Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Friday, August 20, 1999

Aloha spirit thrives
in New Mexico

WHENEVER New Mexico resident Cindi Molina Heffner goes out in public in Albuquerque, she is on the prowl for the telltale clues: rubba slippas, Hawaiian-style T-shirts, the flash of the shaka sign, the lapse into pidgin English. Once she even chased down the driver of a vehicle with the vanity plate "RAELANI" to snag her prey.

Brain Drain Sometimes the people she seeks out actually spot her first, recognizing the way Heffner adorns her long brown hair with fresh flowers, or the distinctive Kamehameha Warriors bumper sticker and license bracket decorating her car.

After these strangers' eyes meet, however, they aren't strangers for long. "Ay, you from Hawaii?" they'll ask simultaneously.

Yeah, brah. For sure, aunty.

It's like a human treasure hunt for Heffner, a 1968 Farrington graduate who has established roots in New Mexico along with an estimated 2,000 or so former Hawaii residents. "We're here and we miss home," she says on behalf of her extended family of transplants and her immediate ohana of hubby, Les, who works for GTE, and their two sons, who both attended Kamehameha.

Adds 1987 Baldwin High grad and Wells Fargo employment recruiter Craig Nakagawa, "Cindi is always looking for lost Hawaiians. When we get together for hula practice, backyard jam sessions or just to talk story, we feel like Hawaii refugees."

Displaced islanders in New Mexico -- many of whom work at one of two military bases or at an Intel manufacturing plant -- are deprived, all right. They crave the local grinds, hula, Hawaiian music, fragrant blossoms and, most of all, the intangible but undeniable reality of the aloha spirit.

So what happens when you miss Hawaii and its people, but you're in the middle of Albuquerque, N.M.? Why, you throw a big potluck luau, which is exactly what Heffner and friends (the Harrells, the McKinneys, the Kualapais and Tsinnaginnes) did last September.

They secured the cafeteria at Susie Rayos Marmon Elementary, sent out news of the soiree over the coconut wireless, and waited for the 100 or so attendees to arrive.

Incredibly, twice as many showed up, lugging containers brimming with lau lau, chicken long rice, manapua, adobo, sashimi, sushi and other island delicacies. It was standing-room-only, with the crowd spilling into the parking lot.

THIS year's New Mexico Ohana Luau, set for Sept. 18 at John Adams Middle School, will be an even bigger production. An estimated 300-400 former Hawaii residents are expected to reunite for plenty of ono food, Cazimero-esque melodies and shameless reminiscing.

"I'm stressing out, because I want everything to run smoothly," says Heffner. "I hope everyone still connected to Hawaii will be able to get together, to do the things we used to and remember where we came from."

Especially excited about the extravaganza is Nakagawa, who will strum ukulele and dance as part of the evening's entertainment, even though he hasn't performed hula since his May Day program in the fifth grade.

Ah, like the aloha spirit, you never lose it -- even when you move on. Says Nakagawa, "Even given its many problems like the economy and public schools, being away from Hawaii reminds us how much we failed to appreciate what we had, until we didn't have it anymore."

Till Sept. 18, that is. And then, hana hou!

Expatriates' Corner

Are you from Hawaii, but living somewhere else? Email us at to tell us your views on why you moved away, what might lead you to return and what Hawaii can do to retain its 'best and brightest.'
We'll present a digest of your responses in a later edition.

Bullet Expatriates' Corner

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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