Ever since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) allowing unlimited political spending by corporations, there's been much talk about corporations and personhood. Some of the comments are tongue-in-cheek, some are more like foot-in-mouth.
A lot of folks were, and continue to be, outraged at the idea that "corporations are people, too." But that's not what the court said. The ruling did give corporations the same rights afforded individuals in terms of free speech and electioneering. The decision was 5-4, which shows that the justices are as divided on the matter as we, the people - real people - are.
My late husband and I had many passionate discussions about the issue of corporate rights - and wrongs. While we both considered ourselves to be political liberals, he thought I was naive and overly complacent about big, bad corporate America. And I knew that was just his cynical, conspiracy-theorist paranoia talking. "Well, you can't help it," he'd say. "You were raised with that plantation mentality."
He was right, of course. Growing up in 1960s Maui, when nearly all of my friends' parents worked in either sugar or pineapple, I saw the plantations as providers, stewards of the community they helped to create. Last Friday, I was reminded of those sweeter, simpler times, during Kumiai Day at the Kaunoa Senior Center. Actually, I've been skipping down Memory Lane for the past several weeks as a member of the planning committee for this event, which was co-sponsored by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.
Kumiai is a Japanese word for partnership, association or union. During the plantation era, Japanese workers and their families formed kumiais, informal social support systems within their camps. As they moved out into the larger community, so did the kumiai concept, and many neighborhoods formed kumiai (or ku for short) associations. No longer limited to Japanese families helping each other through funerals and other times of need, the kumiais became multiethnic neighborhood associations. I'm not sure what kind of business the Ohaa Street Ku Association conducted, or whether it even had regular meetings, but I do remember fondly the annual Ku Picnics held at Kalama Park. We ate grilled teriyaki and hot dogs, ran relay races, and played Bingo for prizes like bags of rice and cases of toilet paper.
There were no potato sack or three-legged races at Friday's event, but we did play with tin can telephones and milk covers. We used papaya leaf stalks to blow bubbles and newspapers to make hats. And we played string. You probably know it as cat's cradle; we just called it string. Sweet and simple. Like the strawberry ice cakes we slurped on.
Ah, there's nothing like ice cake to take a kama'aina back to hanabata days, small kid time. Except maybe a certain photo or a well-preserved artifact from those days gone by. Thanks to the A&B Sugar Museum and several Kaunoa staff and volunteers, our Kumiai Day historical display stirred many memories and emotions. I saw eyes light up as people spotted their old homes on the plantation camp maps; many even remembered their house numbers. I heard the excited chatter of people recognizing faces and places in photos from the 1930s and '40s . . . the national championship swim team coached by Soichi Sakamoto, the old Fairgrounds in Kahului, the Puunene Bakery.
HC&S even dusted off the old Kahului Railroad locomotive Claus Spreckels for a rare public appearance. In service from 1882 to 1929, the locomotive has been beautifully, authentically restored and is too valuable to be put on permanent display until protective housing can be built for it. Some of the folks who posed for photos in front of the Claus remembered commuting by train between Central Maui and the Haiku area.
The presentation of a $20,000 donation from the A&B Foundation to Kaunoa's Senior Nutrition Program was a highlight of Friday's event, and so were the many door prizes. But I think most of the 300 seniors in attendance were most appreciative of the considerable time and effort spent by HC&S and Kaunoa in staging the memorable morning.
Not all of the folks at Kumiai Day grew up or worked on the plantation. Some had never heard of the word kumiai. But everyone felt the camaraderie and cheer of a day spent with friends old and new. As I watched and listened to retirees joking around with A&B executives, and local folks teaching malihini how to chew all the juice out of a piece of sugar cane, it occurred to me that, while a corporation is not a person, corporations are people. Much like kumiais.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.