Sunday, April 15, 2001

Justice Ibarro, at 7 months old the youngest resident of Ota Camp,
is in the arms of cousin Michelle Valle. They are with other cousins
who live in the camp. Guillermo Manzano, 90, below, hugs great-
great granddaughter, Everie Doane.

Ota Camp - After 30 years, the community's residents in Waipahu will own their land
By Gordon Y.K. Pang

It's been a 30-year struggle to retain their homes and their lifestyles.

But the 31 families of Waipahu's Ota Camp will soon be able to own the land under their homes.

An agreement to be signed with the city in coming weeks will allow the Ota Camp Makibaka Association to pay $600,000 for the fee interest in the 5.7 acres between the Waipahu light industrial district and the city's West Loch Estates subdivision.

Map For some two decades of the struggle, "makibaka" was a rallying cry for Filipino-Americans who felt they weren't treated with the same regard as those belonging to other races.

"A lot of people were scared," said Pete Tagalog, the 69-year-old "founder" of the Makibaka Association. "Us Filipinos were used to getting bus' up. So we said 'it's about time we start fighting for our rights.'"

The agreement with the city gives the association the fee title for the acreage, marking the end of the Makibaka Association's fight to control its own destiny. The families will now petition the city for a condominium property regime allowing them to divide the parcels and to eventually gain individual ownership.

City spokeswoman Carol Costa said the city and the association are now in escrow. The families have agreed to pay the city $430,000 in cash with the remaining $170,000 to be paid in a promissory note.

"It's a good deal for both sides," Costa said.

The families say that they have had difficulty securing bank loans to shore up their deteriorating homes because they didn't own their lots.

Guillermo Manzano, 90, hugs great-
great granddaughter, Everie Doane.

Tagalog said the word "makibaka" means "struggle" in the Filipino dialect of Tagalog. "The reason why I came up with that name (for the association) is so people would never forget."

Richard Bautista, 50, current president of the Makibaka Association, said the goal all along was to stay together, maintain the barrio lifestyle of their ancestors and to keep costs as low as possible.

Bautista compared the situation to that of the native Hawaiians now living in Waimanalo under the leadership of Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele. Just as Kanahele's goal has been to have Hawaiians live freely within their own boundaries, he and those in Ota Camp wanted to own their land and maintain their lifestyles.

"Nobody in this place ever experienced ownership of a house," he said. "In a few months, by the end of the year, the vast majority of the people will be able to buy out and become owners and that was a goal we had when we left the old place.

"I am part of the great American dream. I do have a house, I do have a place."

Bautista joked that his house doesn't have a white picket fence as in the traditional scenario, however, but a fence with chicken wire.

The Ota Camp land dispute has been intense and longstanding,
as shown in the above photo taken during a 1985 protest.

"We struggled to have a place where we could all afford and still maintain our lifestyle," said Winnie Ganigan, 54. "You can grow whatever you want, raise chickens or whatever you want."

Not staying together, some of them speculate, would have left many of them living in cramped apartments, possibly in the crime-ridden "Pupu" streets nearby.

Realtor Peter Haines, who along with attorney Anders Nervell helped the families secure the final agreement, found himself amazed at what was accomplished.

"There is a lot of aloha in that community," Haines said. "They've stayed together; they're really hanging in there. They're pulling this off, putting their money in the bank every month and doing it."

The struggle began in the summer of 1971 when the mostly Filipino families living in the old Ota Camp off Pahu Street, near St. Joseph Catholic Church, were evicted by developer Rex Blackburn to make way for an apartment complex.

Ota Camp residents, most of them Filipino, leased parcels from landowner Tatsuichi Ota and built their houses there. It was an early example of the leasehold arrangements that were common in the 1960s and 1970s.

When notice of the eviction came in January 1972, Ota Camp residents rejected the suggestion that they would be given first priority when the apartments were built.

They preferred the barrio-like living that existed in Ota camp which was reminiscent of the hodge-podge, fenceless community well-stocked with vegetable gardens, trees and animals.

Bautista recalled his family being told they had 30 days to move.

The residents were able to buy some time, but state and city officials initially balked at providing assistance. That's when Tagalog and Democratic Party leader Hideo "Major" Okada visited the site where the city had once planned an incinerator.

Johnny Dombrique, 86, and Pete Tagalog, former president
of the Ota Camp Makibaka Association, talked about the
battle for land rights at the camp.

Developer Jack Ujimori was enlisted by the Hawaii Housing Authority to put up the homes. The families moved into their new neighborhood in 1974. Remarkably, nearly all the families stayed there in one form or another.

The families believed they were paying off the cost of their homes -- $98 a month for three-bedroom units, $105 for five-bedrooms - after which they would be given an option to purchase the mortgage on the land.

But in the early 1980s, Ujimori raised the rents on the families, precipitating a new dispute that dragged on through 1985. Ujimori sued the tenants for back rent. The families, in turn, sued the state, city and Ujimori to get them to honor their original agreement.

Following demonstrations, fund-raisers and other turmoil, the families won the right to purchase the site for $600,000, about half of what was then the fair market value. The families first needed to pay off the $320,000 left on the homes, which they did in 1997.

City spokeswoman Carol Costa said the city and the association are now in escrow. The families have agreed to pay the city $430,000 in cash with the remaining $170,000 to be paid in a promissory note.

"It's a good deal for both sides," Costa said.

Stefan Ibarra, 43, association treasurer, said the road since 1985 hasn't been easy. The association leadership was hesitant to pressure those reluctant to pay or, because of reasons beyond their control, fell behind in payments.

Ibarra, who married into a family in the camp, had fewer qualms about doing so. Eventually, one family was evicted while others who fell behind were put on payment schedules.

Ibarra, whose kids now run and play in the camp, said it was worth it, particularly for the elders who can now see their grandchildren living the way they had hoped. "For them, it's a dream come true to have waited all these years to pay off for the land."

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