Hawaii isn’t anywhere near the Mexican border and is separated from Central and South America by an ocean.

Still, just like the rest of the United States, the islands have seen their Hispanic population grow, according to new U.S. Census data released last month.

More than 120,000 Latinos called the islands home as of April 1, 2010 — Census day. That was nearly 9 percent of the state’s total population and was up from 7.2 percent — or less than 90,000 Latinos — a decade earlier. That’s an increase of more than a third in just 10 years.

One of the Hispanic community’s vocal leaders says Hawaii has been a welcoming place.

“I think that Hawaii is very Latino-friendly,” says José Villa, publisher of the Hawaii Hispanic News, president of Latin Business Hawaii and a creator of the Hispanic Center of Hawaii. A Puerto Rican whose wife is Mexican, Villa has been in the islands for 25 years after growing up in New York City.

“The weather, the fruits, the vegetables, a lot of the things that we grow up with in some of the tropical countries,” he said. “The locals, they hug each other and kiss each other, the extended family and the respect for the kupuna, the elders … and a lot of love for the kids. That’s very much the way it is in the Hispanic community.”

Nationwide, people who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have been rising in numbers, from 22,354,059 (9 percent) in the 1990 Census to 35,305,818 (12.5 percent) in the 2000 Census and now to an estimated 48,356,760 (15.8 percent) in the 2009 American Community Survey. The Census Bureau projects [xls] that more than 100 million Hispanics will make up a quarter of the U.S. population by 2050. The term includes Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans as well as those who can trace ancestry to Spain or Spanish-speaking countries of Central or South America.

Hawaii’s 9 percent Latino population in the 2009 survey was far from national leaders such as New Mexico (45.6 percent), California (37 percent) and Texas (36.9 percent). But it was high enough for Hawaii to rank 18th out of the 50 states. (Data from the 2010 Census has been released for Hawaii and a swath of other states, but not for all 50 and not for the country as a whole.)

Geography Total Population Hispanic or Latino Percent Rank
United States 307,006,556 48,356,760 15.8%
New Mexico 2,009,671 915,738 45.6% 1
California 36,961,664 13,681,370 37.0% 2
Texas 24,782,302 9,149,688 36.9% 3
Arizona 6,595,778 2,031,651 30.8% 4
Nevada 2,643,085 700,293 26.5% 5
Hawaii 1,295,178 115,966 9.0% 18
Mississippi 2,951,996 67,185 2.3% 46
North Dakota 646,844 12,636 2.0% 47
Vermont 621,760 9,017 1.5% 48
Maine 1,318,301 17,463 1.3% 49
West Virginia 1,819,777 21,581 1.2% 50

Source: Civil Beat analysis of 2009 American Community Survey data

“To me, what’s been different is that our community is finally getting some respect,” Villa told Civil Beat. “We’ve been here since 1794, and just blended in so people didn’t realize that there was a growing Hispanic community here.”

He said Hawaii’s Latino community differs from those on the mainland in that many of those here established themselves somewhere else in the U.S. before venturing out to the islands. Many of Hawaii’s Hispanics have a college or graduate-level education, the vast majority read and speak English, and they haven’t kept to themselves in working class, primarily Hispanic “barrios” the way they have in Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Chicago and New York, Villa said.

“There’s almost a self-segregation, if you will, within the Hispanic community. Here in Hawaii, we don’t have that,” he said. “Because there was no established neighborhood, and there were no large, all-encompassing Hispanic organizations, there has been just this melting into the fabric of the community.”

The data supports Villa’s anecdotal evidence. The Big Island has the highest proportion of Hispanic residents — 11.6 percent — while the City and County of Honolulu has the lowest at 8.1 percent.

Meanwhile, 73 different towns (Census-Designated Places) have more than 10 percent Latinos, and 78 towns have less than 10 percent. Just four towns have more than 20 percent and just nine have less than 5 percent.

Geography Total population Hispanic or Latino Percent
United States (2009 ACS) 307,006,556 48,356,760 15.8%
State of Hawaii 1,360,301 120,842 8.9%
Hawaii County 185,079 21,383 11.6%
Maui County 154,834 15,710 10.1%
Kauai County 67,091 6,315 9.4%

Source: Civil Beat analysis of 2010 U.S. Census data

Geography Total population Hispanic or Latino Percent Rank
Kalaeloa 48 10 20.8% 1
Halaula 469 97 20.7% 2
Mountain View 3,924 801 20.4% 3
Honalo 2,423 492 20.3% 4
Kaneohe Station 9,517 1,890 19.9% 5
Haena 431 19 4.4% 143
Maunawili 2,040 88 4.3% 144
East Honolulu 49,914 2,069 4.1% 145
Puako 772 31 4.0% 146
Kapalua 353 14 4.0% 147
Maalaea 352 13 3.7% 148
Wainiha 318 11 3.5% 149
Olowalu 80 1 1.3% 150
Manele 29 0 0.0% 151

Source: Civil Beat analysis of 2010 U.S. Census data

Villa said most, but not all, of the community is documented, and that the increase in population includes “a cadre of young, talented, well-educated Latinos that have moved here in the last couple of years.”

Still, stereotypes prevail. He thinks too much of the mainstream media coverage of the Hispanic community focuses on immigration, drugs and violence. His newspaper has tried to tell positive, inspirational stories about Latinos as members of the broader Hawaii community — the ideal that Hispanics are striving for in the large mainland cities.

When people new to the islands ask him where all the Latinos are, he tells them, “They’re all around you.”

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