Liz Cortez was 6 months old — and undocumented — when her family moved from her native Mexico to California.
When she turned 12, her family relocated to Maui, lured by the island’s natural beauty and breezy pace of life.
“This is home,” said Cortez, a graduate of Maui High School. “My roots are here.”
Cortez, now 31, is part of a surge in Hispanic immigration to Hawaii. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in the islands, increasing more than 80% since 2000, according to Census Bureau data.
She’s also part of a smaller group of about 600 Hawaii residents who’ve obtained temporary protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
The Supreme Court is now in the process of determining whether the Trump administration acted lawfully in September 2017 when it ended the DACA program, a move that could rescind the program’s deportation safeguard for 800,000 people.
The outcome of this political limbo could dramatically alter the course of Cortez’s life.
“It is a stressful and a sensitive thing, but I always try to stick to the positive,” Cortez said. “I believe I have so much to give to this country.”
Hawaii doesn’t have the barrios of Los Angeles and Mexican restaurants are far outnumbered by ramen shops and plate lunch counters. But with 25,000 speakers, Spanish is the fourth most dominant language in the state, a ranking that pales when compared to the mainland where Spanish is the top language other than English.
Yet census data shows that nearly 11% of Hawaii residents claim Hispanic heritage — an all-time high. The number of Latinos in the state is expected to continue to rise, at least for the foreseeable future.
“The Latino population in Hawaii is big, much bigger than people think, but it’s kind of hidden and unmeasurable,” said Maui immigration attorney Kevin Block. “They blend in here more than they do on the mainland. Their brown skin doesn’t stand out as much. People think they are Hawaiian.”
The number of Hispanics in Hawaii is likely even higher than official figures. That’s because Hispanics are one of the least likely demographics to fill out the 2020 census.
Nationally, more than half the Hispanic population is concerned that the answers they provide to the 2020 census will be used against them. Immigration status, language barriers and distrust of the federal government are among the most common reasons why Hispanics do not participate, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey.
The Trump administration’s failed bid to add a controversial new question about citizenship status has further exacerbated a fear to participate among immigrants who are undocumented.
The Census Bureau is spending millions of dollars on an advertising campaign to promote the fact that federal authorities will not gain access to census participants’ survey answers.
The stakes are high, according to advocates who say an accurate count is one of the best ways to secure more funding and better resources for the swelling numbers of Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Argentinians in Hawaii.
The census impacts the distribution of nearly $900 billion for federally funded housing vouchers, food stamps and health care. It also influences state spending.
“It’s hard to estimate the number of Hispanics here because so many of them feel like the census will put them in jeopardy,” said Block, who 10 years ago adopted one of his clients, an undocumented teenager from Mexico who had been living alone at a Maui beach park, and helped him obtain a green card.
There is no accurate data breaking down the citizenship status of Hawaii’s 160,000 Hispanic residents.
Roughly 80% of Block’s clients are Hispanic, some of whom are applying for asylum after fleeing gang violence in Honduras and Guatemala, he said.
“We’re not the new kids on the block. We helped build the block.” — Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Marie Villa
Due to his own concerns about census participation among Hispanics, particularly those who lack citizenship, Block is collaborating with a University of Hawaii graduate who’s conducting her own count of Latinos on Maui.
“This will be like a parallel census,” Block said.
Because the federal government is not involved, Block said he hopes this additional effort to tally Hispanics yields more accurate results, at least for the island of Maui. Maui County has the second highest percentage of Hispanics in the islands, according to census data.
Meanwhile, Cortez, who works as a legal assistant in Block’s Wailuku office, said she’s encouraging other Latinos, regardless of their immigration status, to make sure they’re counted in the official census.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Americans now have until Aug. 14 to answer the questionnaire by mail, over the phone or online, a new option available for the first time this year. With so many people quarantined at home during the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a drive to encourage responses through the new online option.
So far, Hawaii’s response rate is lagging behind the national average.
“I understand the fear of my community, but I also feel like they should really believe in democracy, too,” Cortez said. “And I feel like we should show this island and this country that we’re a part of it.”
Hispanics long ago made their mark in the islands, cultivating the first pineapple crop in the Hawaiian kingdom and introducing cowboy culture almost a century before roping and riding reached the Texas plains.
Puerto Ricans exiting their country’s twice hurricane-ravaged agricultural system in the early 1900s moved onto Hawaii’s plantations, allowing them to meet the surging demand for sugar in the world market. In plantation camps these 5,000 laborers and their families developed and spread what became known locally as cachi cachi music.
Farm workers from Latin American countries including Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras continue to prop up Hawaii’s coffee and pineapple industries, which suffer from labor shortages.
Apart from agriculture, many immigrants from Latin America work in the service and construction industries, especially on Maui and the Big Island. At 13%, the Big Island has the largest Latino population in Hawaii.
“We’re not the new kids on the block,” said Aiea resident Marie Villa, who is Mexican. “We helped build the block. A lot of people don’t really know that.”
In September, Villa relaunched Hawaii’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. More than a business network, the chamber aims to foster a strong voice for Hispanics in politics while advancing social achievement and promoting culture. There’s a keiki scholarship drive, tamale cooking demonstrations and financial workshops.
A previous iteration of the chamber folded in 2010 when Villa and her husband temporarily moved away to the mainland.
Through the newly revamped chamber, Villa said she’s trying to work with Hawaii’s Latino lawmakers to build a concerted Latino voice in state governance.
Hawaii has four state legislators with Latino ancestry: Donovan Dela Cruz, Donna Mercado Kim, Michelle Kidani and Lorraine Inouye.
“We are more than 10% of the population and we still can’t get brochures for state services in our language,” Villa said.
