It was during the research for his dissertation and first book that Rudy Guevarra Jr. noticed something — he was hearing more and more people speaking Spanish while traveling in the Hawaiian Islands. His research came out of his own experience growing up both Mexican and Filipino in San Diego, leading him to and from Hawaii to trace a history of migration and mixing of cultures between Latinos and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“Though increasing with new migrations, the Latinx population is not new to the Hawaiian Islands. On the contrary, Latinxs have been voyaging to the Hawaiian archipelago for 190 years, yet their presence has been rendered invisible by the tourist industry and within the larger local population,” he says in an excerpt from the first chapter of his most recent book, “Aloha Compadre: Latinxs in Hawaii,” which he will discuss in a special presentation at 6 p.m. Friday at Miramar College, as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Guevarra Jr. grew up in various parts of San Diego — including National City, Spring Valley, Chula Vista, and Paradise Hills — and is currently a professor of Asian Pacific American studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. A historian and storyteller, he looks at relational ethnic studies focused on Chicano/Latino, Asian American/Pacific Islander, and other groups to learn about how these populations function in relationship to each other. He took some time to talk about “Aloha Compadre,” what his research revealed about the history of Latinx migration to the Hawaiian Islands, and the creation and evolution of a Pacific Latinidad. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )
Q:On Friday, you’ll be at Miramar College to discuss “Aloha Compadre.” In 2011, in your work as a professor at Arizona State University, you led a project called “Aloha Compadre: Transpacific Latino/a Migrations to the Hawaiian Islands.” What first prompted you to explore this topic of the Latinx community in Hawaii?
A:This project came out of the research I was doing when I was writing my dissertation, which became my first book, “Becoming Mexipino.” Part of that work took me back and forth to Hawaii and spending summers out there to do research, to look at the migration and the labor connections between Filipinos and Mexicans in Hawaii and California. While I was there doing this research, I noticed that I kept hearing more and more Spanish spoken around me, in everyday interactions and wherever I was going on the island. Then, I started seeing more Latinx folks of various ethnic communities. I mention this in the book that, oftentimes, when we see each other, we would give each other the nod, recognizing each other. Then, I would spark up just a casual conversation with them and just hear about their stories and why they were there, what was going on. I spoke with migrant farmworkers, students — a diverse group of people that I encountered. For me, I had not seen anything done on this topic, so even while I was still writing my dissertation, I already knew what the next book was going to be, so I just started gathering sources over the years that I kept going back and forth, basically living partially in Hawaii, for the last 23 years or so. A lot of my work has been Hawaii-centered, but its connection with California, too. It’s sort of this extension of this larger story of talking about the interactions between the Latinx communities and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the relationships, the complexity of those relationships, and how these communities are connected through these wide-ranging locations from each other. That was always fascinating, and I think this book, “Aloha Compadre,” is the extension of this larger work on Oceania and the Pacific Rim.
Q:”Becoming Mexipino: Multiethnic Identities and Communities in San Diego,” is your 2012 book inspired by your own experience growing up in San Diego as both Mexican and Filipino, and tracing the history that informs this identity and the Mexican and Filipino communities in San Diego and elsewhere. Is that fair to say?
A:Yeah, and I would probably add in the Mexipino community, too. There’s this experience within the larger experience. For me, being that I’m of that identity, that self-identified term of Mexipino, I grew up with a family history and the family stories. In the communities I grew up with, all the other Mexican and Filipino communities that live in overlapping areas, it’s sort of like I always saw we were never really separated. We often lived in overlapping communities, so I was within my family within the communities; I was exposed to both cultures. I also had another layer to that identity, which was being mixed and a product of these two, and self-identifying as a particular term — Mexipino — because it tells that here’s what this blending is and what this experience looks like. My experience is not the sum total of what the Mexipino experience is, but it’s just one of many experiences. In my family, there are now five generations of Mexicans and Filipinos intermarrying and that was one thing, too; realizing, when I did that book, how long the history went back. My family was not the only family that had that many generations; there were many people that I interviewed in San Diego that went back as many generations, if not further. It was this constant of always intermarrying and always being a part of these communities, so I always found it fascinating because to be in the Filipino community, it was never all Filipino. Neither was the Chicano community all Chicano because we were always mixed in these multiracial spaces. For me, that was also telling of the larger experience because it wasn’t just Mexicans and Filipinos, or Chicanos where I grew up, it was also Chamorro, Native Hawaiian, locals from Hawaii, Samoan, Tongan, Southeast Asians, Black. It was a very mixed community, very diverse. I grew up in those spaces, seeing the interactions of all of these different groups coming together in these spaces, so that really made an impression on me early on and influences why I do what I do and the stories that I choose to tell.
