Jonathan Okamura: Where Have All The Portuguese Gone? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

The community is alive and kicking, despite no longer being officially counted.

Growing up on Maui in the 1950s, my best friend was a haole classmate whose father was a high-ranking administrator at the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. plantation in Puunene. We both attended Kaunoa Grade School, which was a former English standard school in Spreckelsville, a plantation town started by sugar baron Claus Spreckels. 

As an indication of how much I thought about my friend, since he was a Milwaukee Braves fan, they became my favorite Major League Baseball team, even though I was playing for a team called the Phillies. Because my friend’s uncle, Marquis Calmes was a Republican member of the Maui County Board of Supervisors, I cheered for GOP candidates to win during the elections. At my age, I hadn’t even heard of the Democratic revolution.

I didn’t realize until much later that my friend’s uncle, who was his mother’s brother, was Portuguese, which meant his mother was also Portuguese. When I visited their home, she seemed very much like other haole women I knew at that time, such as my school teachers. Their ancestry also meant my friend was half-Portuguese, although I didn’t think about this until decades later.  

One reason I didn’t regard my friend as having Portuguese ancestry was because he was very different culturally and socioeconomically from my Portuguese friends in Kahului and classmates who entered Kaunoa when the school in Spreckelsville closed in 1958. Unlike my friend, they all spoke pidgin, as I did, and were working class with fathers employed by the plantation.

Punchbowl Holy Ghost chapel Portuguese Portugal Punchbowl Holy Ghost chapel community
Punchbowl Holy Ghost chapel remains an important focal point for Oahu’s Portuguese community. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

This introduction is a way to bring up some of the issues that motivated me to write because while teaching at University of Hawaii Manoa for 30 years, I was struck by the paucity of Portuguese students in my classes, although I’m sure some of them were.

One reason it seemed, at least to me, that Portuguese are not as evident in Hawaii compared to the 1950s and 1960s is because of cultural assimilation by some of them to haole identity, as exemplified by my friend’s mother and my friend. 

Another reason for a less visible Portuguese presence is intermarriage, especially with Native Hawaiians and haoles. Given the demeaning stereotypes about Portuguese disseminated through jokes told about them and the desirability of being Kanaka, those with Native Hawaiian ancestry tend to assert that identity and status, even though they might have a Portuguese last name.

In a recent documentary on “Portuguese in Hawaii,” a woman who appears to be in her 60s and thus perhaps third generation, indirectly addresses their significantly high outmarriage rate with other ethnic groups

She remarks, “It’s very hard to find people like me who are pure Portuguese. Usually, everyone is part Portuguese. They’re either one-half or one-fourth. They’re either Chinese-Hawaiian-Portuguese — that’s a very common mixture by the way — or Portuguese-Japanese.” 

Assimilating to and claiming haole identity by Portuguese is a more complex issue. Those with the requisite cultural and class background, like my friend’s mother, could make that transition, which has become much easier since then, particularly for women who drop their Portuguese family name upon marrying.

25,000 Portuguese immigrants were brought to Hawaii by the owners of sugar plantations like Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. in Puunene on Maui. (Hawaii State Archives)

But for my working-class Portuguese classmates and their second-generation parents, not only was assimilation to haole identity much more difficult, it was also much less desired. I think that this preference to be considered local and not haole is still the case with most Portuguese, even though they have risen considerably in class status.

UH Manoa history professor John Rosa, who is Portuguese-Chinese and in his mid-50s, agrees. He remarked, “In general, to people my age and younger in the 21st century, a person who’s Portuguese might be considered white (because of European ancestry) — unless they’re Portuguese-Hawaiian — but not haole.”

After 1930, the U.S. census removed a significant barrier to Portuguese assimilation to being considered haole when it deleted the ethnic category “Portuguese.” From then on, they were included under the white or “Caucasian” racial classification. Previously, the latter category included two subgroups, Portuguese and “Other Caucasian,” which referred to haoles proper. 

In 1930, the census recorded 27,588 Portuguese in Hawaii, who represented 7.5% of the population and a substantial 37% of the total Caucasian population of 73,702. As they disappeared from subsequent decennial census tabulations, the percentage of Portuguese in the Caucasian population declined steadily as increasing numbers of whites arrived during the military buildup prior to and during World War II and after statehood.

