in Hawaii begin
The event, which will run through 2000, will emphasize the depth of their cultureBy Susan Kreifels
In 1917, Puerto Ricans in Hawaii were "people without a country," says local historian Norma Carr. That was the year Congress made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens -- but the territory didn't recognize that citizenship for plantation workers here.
Manuel Olivieri Sanchez, a court interpreter at the time, led a legal battle for that recognition, and the territory's high court granted it. Carr, a Puerto Rican who moved here 41 years ago from New York, calls that a "landmark decision."
"They decided this was home," Carr said. "They became the Puerto Ricans of Hawaii."
The Puerto Rican community in Hawaii, which totals about 25,000, kicks off centennial celebrations today that will continue through next year. The first wave of Puerto Rican plantation workers arrived on Dec. 23, 1900. By Oct. 17, 1901, 5,000 men, women and children had made new homes on four islands.
Community leaders hope centennial events will bring more recognition to their history and culture -- beyond lively music, spicy pastele meat wrappers and legendary baseball stars -- and to the needs of Puerto Ricans here.
Faith Evans, a former state legislator and the first woman in the nation to serve as a U.S. marshal, said Puerto Ricans are "not a very well understood ethnic group. For a long time we didn't get the respect we should have.
"Many of us have worked hard in the community to change the image," said Evans, a locally born Puerto Rican who heads the Puerto Rican Centennial Commission. "We are there to show the younger generation what can be done."
Immigration to Hawaii began after a huge hurricane on Puerto Rico in 1899 killed more than 3,000 people and destroyed crops and the economy, said historian Blase Camacho Souza, a Puerto Rican born on the Big Island. Hawaii's plantation owners needed labor and Puerto Ricans needed jobs.
The immigrants' first decade in Hawaii was rough, Carr said. The court's recognition of their citizenship in 1917 opened opportunities for them beyond sugar cane fields to government jobs.
Carr, who interviewed hundreds of Puerto Ricans for her doctoral research at the University of Hawaii, said a second wave of 686 immigrants arrived in 1921 via the Panama Canal. That year marked the first recorded efforts to organize Puerto Rican organizations.
By 1924, Hilda Ortiz of the Big Island became the first Puerto Rican teacher in Hawaii, an accomplishment that normally took immigrants three generations, Carr said.
Puerto Ricans also "lightened the load" for other plantation workers who were taken with their lively music.
"They worked hard and played hard. It recreates your energy physically and spiritually."
Music remains a strong Puerto Rican tradition here today. "We have made a difference," said Nancy Ortiz, executive director of the Hispanic Center of Hawaii, an organizer of centennial events, and host of Alma Latina, a radio show of Latin American music.
State Rep. Alex Santiago, whose ancestors arrived with the first wave, said Puerto Ricans are becoming better organized and more responsive to community needs. That, he said, follows the growing political clout of Hispanics on the mainland. About 100,000 residents in Hawaii identify themselves as Hispanic, close to 10 percent of the population.
"We're talking about 100 years of Puerto Ricans in Hawaii and all that brings with it," Santiago said. "Art, contributions, family, celebration."