The past two decades or so in Hawaii have seen astronomical Latino population growth. There’s no one reason why the islands have been drawing in this influx of immigrants from the continental Americas, but looking back, it’s clear that the multiethnic state is no stranger to shifts in culture and demographics.
Latinos first began immigrating to Hawaii to work as skilled farm laborers in the 1800s, with a significant influx of Puerto Ricans moving to the islands in the early 20th century to work on sugar plantations. When the last sugar plantation in the state closed down in 2016, it marked the end of an agricultural era that was instrumental in creating a multiracial Hawaiian population: Nearly a quarter of the state’s residents today identify as being multiracial.
This, no doubt, has fostered an immigrant-friendly vibe on the island, priming it for the recent wave of Latinos in the state. The number of residents who identify as Hispanic or Latino has nearly doubled over just the past eight years, according to Census Bureau data; today, about one in every ten of its residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin. This trend is only going to continue: By 2023, experts project that the Latino makeup on the Hawaiian Islands will be more like one in every eight people.
“In Hawaii, we recognize that our diversity defines rather than divides us,” said former Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie in response to a report from earlier this decade that traced the growth of the Mexican and Mexican-American population in Hawaii; they have experienced a 165 percent growth since 1990. Compared to their peers in the contiguous U.S., they have a comparatively higher employment rate and are less likely to be impoverished. Residents of Mexican origin are also less likely to be living in the state as undocumented immigrants. That being said, there was still a clear disparity between the Mexican/Mexican-American community and the wellbeing of other demographic groups on the island; the authors of the report concluded that Mexicans — especially Mexican immigrants — tended to “occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.”
Unemployment is a key issue for the community. According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, relative to statewide unemployment in Hawaii, the rate of unemployment was significantly higher for residents of Latino or Hispanic origin. They also only own a very small proportion of small businesses in the state — about 3.6 percent. Affordable housing is another major challenge: Over half of the Latino population lives on Oahu, where the median price of a single-family home is $770,000.
Still, Latinos are working to carve out their own niche, channeling their cultural heritage into success stories. Honolulu Magazine highlighted some of Oahu’s best-hidden restaurants in 2018, including Mami’s Empanadas, run by Colombian chef Alex Arango. Arango has two locations — a café as well as a truck. He told the magazine, “The Latinos, they all come to me because this is the only taste of home.” His clientele isn’t just Latinos, though; his menu features Pan-American cuisine that draws a diverse crowd. Gabriel Taveres, Boricua owner of El Chamo, also was inspired to open a restaurant because he and business partner — his Venezuelan wife is the chef — couldn’t find a spot that would satiate their craving for home cooking. “[Kind of] out of our own need to eat something from back home, we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this?’ not only for us, but the people of Hawai‘i.”