Governor Ben Cayetano at his residence. 10 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, in his home in Waialae Iki, jokes that no one is more “local” than him. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

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What does it mean to be local in Hawaii?

That’s a discussion we’re diving into in a new thread in our popular Connections section. It launches today with a podcast featuring former Gov. Ben Cayetano and a story by a young man who left his dream life in Hawaii because he didn’t feel local enough.

The clash over construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea has stirred a deep and passionate discussion about whether Native Hawaiian culture and traditions can co-exist with scientific discovery that has long been a focus of Mauna Kea and its existing observatories.

But underlying that debate is an issue that has long simmered in Hawaii — the disconnect between locals and haoles, as well as the occasional animosity between longtime residents and newcomers. Despite Hawaii’s oft-cited mythology that everyone gets along because they have to on these remotest of islands, racism and ethnic divisions reach into some of the deepest corners of the state.

This new thread we’re calling “Who’s More Local?” will work through some of the tension that too often bubbles over into the public space. It’s a good opportunity to get to know one another better and to talk through some of the things that divide us. Sharing your stories and your thoughts should help pave the way to a better understanding of the unique tapestry that is Hawaii.

“I am as local as they come.” — Ben Cayetano

What is it to be local in Hawaii? Where does this identity come from? How does it intertwine with race and racism, ethnicity and discrimination? And do people try to out-local each other to gain advantage from the playground to the business world to politics?

The state’s diversity, given its population of just more than 1.4 million people, is remarkable. There hasn’t been anything resembling an ethnic majority for generations.

The largest group is of Asian origin, making up 38 percent of the state’s population, according to 2014 U.S. Census numbers, but those numbers are broken up into sizable groups of Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans and others.

While whites make up about 77 percent of the nation’s population, here in Hawaii just over one in four people are of Anglo-Saxon extraction.

About one in 10 people in the state identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. And approximately 8 percent of people here are defined as Latino or Hispanic, according to the census numbers.

Beyond such breakdowns, hapa — or mixed — identities are a signature of Hawaii. Just 3 percent of people in the U.S. describe themselves as multi-ethnic; here in Hawaii 23 percent do.

All of the ethnic, racial and class diversity in the islands is held together by what Ben Cayetano calls “the glue” of Hawaiian culture. He says the ultimate result of it all is “local” identity.

To help us understand this notion of what makes someone local — and when one crosses from a newcomer to a local — we sat down with Cayetano, a self-described “street kid” from gritty post-World War II Kalihi who became Hawaii’s fifth governor.

Governor Ben Cayetano at his residence. 10 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
During his teen years, Ben Cayetano came to understand that segregation was a defining aspect of his life in the islands Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Cayetano, who became America’s first Filipino-American governor in 1994, lives in a vast home on a hill looking down on the Kahala neighborhood where he vividly remembers suffering the discrimination that marked him as a teenager.

The former amateur boxer spoke with us of Oahu’s segregation during his youth, how such experiences echo in him and Hawaii today, and how his perspective on it all has changed.

As he says, “I am as local as they come.”

Listen to Cayetano’s story in the podcast above. It’s fascinating and inspiring. Then tell us your own.

Our first story in the new Connections section is by a young man who enjoyed his life here, but didn’t quite feel local until he returned to his life in Florida.

Feel free to file your personal story with us, along with photos and a brief biography, and we’ll get back to you promptly about editing and when it might appear.

And before you write, ask yourself: How local do you feel?

Do you have a compelling story about what it means to you to be of — or from — Hawaii?

If so, drop me a note at or click on the red pencil in our Connections section.

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