Hawaiian Ethnic Cultures When People Think About Essay

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Hawaiian Ethnic Cultures

When people think about Hawaii, they tend to think in terms of its island people. Polynesian or Asian perceptions often come to mind because of our familiarity with the influence of the Japanese, Chinese and Filipino peoples. But the fact is that Hawaii is very much flavored by other national and ethnic influences too, including the those of two distinct Hispanic groups, the Puerto Ricans and the Portuguese, whose impacts have been all but forgotten (Mira, 2008).

In the simplest of terms, the differing historical perceptions of these two groups arises from the fact that one (the Portuguese) was seen positively viewed before their initial influx occurred. The other, the Puerto Ricans, suffered more from the timing of their migration in regards to other non-Hispanic ethnicities and because of the degree of surprise that came from their more forced integration. The Portuguese were basically blessed with having a solid foundation in helping to form the island's early development and its musical bridges to other cultures, while the Puerto Rican influence was experienced as a mix of work and sorrow.


Puerto Rico may have been a rich port of call for many sailors in the early days of worldly ocean travel, but it was not because the country was always well off economically for its people. On several occasions it suffered severely from employment problems and cultural changes tied to conditions imposed by domineering nations that wanted not only to control their islands but that wanted to do so to exploit their people (Rodriguez, 2007). This was exactly what was happening in the years before and after the invasion and takeover from Spain by America. While the political transition itself went fairly smoothly because many Puerto Ricans openly sided with the U.S., the actual end result was a continuation of trends that were already in place and because so many corporate and other influences had their own agendas for profit and international advantage (Baker, 2002: 175).

One important element of this transition was the emergency of a large and singularly focused sugarcane business sector. Large agricultural corporations had their eyes on the islands because they saw it as a way to not just make money but to fortify the U.S. In the Caribbean (Whalen, 2005). Their first move was to continue devastating the small, rural sectors that features some crop variation (which helped individual farmers) in favor of more consolidated larger production facilities that could be more easily controlled. While it would take some years to get to the final result, the following quote suggests what was happening and where it would be heading: "The economy went from a diversified, subsistence economy with four basic crops produced for export (tobacco, cattle, coffee and sugar) to a sugarcane economy with 60% of the sugar industry controlled by absentee American owners (Rodriguez, 2007: 2)"

It was these ownership forces that would ultimately command the push to send some 5,000 Puerto Ricans to the Hawaiian Islands because of several factors. The sugar business was growing strong and needed workers who knew what to do and could do the work cheaply (Camacha Souza, 1984). There was also a desire to head of growing dislike of some Asian immigrants who were already making up large portions of the workforce. Prejudices were running rampant again the Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos and it was thought that other workers would be better equipped to meet the needs of the plantation owners. Puerto Ricans, who were often treated as it they were at least somewhat white (at least the lighter skinned ones), were thought to be a good replacement group who could be brought over fairly cheaply. A business writer of the times put it pretty bluntly "the population is not ignorant or indolent or degraded," and it was more than ready to be exploited in another island on the other side of the U.S. that would not be that much different from their own home land (Whalen, 2002:5). Though it was often presented in promising and glorified terms, the fact is that many of the men went without their families and found the work and the experience challenging at best. This was why the phrase "trabajo y tristeza" became common; the work was difficult, the culture sorrowful.

Their pay was pretty much as expected, around $15 per month for men. It would be later that this base pay would be supplemented with bonuses, but only in exchange for long and hard work hours. Other promises of good living quality, health care, fuel and water didn't always live up to the expected standards. More importantly, however, the management practices were alien to them and they could not understand the language of the many others with whom they worked. Stories about cultural conflicts prevailed. Apparently Japanese men, for example, were not concerned with walking naked to their baths, something that offended the religious and moral standards of the Puerto Ricans who have much different cleanliness habits. Ultimately, these types of disputes would lead to the creation of stereotypes about Puerto Ricans being "dirty" and uncivilized (Camacha Souza, 1984: 166-169). By about 1910, the largest contingent of U.S. Puerto Ricans lived in Hawaii. This number was down from the original immigrant influx because many of the men were already leaving their work and seeking other ways to marry or set up families that would help disassociate them from the prejudices again Puerto Ricans. These practices would eventually make it very difficult to determine the actual influence of this migratory event because it was the beginning of a pattern of this group being more interested in sharing their ethnic mixes than in claiming allegiance to just their Puerto Rican ancestry. This can still be seen as very different today from some of the practices of their countrymen and women in other places like New York where their Hispanic ancestry is more often seen as a badge of pride.


Like their Puerto Rican Hispanic brothers and sisters, the Portuguese who traveled to and settled in to the Hawaiian Islands did so because of the push and the pull of their homeland. Only in this case, the migration occurred earlier (starting in about 1878) and was thought to be more the result of quite positive desires to move as well as favorable experiences once they arrived. Several key events showcased this and draw contrast to the Puerto Rican experience.

First is the fact that the Hawaiians had a historical appreciation for the Portuguese. Folklore often allowed that it could have been early Portuguese travellers who found the Hawaiian Islands before British explorer James Cook was given credit for it in 1778. But whether this was true or not, there is little doubt about the fact that the Portuguese brought many of the celebrations and joyous practices with them. They introduced the small guitars that would become the Ukulele that is now seen as being a unifying force across many Polynesian cultures. For this, the Hawaiian people remain thankful to their Portuguese friendships.

Just as importantly, however, were two other factors. The earliest of Portuguese settlements of immigrants occurred significantly before the wider immigration activities got a foothold, bringing more tensions and blame. The ways that Puerto Ricans were looked down up is a perfect example of this when many different cultures clashed at the same time and there was completion for assimilation and success. On the other hand, the Portuguese were not thought of as going to the Hawaiian Islands just out of desperate need. Instead, my successful farmers and ranchers and even retail merchants convinced the political leadership that bringing in more Portuguese would be good for all interests. And given the good standing of these individuals, few truly looked down on the Portuguese before they had a chance to get established. One commentator said it this way, "The government have also been successful in procuring an immigration of men, women and children from Madeira, who were immediately taken up. These people promising to be a valuable laboring class, measures were immediately to procure an ample supply, and defeat, if possible, the pernicious effect of continued Chinese immigration (McDermott, 1980:101)."

This acceptance into the new culture was not all that brought about the influx. The country of Portugal was suffering badly and had been for some time and it was becoming imperative for some to look elsewhere for work. In about 1821, the Portuguese nation's monarch was replaced with a constitutional authority that corresponded to economic development underway in Europe. Portugal failed, however, to keep up with advances in other country, leaving the country as its people short on transportation, production, and many other infrastructure supports for business. This was a powerful motivation for the immigrants to succeed and it played well with the recommendations of the existing merchants of similar ancestry who did their people well.

It is very surprising in a way to compare the promises for pay and other benefits that were…[continue]

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