More Hispanics living in Hawaii
Mar. 25, 2006
Low jobless rate makes state desirable
Alexandre da Silva
HONOLULU - Cesar Gaxiola was looking for work. Martha Sanchez just wanted to
Despite leaving Mexico years ago for different reasons, both Gaxiola, the
manager of a non-profit on Maui, and Sanchez, who owns a market on Oahu, made
Hawaii their home.
They are among a growing number of Hispanics who, lured by Hawaii's warm
climate, diverse population and, most of all, jobs, are beginning new lives in
this remote island state which is a straight shot across the Pacific from Latin
America's long Western shoreline.
Between 1990 and 2004, Hawaii's Hispanic population surged from just over 80,000
to nearly 100,000, a 25 percent spike, according to the Census Bureau. Observers
say that as more Hispanics arrive, government services and local businesses will
need to adjust to serve a greater number of Spanish-speakers.
Gaxiola was a 21-year-old farmworker when he immigrated to Hawaii in the 1980s.
He now helps as many as 1,300 immigrants on Maui each year through Enlace
Hispano, or Hispanic Link. People visit his office to find out how to use public
transportation, enroll kids in school, file taxes and take advantage of work
"The employer might sit down with them, and they might say, 'Yes, yes, yes,'
but understand very little," said the 40-year-old Gaxiola, whose organization is
paid $110,000 annually by the county for its services.
"We definitely need something much larger to be able to provide services to
everybody," he said.
Sanchez never intended on staying when vacationing here 30 years ago, but she
met her future husband on her first day. The couple eventually split, and in
1994, Sanchez opened Mercado de la Raza, or People's Market.
"I needed a job to sustain my kids," said Sanchez, a 53-year-old mother of two
who sells products from Mexico, Argentina and every country in between.
While Hawaii may sound like an unlikely destination for Hispanics, many say it's
only a matter of time before America's fastest-growing minority group builds a
significant presence in all 50 states.
Hawaii's record-low unemployment rate of 2.4 percent makes the state even more
attractive to those seeking a better life abroad, said Austin Dias, a Spanish
professor at the University of Hawaii.
"They are used to the tropical climate, and maybe the racial diversity in Hawaii
appeals to them, as well," he said. "They are here to take those minimum-wage
jobs that Americans don't like to take anymore."
The state's abundance of work in the construction and service industries,
especially on Maui, has been a magnet for Hispanics, some of whom hold three
jobs to send relatives money, said Molli Fleming, who teaches Spanish at Maui
Community College and tutors immigrants in English.
"When we talk about, 'What did you do this weekend?' it is never 'I went to the
movies, I went to the beach,' " she said. "Hardly anybody I talk with from the
Hispanic community gets to enjoy the islands. They are running around, working,
Some also start businesses. While the numbers of Hispanic-owned firms decreased
25 percent between 1997 and 2002 statistics suggest that the businesses expanded
and merged, said Eugene Tian, a state researcher and statistician.
As a result, Hispanic-owned companies hired twice as many people and doubled
sales during the five-year period, Tian said. Most companies are in
construction, administrative services and retail.
In 2001, the state's dominant tourism industry began monitoring what is called
the developing Latin American market, which includes visitors from Mexico,
Argentina and Brazil, state tourism liaison Marsha Wienert said.
Visitor arrivals from those three countries reached 14,576 people last year, a
5.9 percent increase over 2004.
"It's a small number, but it's growing," Wienert said.
"As more people migrate here to become residents, the word gets out in regards
to what a beautiful destination this is."
Nancy Ortiz remembers becoming Hawaii's first Hispanic disc jockey 30 years ago.
Today, there are seven Hispanic radio shows, two of them broadcasting strictly
in Spanish. Salsathon, a Hispanic festival celebrating its sixth year in June,
is expected to draw 16,000 people, double last year's crowd, Ortiz said.
Puerto Ricans were the first Hispanic group to set foot in Hawaii, arriving
along with Filipinos and others a century ago to work in coffee and pineapple
fields, said Faith Evans, a former state legislator and leader in the Puerto
In the 1960s, Evans said she began noticing a new wave of immigrants from Mexico
and other Central and South American countries.
"The numbers of Hispanics in the United States is increasing overall, so it
would stand to reason that Hawaii would get its share," she said.