Shortly before the census began to classify Portuguese as Caucasian, University of Hawaii psychology professor Stanley Porteus published his book, “Temperament and Race,” co-authored with Marjorie Babcock. Their research methods and conclusions have been consistently criticized over the past century for closely reflecting racist thinking in Hawaii at that time. 

The masthead of Aurora Hawaiiana or Hawaiian Dawn; one of the eight newspapers that were published in Hawaii in Portuguese or bilingually at various times. (Hawaii Historical Society)

The book claims to be a study of temperamental differences among several non-haole ethnic groups, including Portuguese, Native Hawaiians, Japanese and Filipinos. To establish these differences, the authors had 20 elite haoles – 16 of whom were plantation managers – provide their supposedly objective ratings of those minorities on eight psychological and behavioral traits, such as “planning capacity” and “self control.” 

But rather than provide empirical data that might support the official categorization of Portuguese with haoles, “Temperament and Race” affirmed the racial boundary between them. The mere inclusion of Portuguese among the study subjects along with other non-haole groups was a clear indication that haoles considered them racially different and inferior to themselves, just like the other non-haole minorities.

In the continental U.S., Portuguese, like Irish and Italians, became racially white but not in Hawaii. 

Furthermore, despite being of European descent, most Portuguese in Hawaii do not claim to be haole. As UH Manoa social work faculty member Michael DeMattos wrote in his 2022 doctoral dissertation, “Race, Class and Identity Formation among the Portuguese of Hawai‘i, 1880-1930,” “At times white, never haole, and always local.”

While the U.S. census does not provide information on Portuguese in Hawaii, one means to estimate their population is provided by census data on ancestry. According to the American Community Survey of the census for 2016-2020, 48,005 state residents, or 3.4% of the population, reported having Portuguese ancestry, which seems a reasonable figure compared to the almost 28,000 in 1930. 

That current number is enough to maintain Portuguese identity and community, despite an ongoing relatively high intermarriage rate for several decades. Furthermore, a significant number of historical and cultural sources on Portuguese in the islands have been produced very recently. 

Portugese in Hawaii book Nelson Ponta-Garcia
The new book, “Portuguese in Hawaii,” is a companion to a documentary that tracks the history of Pukiki since their first arrival. (Provided)

The informative documentary I mentioned, “Portuguese in Hawaii,” is accompanied by a book by the documentary’s producer, Nelson Ponta-Garca.

Another book, “Between the Sea and Sky: The Saga of My Portuguese American Family in Upcountry Maui, 1881-1941,” was published in 2021 by Donna Binkiewicz, a professor of history at California State University Long Beach. She is a fifth-generation descendant of Portuguese immigrants to Maui where she was born. 

In the community, in addition to organizations started much earlier, such as the Holy Ghost societies, the Portuguese Culture and Historical Center of Hawaii was established in 2017 as a nonprofit organization as a “focal point for Portuguese culture and tradition in Hawaii.” In 2021, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in Hilo for the Portuguese Chamber of Commerce Cultural and Educational Center

These recent developments are very important ways for Portuguese in Hawaii to define themselves long after their arrival almost a century and a half ago as plantation laborers.

Despite government agencies no longer counting them, Pukiki are counting on themselves to sustain their community, culture and identity in Hawaii.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Vovo had an entire display bookshelf with pictures of all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Haole, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Samoan, Micronesian, Hispanic, & African-American -- all spread across the nation from Hawaii to the East Coast.

Hilobaymoon · 2 months ago

I have a Portagee friend who told me that his great grandparents were citizens of the Kingdom of Hawaii, as they arrived in Hawaii before the overthrow and was granted that status when they arrived to work in the plantations. At lunch one day in the 80's, he saw a sign-up table at Iolani Palace for native Hawaiians. He tried to sign up, but was told he couldn't. He was offended. Nothing he said made a difference. BTW, there were no native Hawaiians until after the overthrow as that was part of the propaganda the Americans spread when they colonized Hawaii. They were citizens of the Kingdom.

tirebiter · 2 months ago

Is the book mentioned in the article available for purchase anywhere? I'm finding old announcements of book signings at various physical locations back in May, but there's no where to order.

LMat · 2 months ago

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