Hispanic radio disc jockey Nancy Ortiz sits in the control booth while hosting her weekly radio show, Alma Latina, in Honolulu.
Growing number of Hispanics drawn to isles
That population rose 25 percent in 14 years, Census data show
Cesar Gaxiola was looking for work. Martha Sanchez just wanted to visit paradise.
Despite leaving Mexico years ago for different reasons, both Gaxiola, the manager of a nonprofit on Maui, and Sanchez, who owns a market on Oahu, made Hawaii their home.
They are among a growing number of Hispanics who, lured by Hawaii's warm climate, diverse population and, most of all, jobs, are beginning new lives in the islands.
Between 1990 and 2004, Hawaii's Hispanic population surged from just over 80,000 to nearly 100,000, a 25 percent spike, according to the Census Bureau. Observers say as more Hispanics arrive here, government services and local businesses will need to adjust to serve a greater number of Spanish-speakers.
Gaxiola was a 21-year-old farmworker when he immigrated to Hawaii in the 1980s. He now helps as many as 1,300 immigrants on Maui each year through Enlace Hispano, or Hispanic Link. People visit his office to find out how to use public transportation, enroll kids in school, file taxes and take advantage of work benefits.
"The employer might sit down with them and they might say, 'Yes, yes, yes,' but understand very little," said the 40-year-old Gaxiola, whose organization is paid $110,000 annually by the county for its services. "We definitely need something much larger to be able to provide services to everybody."
Sanchez never intended on staying when vacationing here 30 years ago, but she met her future husband on her first day. The couple eventually split, and in 1994, Sanchez opened Mercado de la Raza, or People's Market.
"I needed a job to sustain my kids," said Sanchez, a 53-year-old mother of two who sells products from Mexico, Argentina and every country in between.
While Hawaii may sound like an unlikely destination for Hispanics, many say it's only a matter of time before America's fastest-growing minority group builds a significant presence in all 50 states.
Hawaii's record-low unemployment rate of 2.4 percent makes the state even more attractive to those seeking a better life abroad, said Austin Dias, a Spanish professor at the University of Hawaii.
"They are used to the tropical climate, and maybe the racial diversity in Hawaii appeals to them as well," he said. "They are here to take those minimum-wage jobs that Americans don't like to take anymore."
The state's abundance of work in the construction and service industries, especially on Maui, has been a magnet for Hispanics, some of whom hold three jobs to send relatives money, said Molli Fleming, who teaches Spanish at Maui Community College and tutors immigrants in English.
"When we talk about, 'What did you do this weekend?' it is never 'I went to the movies, I went to the beach,'" she said. "Hardly anybody I talk with from the Hispanic community gets to enjoy the islands. They are running around, working, working, working."
Some also start businesses. While the numbers of Hispanic-owned firms decreased by 25 percent between 1997 and 2002 -- from 4,153 to 3,095 -- statistics suggest that the businesses expanded and merged, said Eugene Tian, a state researcher and statistician.
As a result, Hispanic-owned companies hired twice as many people and doubled sales during the five-year period, Tian said. Most companies are in construction, administrative services and retail.
In 2001, the state's dominant tourism industry began monitoring what is called the developing Latin American market, which includes visitors from Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, said state tourism liaison Marsha Wienert.
Visitor arrivals from those three countries reached 14,576 last year, a 5.9 percent increase over 2004.
"It's a small number, but it's growing," Wienert said. "As more people migrate here to become residents, the word gets out in regards to what a beautiful destination this is."
Nancy Ortiz remembers becoming Hawaii's first Hispanic disc jockey 30 years ago. Today there are seven Hispanic radio shows, two of them broadcasting strictly in Spanish. Salsathon, a Hispanic festival celebrating its sixth year in June, is expected to draw 16,000 people, double last year's crowd, Ortiz said.
Puerto Ricans were the first Hispanic group to set foot in Hawaii, arriving along with Filipinos and others a century ago to work in coffee and pineapple fields, said Faith Evans, a former state legislator and leader in the Puerto Rican community.
In the 1960s, Evans said she began noticing a new wave of immigrants from Mexico and other Central and South American countries.
"The numbers of Hispanics in the United States is increasing overall, so it would stand to reason that Hawaii would get its share," she said.
And Hawaii is also getting its portion of illegal immigrants, who board planes after crossing the Mexican or Canadian borders, according to immigration officials.
"I don't have an infinite number of agents to address the unlawful population," said Wayne Wills, special agent in charge with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "So the ones that would come up, priority-wise, would be the ones that pose the greater threats to our community."
Gaxiola likes to think that there aren't many that fit that description. He says Hispanics immigrants are making a great contribution to the state.
"They are giving back, because they employ everybody, they pay taxes," he said. "It's amazing what they have done."