom they left behind, Hilarion worked long hours in back-breaking jobs in sugar and coffee plantations. Working as hard as he could, and being a frugal man, a trait Ilocanos are known for, he was able to save enough money through the years while providing for the education and sustenance of the children he left behind. Somehow, he was fortunate enough to be given an opportunity in the early 1950's to invest in a small coffee plantation in Kona Island which he readily grabbed. His consuming passion and intense desire to make good in the land of the free carried him through the difficulties and challenges of his venture as a coffee plantation owner.

A kindhearted man, Hilarion accommodated his fellow Filipinos looking for work. Some were female coffee pickers unfairly treated in other plantations. Others could not find work for various reasons. He gave them a chance to earn a living, and share in his success. One of these Filipinos was a former mental patient who pleaded for work and asked to be given an opportunity to start a new life. Touching a soft spot in his heart, Hilarion gave in.

One day in the late 1950's, this worker tried to molest a female coffee picker while threatening her with a knife. Hilarion who was nearby inspecting the plantation heard the screams and cries for help by the victim and came to her rescue. He pulled her from the clutches of the former mental patient, scolding his worker for his dastardly act. Frustrated, the wrath of the offender was directed at Hilarion who was repeatedly stabbed by his worker. He bled to death at his farm before medical help came.

At that time, my father was a contract worker for an engineering firm located in another island when this tragic event happened. His other siblings were in the Philippines pursuing their respective careers. No one in the family was a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident at that time. The family decided that as a fitting tribute to their father's vision, Hilarion Salas' final resting place would be in a cemetery near the farm where he invested a lifetime of labor. Not long after, my dad eventually returned to the Philippines upon the expiration of his work contract. The farm was taken over by another person, if not by the state. The offender was eventually declared insane and re-committed to a mental facility.

My wife, Charmie, and I and our daughter, Bernadette, are new immigrants in the U.S. We took a different path much less difficult and far less challenging than that taken by my late grandfather. Before writing this essay, I reminded my family of grandfather's story. In a year or two we plan to visit Hawaii, the farm he started if it is still operating and visit his grave.

Hilarion's tragic death may have shattered a dream. But he left a lasting legacy that inspires the family he left behind-to strive hard for one's dream wherever it may lead you, even when faced with and in spite of difficulties, and even if it would mean sacrificing one's own life defending others.

© Bernardo G. Salas

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