The Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce applied for money from the Hawaii Community Foundation but did not get approval for funding.

When Rick Nava reads through the list of the dead, it’s hard not to see their faces.

Nava, 64, is a U.S. Army veteran and longtime resident of Lahaina who immigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines in 1970.

He lost his home during the Aug. 8 wildfire that destroyed much of the town and killed at least 99 people, including three whom he knew personally. The others he recognized, he said, because they were all part of the same tightknit, working class community. And like him, many were Filipino.

“We know them all by name,” he said. “We know their faces from seeing them around town.”

Nava has become a prominent figure in Lahaina’s recovery efforts, especially when it comes to advocating for its sizable Filipino population. But Nava said he worries about whether Filipino voices are being lost in the conversations about recovery and rebuilding.

Rick Nava, a Filipino community leader in Lahaina, narrowly escaped the blaze with members of his family. He said he could see the roof of his house on fire as they drove away. (Courtesy of Rick Nava)

He is one of five Lahaina residents who were named to Maui Mayor Richard Bissen’s advisory team, which updates him weekly on goings on within the community. Others on the committee include Kaliko Storer, a Hawaiian cultural adviser to Hyatt Hotels; Laurie DeGama, a business owner and president of the Lahainaluna Parent Teacher Student Association and Archie Kalepa, a prominent Native Hawaiian activist who can trace his lineage in the Lahaina back for nine generations.

While the position provides Nava with a direct line to the mayor, he says, he’s just one of a handful of Filipinos willing to speak out to ensure the community is getting the help it deserves.

Many of the people living in Lahaina at the time of the fire — about 40% — were of Filipino descent, which meant that they made up the largest share of residents. Some were recent immigrants while others came from families who had lived in the islands for decades and whose ancestors included those who migrated to the islands to work on sugar cane and pineapple plantations.

One Filipino family lost eight members in the blaze – Felimon Quijano, 61; Luz Bernabe, 64; Joel Villegas, 55; Adela Villegas, 53; Angelica Baclig, 31 and Junmark Quijano, 30. The other two family members Salvador Coloma, 77; and Glenda Yabes, 48. A ninth, Lydia Coloma, is still on the official list of people who remain unaccounted for.

Don’t Rock The Boat

Nava said part of the Filipino culture, especially among those living in Lahaina, is to keep your head down, go to work and abide by a well-worn Hawaii axiom: Don’t rock the boat.

“A lot of them are workers in the hotels,” he said. “They will not go in front of the microphone or in front of hundreds of people to speak about their concerns. They’re focused on working as hard as they can so they can send their children to school or college and buy a home.”

Kit Zulueta Furukawa, director of the Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce, echoed many of Nava’s concerns. She said the chamber has been one of the few Filipino organizations taking an active role in reaching out and getting resources to the community.

In September, it partnered with the Philippines Consulate to put on a resources fair for Filipinos affected by the fires. Zulueta Furukawa estimated that nearly 3,000 people showed up to eat, pray and connect with federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Small Business Administration.

“Many Filipinos are too shy to ask for help,” she said. “There are folks who are gung ho in terms of taking advantage of the resources, but there are others who we still need to hold their hands. That’s the primary goal. To make sure that nobody gets left behind.”

Zulueta Furukawa said the fires only seemed to exacerbate the idea that Filipinos are part of an “invisible community.”

Fewer Voices, Less Money

Many of the storylines surrounding the fires and what might happen as Maui attempts to recover and rebuild Lahaina have focused on Native Hawaiians, particularly in the national press.

Lahaina was the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but when the fires started Native Hawaiians made up only about 10% of the town’s population.

Within days of the blaze, after thousand-degree temperatures incinerated much of the town, Native Hawaiian activists on Maui held a vigil and press conference demanding that Gov. Josh Green and others move slowly when deciding how to rebuild. That event was followed up by meetings with the governor to ensure that Hawaiian voices were considered in whatever decisions came next.

Jonathan Okamura, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa, grew up on Maui and said that what the activists did to highlight the town’s Hawaiian roots was politically savvy.