She said she was frustrated last week when she filled out a University of Hawaii survey aimed at helping communities track the spread of coronavirus in Hawaii. But when she got to the question that asked participants to indicate their ethnicity, Hispanic was not an option.
Villa is vigilant of what can be lost when a person becomes detached from their cultural heritage. Although she was born in Mexico, she didn’t know much about her native culture until she arrived on Oahu as a young mother in 1990.
In California, where she moved when she was 5, Villa’s parents did not expose her to Spanish language and customs because they wanted her to assimilate.
“They didn’t want us to have an accent,” Villa said. “So it was English, English, English in our house. It was, ‘Even if I can’t understand you, I’ll figure it out.’”
In Hawaii, Villa had spontaneous run-ins with Hispanic culture. Practicing her native culture for the first time, she felt a deep sense of belonging.
With her Puerto Rican husband, Villa now speaks mostly Spanish at home. Every year she sets up an altar in preparation for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, to honor loved ones who’ve died.
Villa helped her husband edit and publish the now-defunct Hawaii Hispanic News. The newspaper had been the only newspaper in the state catering to Latinos. It folded after four years in 2012.
On the verge of the last census count in 2010, Villa traveled across Hawaii to drum up awareness of the survey and its potential benefits for the state’s Latino population. The experience introduced her to the multiplicity of Latinos on the neighbor islands.
Now Villa is helping small business owners survive the coronavirus pandemic by showing them how to apply for forgivable SBA loans available through the CARES Act and disseminating the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 fact sheet in Spanish.
In some cases, she has encouraged entrepreneurs to find opportunity in the chaos. Last week she advised the owner of a bathing suit brand to halt production and pivot to manufacturing non-medical face masks.
What’s still missing in Hawaii, according to Villa, is a Hispanic cultural center. She envisions a brick-and-mortar hub for Hispanic culture with a museum, office space for rent, educational events and social functions.
“The No. 1 question I get asked is, ‘Where are all the Hispanics?’” Villa said. “And if we had a cultural center, I could point people there.”
As Hawaii’s Latino population catapults, Latin American culture is becoming increasingly visible in daily life.
Catholic mass is celebrated in Spanish at numerous churches across Oahu, Maui and the Big Island. Hispanic cuisine food trucks are easy to find. On weekends, it’s becoming more common to see a quinceañera being celebrated at a beach park.
“Definitely ever since I moved here it’s just so crazy the amount of increase in our Latino community here,” said Cortez, the Maui legal assistant. “I’ve seen it grow immensely. Now I’ve met people from Costa Rica, one or two Peruvians and there are a lot more people from Argentina.”
Oahu’s Chinatown neighborhood hosts a yearly Hispanic Heritage Street Festival and Health Fair. Honolulu puts on an annual five-day salsa festival, drawing thousands of Latin dancers and spectators to Honolulu from around the world. Several local radio stations cater to Latinos, playing salsa, Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz music.
At Mercado de La Raza, Oahu’s only Latin American grocery store, crowds form to buy homemade tamales before they sell out on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month.
There’s a Miss Latina Hawaii pageant, during which the state’s de facto spokeswoman for young Latina heritage is crowned. The 2020 pageant winner is Aimee Coronado, a 19-year-old freshman undergraduate at the University of Hawaii Manoa who now appears in parades, on the radio and at charity events.
A first generation Mexican-American, Coronado grew up in Federal Way, Washington, where she attended quinceañeras, cooked tamales from scratch and admired the local Mexican folkloric ballet dancers.
She rushed to enter the Miss Latina Hawaii pageant when she spotted a promotional flier for the contest emphasizing the scholarship prize that’s now helping her pay down her tuition.
Organizers Nancy Ortiz and her daughter, Gena Dutro, the descendants of Puerto Rican sugar plantation laborers, said the competition aims to give Hawaii’s Latina women a voice, help them further their education and ready them for career success.
Coronado, a business student, was one of six contestants.
“I think people perceive me as a novelty here because they haven’t been exposed to as much Latino culture as other places, because here it’s still growing and getting established,” Coronado said. “I want to change that.”
Although the COVID-19 outbreak has displaced Coronado from her UH apartment, she continues to celebrate Hispanic culture from her parents’ home in California, where on Instagram and YouTube she is continuing to perform her Miss Latina Hawaii duties.
While Spanish language classes for adults and older children are plentiful in Hawaii, opportunities for very young children to learn Spanish from native speakers in a classroom setting are limited.
When Mariel Garrido Melchor, who is Argentinian, gave birth to her son Santiago in 2011, she knew she wanted to raise him bilingual. What the Kaneohe resident didn’t know is how difficult it would be to find Spanish classes that would allow Santiago to learn his mother’s tongue at the same time he was learning English.
“There weren’t a lot of opportunities,” said John Melchor, Mariel Garrido Melchor’s husband, who speaks Spanish sparingly. “There are a lot of language schools that focus on more Asian-based languages, like Japanese, Mandarin, Korean. We find most of them will say something like, ‘And oh, by the way, we offer Spanish.’ But nobody really specializes in it.”
So in 2013, when Santiago was 18 months old, the Melchors launched an immersive Spanish language school for kids called HolaKeiki, filling a gap in the local language education landscape.
It began with a class of toddlers. Now the school’s enrollment includes more than 100 students ranging in age from 2 to 18. The classes are integrated into the after-school program at various Windward Oahu public schools. The school also works with students who are homeschooled.
Like their son Santiago, many of HolaKeiki’s students are children with at least one parent who is a native Spanish speaker, the Melchors said.
All told, 676 of Hawaii’s public school students speak Spanish at home, making Spanish the fifth most common native tongue among students.
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