Nearly 1 in 10 Hawaii residents identifies as Hispanic, an increase of 38 percent from the last decade, and some observers expect the group to attract more attention this year as political campaigns heat up.
"In my opinion, 2012 will be the year of the Latino in Hawaii," said Jose Villa, publisher of Hawaii Hispanic News, who is urging Hispanics to run for office.
"The political campaigns have already started, and several races are going to be very, very close. Now that the Latino community is 9 percent of the population, elected officials and candidates can no longer ignore it. There's this huge community that's building."
Most Hispanics in Hawaii -- 89 percent -- were born in the United States and are scattered throughout the islands, census data show, so they might go unnoticed. Often, they came to Hawaii for work and chose to settle for the long term, in part because the local culture reflects their heritage with its personal warmth, emphasis on extended family and respect for elders, Villa said.
They tend to fit easily into Hawaii's multi-ethnic fabric.
"In a lot of mainland cities, you have these different neighborhoods -- the Puerto Ricans over here, the Dominicans over here, the Mexicans over there," said Villa, director of Latin Business Hawaii. "Here in Hawaii we don't have any of those barrios. Everyone lives where they can afford to live. So what happens here is that we can approach everything on a pan-Hispanic basis."
Hawaii's Hispanic heritage dates back a long way. A Spanish adventurer is credited with planting the first pineapple in the islands in 1813, and two decades later Mexican cowboys were brought in to round up wild cattle, launching the tradition of Hawaiian paniolo and their guitars. Puerto Ricans began migrating here in the 1900s to work on sugar plantations, and their music and delicacies, such as pasteles, are staples of local life.
Still, the recent growth in the Latino community is notable. Statewide, 120,841 people identified themselves as Hispanic on the 2010 census, up from 87,693 in 2000, when they made up 7 percent of Hawaii residents. Maui has the fastest-growing Hispanic population, up 58 percent from the previous decade, to 14,960. The increase was similar on the island of Hawaii, which counted 21,383 Hispanic residents, a 52 percent jump in 10 years. The overall state population grew 12 percent over that decade.
One of Hawaii's new Hispanic immigrants, Erika Alexander, moved to Honolulu six years ago from San Antonio for her job. "Now I will never leave," she said with a smile as she filled her basket with ingredients for enchiladas at Mercado de la Raza, the Latin American market. Even with an increase in the local census of Latinos, there are far fewer here than on the mainland.
"I grew up in Texas, where there's Hispanics everywhere you turn," Alexander said. "I hardly run into any Hispanics in Hawaii. I'm the token Mexican that cooks the food for my friends."
The shop's proprietor, Martha Sanchez Romero, believes the census data overstate the Hispanic population in Hawaii.
"Something I've noticed is that it's fashionable to be Hispanic," said Sanchez Romero, adding that her son is half Korean and half Mexican and identifies as Mexican. Her store, a fixture on Beretania Street for decades, saw an influx of Mexicans in recent years, she said, but that has dropped over the last year. "A lot of my Mexican customers have gone," she said. "They left because there was no construction."
Hawaii's Hispanics hail originally from the Iberian Peninsula and a variety of countries in Latin America, from the Caribbean all the way south to Chile. The two largest groups are of Puerto Rican descent (36 percent) and Mexican descent (29 percent), while most of the rest simply checked the box "other Hispanic" in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
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