Isle identity brings cultures together


POSTED: Sunday, August 16, 2009

Work in the pineapple fields was hot and grueling.

Del Monte worker Corazon Tacras, above, prepares to work in the Wahiawa pineapple fields.



Ask a 20-something or a teenager their thoughts about statehood, and most will be nonplused simply because through their lives, Hawaii has always been a part of America and they know no other way of the world.

Gaining statehood is the stuff of history books, much like the Depression and World War II are for baby boomers.

For older generations, however, statehood was an achievement of full rights and the responsibilities of citizenship.

For some native Hawaiians, statehood reinforced the injustice of the overthrow of their monarchy and the loss of sovereignty.

Regardless of perspectives about whether statehood has been a boon or bust, few would disagree that islanders hold a distinct identity, an attitude standing apart from those of people in other locales.

It lingers even as people move away. It lures expats to form Hawaii clubs in Oregon, Idaho and in the nation's capital and makes spontaneous friends of strangers when they discover they have island backgrounds.

It sparks amiability all over the country, says Steve Hirashima, who traveled as a marketing manager for the University of Hawaii Press. “;Anywhere I go from the West Coast to New York to Charlotte, North Carolina—you say you are from Hawaii and people light up. They treat you differently in a very good way, friendlier.”;

While that could be due, in part, to the “;paradise in the Pacific”; idea outsiders have about Hawaii, in conversations around lunch tables, in coffee shops and other gathering places, locals say over and again that they see themselves as more accepting and feel less of a need to express judgments or to offend.

Arnold Hiura, who was 8 and in elementary school on the Big Island when Hawaii became part of the United States, traces the strong sense of local identity to plantation days. It was then that a medley of separate cultures gave way to a recognition among people from Asia, the Pacific, Europe and Latin America that they were all in the same boat, that they had come to the islands looking for opportunities that had eluded them elsewhere.

“;Hardship is what they had in common,”; said Hiura, of MBFT Media, a media/marketing company. They had to live together in order to thrive, and rather than allow their differences to keep them apart, they embraced them.

No matter what country you left to arrive on island shores, the small population bought food and goods at the same stores, worked for the same employers, lived in the same neighborhoods, pulled akule from the same fishing spots.

People proud of their cultures were equally proud to share customs and traditions, and all seem to partake of that of native Hawaiians.

That, for independent filmmaker Stephanie Castillo, lays the foundation of what we call the “;aloha spirit,”; a term difficult to define, easily compromised for marketing a multitude of goods, including tourism. It is often ridiculed, especially when conflict or clashes among various races bring out what Castillo calls “;the dark side,”; an undercurrent of friction that can lead to estrangement.

But Castillo, a former Star-Bulletin reporter, believes that despite 50 years of population growth—from about 500,000 in 1959 to nearly 1.5 million today—islanders are strengthened by kindness.

“;People aren't just helpful; they want to be kind, they find ways to be kind,”; she said.

Hiura said that to achieve statehood, people felt through the war years that they had to prove they were worthy. They fought and died beside U.S. citizens, displayed their patriotism on their sleeves, planted victory gardens, collected scrap metal.

“;They acted like Americans,”; he said.

Just as the American character evolves, so, too, does island identity. Hiura noted the changes through the late 1970s and early '80s with the revival of Hawaiian culture and political awareness.

“;We interpreted the civil rights era our own way,”; he said.

As fusions go on, however, old ways can diminish. It is important, then, “;to keep sight of our core values,”; he said.

To do that, people need to aspire to be the best but still maintain humility, Hiura said, contradictory as it might seem.

Castillo views humility as a willingness to learn as communities change. “;That's how we get along,”; she said.