Q:How did what you learned in that process, inform your approach to “Aloha Compadre”?
A:I think it was this idea that our identities as ethnic or racialized ethnic groups, I’ve experienced that we’ve never been isolated from each other. We’ve always lived in the same communities, in some fashion, so there was always intermixing in some ways — whether it was through who you chose to date and marry, or who your friend group was, the food you ate — it was always this mixture. That mixture would, oftentimes, result in mixed race folks of these various combinations, so I saw that in San Diego. Then, when I was in Hawaii and looked at learning about the Latinx populations there and seeing the long-standing mixing that was also occurring there with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other groups, it really just validated that these experiences are not unique to one area. It’s unique to the spaces that inhabit all these different groups that can come together. I’m not saying it’s always perfect because it’s not. There are also tensions and conflict at times; but for me, I saw it as these were very multiracial spaces where people came together, learned to get along on various levels, and they often ended up intermarrying and having mixed-race children. There’s that component to it, and then there is seeing that, within the Latinx population, their migration was extending. They weren’t just within the western hemisphere, they weren’t just in the borderlands on the West Coast. They extended all the way out into the Pacific Ocean, or Oceania. The work that I did in Hawaii showed that the Latinx communities have migrated far beyond the borderlands of the western hemisphere and now you’re looking at borderlands over the ocean, or these seafaring regions, that you have to think about the waters and other borderland space that Latinos are migrating to. It’s even farther than Hawaii because my work has also taken me to Aotearoa (New Zealand), and even Australia where you have Latinx communities out there. Their migrations, or the diaspora, are way farther than what I had ever thought of before and it really compels me to think about how do we define borderlands with that in mind?
Q:Can you help us understand some of the historical factors that have contributed to the Latinx population in Hawaii?
A:My first introduction to this, outside of my experiences with talking to people, was my hānai uncle out in Hawaii [hānai is a traditionally Native Hawaiian form of adoption]. One of the first times I was out there, he took me on a drive and he was telling me about the history of these particular regions, places. Then, he brings up this term, “Hawaiian paniolo,” and I was really intrigued by that. He was saying that the Hawaiian paniolo is basically the cowboy, cattle culture of Hawaii that was influenced by Mexican vaqueros who came to the Hawaiian Islands. That really blew my mind because I’m thinking, ‘Wow, contrary to what other people think, the Latinx populations or migrants that are coming to Hawaii is not a new phenomenon.’ So, my work revealed that the Latinx population had been coming out to Hawaii for over 190 years. It started with Indigenous peoples from California and Mexicans of indigenous descent from California. So, these vaqueros were the first ones that were invited by the King Kamehameha III to come out and deal with the cattle problem on the Hawaiian Islands and that invitation led to sharing their culture with Native Hawaiians, tutoring them how to be vaqueros. It creates this whole culture of Hawaiian paniolo culture that still exists today in Hawaii. It’s very prominent throughout the Hawaiian Islands and it has its genealogical ties to the first Indigenous and Mexican vaqueros that came out to Hawaii at the time.
These are the ties between California and Hawaii, and the sort of migration that I thought was fascinating. Then, you have Puerto Ricans coming for sugarcane, you have Mexican and Central Americans coming to work the pineapple plantations on Maui, predominantly. Then, you have Mexicans and Central Americans working in Kona coffee and macadamia nuts on Hawaii Island, so there’ve been successive waves of these migrants coming, but at the same time, you have the ones who have been there for generations continuing to intermix with the local and Native Hawaiian populations so that they’re being a part of this larger, local mixture that’s going on in Hawaii.
