SAN DIEGO — They came from Mexico looking for work, any kind of work, from cotton fields in Arkansas to tomato farms in California.
But when Ramon Soto and 10 other veteran farm workers showed up at Los Angeles International Airport with their duffel bags, and wearing their unofficial wayfarer's uniform of baseball caps or cowboy hats, old coats and scuffed boots, they boarded a plane Friday for a new destination in their immigrant odyssey: Hawaii.
"We are going into the unknown," said the 53-year-old Soto, a father of six who has been living in a San Diego County squatters' camp. "If what they say is true, we are going to live well, with all the comforts. We will see."
In Hawaii, there are plenty of jobs and not enough workers--the reverse of California and other economically depressed states. With unemployment there at about 2%, locals have followed the fundamental shift in the state's economy, deserting jobs in agriculture for less physically strenuous employment in the tourist industry, according to state officials and labor experts in Hawaii.
As a result, agricultural businesses that for decades employed Asian immigrants--predominantly Filipinos--are aggressively recruiting legal Latino immigrants, such as the 11 men who left San Diego last week.
In the coming weeks, as many as 33 farm workers will journey to Hawaii--the largest number of Mexican farm workers recruited in California so far to harvest pineapples by the Maui Land & Pineapple Co., a major agricultural firm. They will earn $8.47 an hour, a considerable rise in pay for most of them.
The company's recruitment campaign features slickly produced Spanish-language videos, pay advances for air fare, low-cost company housing and promises of longtime employment.
"Our work force is getting older and there is a lot of competition for workers," said Skip McDonnell, the company's employment programs administrator. "We constantly tell them that it's a permanent, full-time position for as long as they want. . . . We want them to bring their families when they can. We think that if they are going to be stable they need that family unit."
The first group of workers are going alone, bringing little more than the will to work and scraps of knowledge about Hawaii. They know that the climate is agreeable; that it was the setting for the American TV show "Magnum P.I.;" that it is about as far as the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
The population of Latino immigrants on the booming island of Maui has grown from a handful to about 600 in the past two years, according to Gladys Baisa, executive director of Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., the nonprofit agency in charge of recruiting pineapple pickers and helping them adjust.
"I'm amazed at the number of fellas who just buy a ticket and come," Baisa said. "They are also picking coffee and macadamia nuts, they are working in hotels and restaurants on the Big Island, a lot of them are in construction. . . . On Maui we know of 12 families that came through our program and stayed. We have had two weddings, and many more on the drawing boards. We have had two babies born here."
In addition to Maui Land & Pineapple, three or four other large agricultural companies are recruiting Latino farm workers from the mainland, experts said. Workers are also being brought in from Micronesia. A spokeswoman for the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco, which has jurisdiction over Hawaii, said an estimated 10,000 Mexicans live in Hawaii, which has a population of about 1.5 million.
David Meza, a 24-year-old from Mexicali who got a job picking pineapples in 1990, now drives a truck for Maui Land & Pineapple. What started out as an adventure has turned into a career, he said in a telephone interview.
"When I came here, you couldn't find any Mexicans," said Meza, whose brother joined him in Maui last week. "Now there are lots. I feel more at home. I speak a little Filipino now, a little Hawaiian."
The tropics have a dark side, however. The high cost of living discourages many laborers from staying. In a place so distant and exotic that it might as well be the moon, Latino immigrants suffer from intense boredom and loneliness.
"It's very difficult," Baisa said. "It's very important for them to know what it is they are getting into. We have social activities--barbecues, dances, parties, excursions, outings, soccer games. We have Spanish movies for them, cable TV, pool tables, weights, anything we can think of to keep them busy."
Although the state's multicultural melange of whites, Asians and Pacific Islanders remains largely peaceful, the presence of the Mexican migrant workers has aroused some tensions, according to University of Hawaii sociologist Jon Matsuoka.
Matsuoka described the experience of a group of 50 pineapple pickers brought to the tiny island of Lanai by the Dole company. He said some residents accused the newcomers of shoplifting from stores and harassing women.
Matsuoka and others say that excessive drinking on the part of some of the workers has been a problem on Lanai and other islands. The Rev. Rafael Martinez, who helped recruit the San Diego laborers, urged moderation at a meeting with them before they left.
Although impressed by the wages they will earn and the promise of pleasant, low-cost housing, the migrant recruits expressed some wariness about the adventure at hand.
"The problem is coming back," said Jose Farias, 42, who had been staying in Tijuana and crossing the international border daily. "These are unknown parts for us. Imagine the problem if you don't like it and want to come back. I'm still doubtful, to be sincere with you."
Cirilo Garcia was philosophical. He said that he has already come a long way, so he's willing to make another journey.
"I heard there was jale (work) in that place they had the Persian Gulf War, in Kuwait," he said. "Then I heard it wasn't true. But I would have gone."