They were able to harness the narrative, and use it to their advantage, especially when it came to advancing their agenda whether it was bolstering consideration of Native Hawaiian culture or pushing back against Green’s attempts to reopen West Maui to tourism.

“The Filipinos got somewhat marginalized in terms of advocacy,” Okamura said. “It’s kind of like what goes on in Hawaii generally with the sovereignty movement. Native Hawaiians get their ideas expressed and appreciated by non-Hawaiians in ways that Filipinos are less able to do, especially the immigrants.”

There’s also concern about access to resources and particularly the charitable dollars coming through organizations, such as the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund, which as of Oct. 20 had received nearly $150 million in donations.

So far, the foundation has reported giving out more than $32 million in grants from the Maui Strong Fund to a wide range of groups, including the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, the Maui Economic Development Board and others dedicated to a wide range of services ranging from animal welfare to immigration.

Grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars have been awarded to nonprofits with the aim of helping specific communities on Maui, such as to prevent the displacement of Native Hawaiian homeowners and provide money directly to Micronesian residents.

Kit Zulueta Furukawa, seen here with her husband, Deron Furukawa, says that more need to be done to get resources into the hands of Filipinos affected by the Aug. 8 wildfires. (Madeline List/Civil Beat/2023)

Missing from the list of recipients, however, are groups like the Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce, which Zulueta Furukawa said applied for money from the Hawaii Community Foundation, but did not get approval for funding.

Still, Zulueta Furukawa said she does not get the sense that Filipinos are “deliberately being pushed to the side.”

In the case of Maui Strong money, she said she was told by officials at the Hawaii Community Foundation that the chamber simply missed a deadline and was encouraged to send in a new application. She pointed out that organizations, such as the chamber, are volunteer based and that many of the groups focused on Filipino issues don’t have the same capacity as some of the larger, more organized nonprofits, although she’s hoping that will change.

“It’s hard to stay positive because many people are still grieving and mourning,” Zulueta Furukawa said. “While many may call us invisible, we’re still here, we’re very real and we deserve support just like everyone else.”

Time To ‘Pass The Mic’

Already, there are outside groups seeking to bolster the Filipino community on Maui and its ability to advocate for itself as the disaster continues to pan out.

Sergio Alcubilla of the Hawaii Workers Center is among them. Alcubilla is a Filipino lawyer who ran for Congress in 2022 in the Democratic primary against U.S. Rep. Ed Case. He has traveled to Maui a number of times to work with fire survivors and lately has been focused on helping them build up a political voice. He also helped set up the Maui Tenants Rights Association.

“There’s a large Filipino community there, but it’s largely been unorganized,” Alcubilla said. “The outreach hasn’t been the most effective. There’s this sense of shame with asking for help in the Filipino community and that’s one of the things that we’re really trying to change.”

Sergio Alcubilla.
Sergio Alcubilla has been trying to organize Filipinos on Maui in the wake of the Aug. 8 wildfires. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Alcubilla has been working closely with Nadezna Ortega, of Tagnawa for Maui, a grassroots organization that has opposed moves to reopen West Maui to tourists.

Ortega lives on Oahu but has Filipino family members who were displaced by the Lahaina wildfire.
Immediately after the disaster she and a handful of Filipino friends bought plane tickets to Maui, packed their bags with Spanish rolls from Nanding’s Bakery in Waipahu and traveled to Lahaina to offer help.

What she found when she arrived in Lahaina were hundreds of people struggling to have their voices heard in large part due to language barriers and a lack of cultural understanding.

More recently, in the debate over reopening West Maui to tourists, Ortega said Filipinos were once again “sidelined.”

While Green and others argued that many hospitality workers, including Filipino fire victims, supported going back to work, Ortega said the feelings she heard in the community were mixed in part because it meant those displaced by the fires who were staying in nearby hotels might be forced to move once again.

“We need people to pass the mic and stop speaking for us,” Ortega said. “There are a lot of Filipinos in Lahaina who we spoke to and they told us what they needed. And the main point here is not to advocate for them, but to have them advocate for themselves.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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