Q:In an excerpt from the first chapter of the book, you mention this being a full-length study of Latinx folks in Hawaii, including navigating borders, along with acceptance and marginalization. Can you talk about what the people you interviewed shared with you about building their communities in this diaspora, in what’s referred to as a “Pacific Latinidad”? What does this mean and what does this community look like in a Pacific Island context?
A:For a lot of the folks that I interviewed, regardless of when they came, or even if they were there for generations and they talk about their family history, when they came it was often to work, to seek better opportunities, to provide for their families, much of which other migrants do when they come to new countries and areas. For many of them, coming from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean or from the coastal regions of Latin America, or from California or Mexico, a lot of them found the climate to be very similar to home. They had relatively good interactions and they were really welcomed by the native Hawaiians and locals that were there from previous generations.
For many of these folks that came, they wanted to acculturate and be part of the larger Native Hawaiian culture, but also the larger local culture that had developed on the island. They wanted to be a part of their new home and their adopted home. That’s what you’re getting, is seeing a lot of the mixing occurring. Even for ethnic Latinx groups, they maintain their sense of their specific ethnic identity, but they also adopted the larger Native Hawaiian local culture so that, for their children growing up and being raised, they became even more of what I call localized Latinos. They’ve adopted the culture so that they’re able to speak both Spanish and Hawaiian-pidgin English, and the mixtures of the food, and just the things they share with each other. It’s been a lot of those interactions and that is what has informed what I’m calling that Pacific Latinidad is that you’re having generations and layers of Latinx folks coming in and being a part of Hawaii in larger society. In mixing and being part of what is developing for them within their own communities, it’s situated and it’s influenced by being in a Pacific Island context, so it’s very different from being on the continental U.S. because there’s also the influence of Native Hawaiian culture and cultural values that they’ve adopted that are very similar to Latino values. It’s really easy to have that sort of acculturation into Hawaii in many ways.
There were tensions at first because, of course, there are moments when they would come and if you’re not understanding who these new migrants are, it’s going to be tension until you get to know them. Then, those tensions are replaced by welcoming and aloha. What I noticed and what people have told me that I’ve interviewed, is that the growing racism — particularly starting in the 1990s, but more intensely in the early 2000s — was a lot of White transplants from the continental United States would come and bring their racism and their xenophobia and their fear of immigrants with them to Hawaii. They would basically influence locals with these racist ideologies, so then you have this sort of backlash, in some ways. There was one instance where a Honolulu city councilman referred to Mexicans as [racial slur] in a council meeting. These things are bleeding over, so this White racism and White xenophobia has spilled over to Hawaii and that created tensions and conflict in various moments. It wasn’t always welcoming, but the takeaway I got was that, for many of them, there was aloha, there was acceptance, there was welcoming, and particularly from the kingdom period on. There’s also this understanding of having to be mindful of — for locals in Hawaii (predominantly Asian American, but also other Latinos, and those who were born and raised in Hawaii) and particularly for Native Hawaiians—this idea of settler colonialism and all these immigrant groups coming in and displacing them, and them having to leave because they can’t afford to live in Hawaii anymore. I sort of encouraged, when I’ve had conversations, being mindful of what Native Hawaiians have to say about it because this is their land. Yes, they welcomed, particularly the Mexican vaqueros, at first. They were very welcoming during the kingdom period and they’ve always been welcoming and having aloha, but also be mindful that they’re going through their struggles for sovereignty and recognition and to be able to live on their own homelands. You have to, in many ways, be allied to these causes and support their struggles in these social movements, rather than just be another immigrant group to come and take land, or to raise the value of the land so that folks have to move.
There’s that layer, but overall, many folks that I’ve talked to have been very involved in working together with Native Hawaiians and locals and bringing this understanding and support, and doing what they can to show that they want to be a part of the larger Hawaii society. Yeah, there’s tension, conflict, and there’s certain elements of racism that come over from the continental U.S., but I think it’s complex because there’s also the welcoming and aloha and acceptance. Folks wanted to be a part of Hawaii, they wanted to belong. They, more often than not, felt aloha and acceptance, so that was sort of why I titled the book in the way that I did.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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