December 22, 2010 | Honolulu Weekly | Original Article

Hispanics in Hawaii

After deserting a Spanish naval ship in the Pacific Northwest, Don Francisco de Paula Marin, a 20-year-old Spanish sailor, arrived in Honolulu in 1794. Marin was the first documented Hispanic to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands.

Marin’s arrival occurred about the same time that King Kamehameha was consolidating all of the Islands into one kingdom while he was living on Oahu. The king maintained a body of advisers who acted as a council of state to aid in his struggle for supremacy.

Don Francisco de Paula Marin, who was from an agricultural part of southern Spain, was known for his extensive knowledge of the medicinal uses of plants and herbs. According to a Hawaiian history book by Richard Wiesnewski, “The Rise and Fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom,” Marin planted the first pineapple in the kingdom of Hawaii on Jan. 2, 1813.

Marin soon became a trusted advisor and confident of the king, acting as his business advisor, bookkeeper, interpreter (he spoke fluent Hawaiian). He also served as the king’s physician and was at his bedside during his death in 1819.

As a result of his service to the king and the alii, Marin was given land on Ford Island to collect plants and provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the crews of foreign ships that arriving at Honolulu Harbor.

Today, Marin is best remembered for his green thumb. He introduced apples, apricots, asparagus, avocados, cabbage, carrots, Chile peppers, eggplant, lemons, limes, macadamia, nectarines, nuts, olives, onion, oranges, parsley, peas, peaches, pears, potatoes, rice, tea and tobacco into the Hawaian Kingdom.

The next major Hispanic milestone occurred after King Kamehameha was given five head of black longhorn cattle on the Big Island. They quickly multiplied, ruining crops and making farming difficult for the Hawaiians.

To resolve the impending calamity, Kamehameha III brought 200 Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) from California to the Big Island in the mid-1800s to teach the Hawaiians the roping and riding skills necessary to herd wild cattle. The word “vaquero” came from “vaca,” the Spanish word for cow.

Researchers say that “paniolo” (the Hawaiian term for cowboy) was derived from the contact between the vaqueros and the Hawaiians. The term paniolo is considered part of the legacy of the Mexican cowboys.

Ranching has been a major exporting industry for Hawaii since the founding of the Parker Ranch, the largest privately held ranch in the US, in 1848. Many of those Mexican cowboys stayed here and got married.

The next major Hispanic milestone was the arrival of the Puerto Ricans. The first “Ricans” arrived in Hawaii in 1900. The Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) brought 5,000 Puerto Ricans workers to toil on Hawaii’s plantations. The descendants of these early residents are called “Local Ricans”–Puerto Ricans born in Hawaii.

Hispanic Highlights

José Villa, who grew up in Spanish Harlem, is a Puerto Rican of African descent who has lived in Hawaii since his two-year tour of duty with the Air Force at Hickam ended in 1986. “I loved the people, the weather and the tropical lifestyle,” he recalls. “To me, Hawaii is the most beautiful place in the world.”

Villa, who previously lived in Tokyo for seven years and two years in Taiwan, decided to call Hawaii his new home. “Geographically and culturally, Hawaii is in-between the Continental US and Asia. It has that Asian feeling,” he says.

One of the first things to surprise Villa about Hawaii was that it was one of seven states that did not celebrate Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday. Two years later, largely the result of Villa’s efforts as president of the Hawaii Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (HHCC), where he was the president, that goal was accomplished.

In 1993, about 2,000 local Hispanics gathered in Kapiolani Park for the first Hispanic festival in Hawaii.

In 1994, the 60-member HHCC, according to Villa, became more socially than business oriented. As president of the group, Villa was pressured by his friend, radio personality Ray Cruz, to help start a hispanic business organization. “I finally agreed, but only if we aimed for mainstream quality, meaning we would operate as professionally as other mainland business organizations. The officers of the Group included Jose, his wife Mari Roma Villa, Jesus Puerto (owner of Soul de Cuba) and another Cuban busnessperson.

The group decided to hold monthly mixers to help sell the idea of a hispanic business organization. The $5,250 raised from the mixers was used to finance a variety of financial scholarships for local Hispanic youth and adults seeking a college degree.

Currently, the group is a member of the US National Chamber of Commerce. “We want people to know there is a Spanish community in Hawaii. My top priority is to convene an Hispanic convention in Hawaii,” says Villa. “There are 25 Hispanic conventions throughout the nation that annually bring in millions of dollars to their communities. We want to get on their radar.”

In June 2008, the chamber became embroiled in a controversy that could have had disastrous consequences. During a Honolulu City and County council meeting, Councilman Rod Tam made a reference to “undocumented wetbacks.”

“When the incident was reported by the media, the Hispanic community received a great deal of support from others in the community,” says Villa. “But we got a lot of hate mail from the mainland.

“In the Hispanic community, such an incident would end after the accuser made a formal apology,” says Villa. “Then, it’s all over.” Tam, however, refused to admit to any wrongdoing and insisted it was not a racial slur.

As a result, the Hispanic community formed several protest activities but told Tam that although they were offended by his actions, they would not retaliate. “We wanted the community to know that even in a dark moment, we wanted to do the right thing. We wanted to take the high road,” says Villa, who decided to publish, along with his wife, a single edition of the Hawaii Hispanic News to put the situation into perspective. “We had so much support that we decided to keep the paper going. So, Councilman Tam actually did us a favor.”

Villa says Hispanics here prefer to focus on the friendliness and commonalities among local ethnic groups and Hispanics. “We have similar language, food and family traditions,” he says. “Hispanics are now part of the fabric of Hawaii.”

Next on the agenda for local Hispanics is to “put some Latinos in office,” says Villa. “Hawaii is an emerging Hispanic market, which means we have tremendous business opportunities. There are 20 Mexican restaurants in Hawaii but no Hispanic bakeries or butcher shops,” he points out.

“Hispanics feel very comfortable in Hawaii,” says Villa. “Local people talk about the aloha spirit, which is the same as “mi casa, su casa,” or “my home is your home.”

Local Insights from a Mexican in Hawaii

As far as the Latin population’s growth, I think it’s a beautiful thing. For one thing, Hispanic cultural awareness needs to be spread in Hawaii. Up until now, I feel we’ve always been lumped in with the Filipino community. They are a great force in Hawaii but the Hispanic community needs to independently identify ourselves. Whenever my name is being read off somewhere, it’s always mispronounced as “Ferdinand.”

This shows how people in Hawaii don’t even take the time to completely look at a name that’s foreign to them. I don’t even get an apology after correcting folks about how to pronounce my name. I just get a giggle as if they are saying, “that’s what you get for having a silly name.” The Hispanic community is relevant across the continental United States of America and it’s about time Hawaii caught up.

On a lighter note, I’m also excited about our Hispanic population growth because it will force our Mexican restaurants to “raise the bar” so to speak. I’m already seeing more taco trucks around in Honolulu and it gets me excited. –Fernando Pacheco

At A Glance

The estimated Hispanic population of the US as of July 1, 2009 is 48.4 million, making people of Hispanic origin the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority. Hispanics constitue 16 percent of thenation’s total population.

According to the US Census Bureau, there are more than 112,300 Hispanic residents in Hawaii, representing about 8.7 percent of the state’s population. Each Neighbor Island has about 8 percent of its populaton classified as Hispanic.