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Hispanics Are The Fastest Growing Demographic In Hawaii. They Need More Services To Keep Pace

When Sandra Tsukiyama started working as a Spanish interpreter 30 years ago, she got calls for work about once a week.

Now, she often does Spanish interpretation multiple times a day. 

“I work almost every day,” she said. “Even though I didn’t have any in-person appointments today, I still got called by the agency to talk to somebody at Kapiolani hospital.”

Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in the state, making up more than 11% of the population at 159,861. About 21% speak Spanish as their primary language, and nearly 5% speak English “less than very well,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 American Community Survey.

Advocates say more Spanish interpreters and translators, as well as services targeted toward the Hispanic community, are needed for residents and visitors from Latin American countries, whose numbers are also on the rise.

Mercado de la Raza, Oahu’s only Latin food market, was preparing for Mexican Independence Day on Friday. The owners say the store serves as a hub for the Latino community on the island. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Hispanics and Latinos are drawn to Hawaii for a variety of reasons. 

Many come to fill vacancies left by young people moving to the mainland, experts say. They are also drawn by military employment and opportunities in the service sector.

However, a significantly higher concentration of Hispanics in Hawaii work in professional careers when compared with the population on the mainland, said Ruben Juarez, a researcher with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and an economics professor.

That includes 38% working in management, business, science and art-related occupations in Hawaii, compared with 27% working in those fields in the U.S. as a whole, according to the census.

Drawn To Hawaii For Many Reasons

Alejandro Lezama, 43, moved to Oahu from Mexico in 2008 when the restaurant he was working for in Cancun, Señor Frogs, opened a new location in Waikiki. 

He decided to stay in Hawaii after his daughter was born and now works as an associate director of FLIK dining services, which provides catering to Kamehameha Schools. He works as a DJ on the side. 

Alejandro Lezama, who is originally from Mexico, said he loves Hawaii’s welcoming culture but would like to see a hub created for Hispanic and Latino residents. (Courtesy of Alejandro Lezama)

Besides his main complaint – a lack of good, authentic Mexican food –  he likes the welcoming attitude of people in Hawaii and the blending of many cultures.

“For me, the Hawaiian culture and local people is very similar to Mexican,” he said. “First, it’s about family, and when somebody invites you to their house, they open their arms.”

But for newcomers, it can be difficult to figure out where to go to find resources and get questions answered. Although it doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar location, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is a lifeline for many, he said.

The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also assists entrepreneurs, including through a program that helps Spanish speakers open checking accounts and do banking. For the first time this year, the chamber is hosting a Latino Business Expo on Oct. 7.

That’s a consequence of the fact that the number of Latino-owned businesses in the state has grown along with the population.

In 1992, Hawaii had 3,192 Hispanic-owned businesses, while that number was 7,200 in 2018, according to the Minority Business Development Agency.  

Despite the fact that the Hispanic community nearly doubled from 1990 to last year, community members say they still often feel overlooked.

Experts also note that Hispanics and Latinos are usually undercounted in the census, especially those who don’t speak English, because mistrust of government agencies prevents many from coming forward to be counted.

More Services Needed

Tsukiyama is one of about 90 Spanish interpreters registered with the Hawaii Judiciary, over half of whom are based on Oahu. She also works for Language Services Hawaii and Helping Hands Hawaii’s bilingual access line, mostly serving clients who need interpretation at medical appointments. 

She said more interpreters are needed, especially on neighbor islands. The highest concentration of Hispanics in the state is on the Big Island where 13.9% of the population is Hispanic.

Sandra Tsukiyama is a Spanish interpreter based in Oahu. She said more interpreters are needed, especially on neighbor islands. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“When I started with Helping Hands in 1993, it was maybe a couple times a week or every two weeks,” she said of the number of times she was called upon to do Spanish interpretation. “Now, it’s every day, and sometimes three to four times a day.”

Community organizations and individuals say they are stepping in to fill gaps when there’s a need for interpretation.

Megahn Chun, 39, and Alex Villarino, 42, who own Mercado de la Raza, Oahu’s only Latin food market on South Beretania Street in Honolulu, said around a third of their customers either don’t speak or aren’t comfortable speaking English. 

Villarino, who is originally from Mexico, said he and his wife often help Spanish-speaking business owners navigate the red tape.

“There’s a level of understanding of English that’s probably for work purposes, but thinking that that is actually being fluent in English is not necessarily true,” he said. “Once you need to get into, how do I buy a home? How do I start a business? How do I fight for my rights? That is something that is not there.” 

Nancy Ortiz, who has been hosting the state’s annual Hispanic Heritage Festival for 31 years, said it’s difficult to get corporate sponsors for the event. This year, the festival has only two corporate sponsors, Hunts Development and Dunhill Hawaii, along with a handful of companies providing in-kind donations.

For the first time, she said she has to charge an entrance fee of $10 to cover costs. 

“We’re not like New York or California where the Hispanics are double and triple by the numbers,” she said. “We’re small here so we have to work together.”

Growth In Tourism From Latin America

The number of Spanish-speaking tourists to the state is also growing.

While tourism numbers haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, the number of visitors from Latin American countries increased by 122% from 2021 to 2022, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Nearly half were from Mexico, and 66% of Latin American visitors were first-timers. 

Monica Ordaz, who is based in Chula Vista, California, and runs an independent travel agency, said she worked with a Mexican family who traveled to Oahu this year and doesn’t speak English. She scheduled tours for them and stayed in touch by phone to help with communication when needed, but she said Spanish-language resources, such as public signage and bilingual tour guides, are lacking. 

“I think that we’re missing that,” she said. “I think Spanish is an important language in the world, and we have to have more people or more tour guides available that can actually do the translations.” 

Alex Villarino said he and his wife, who run Mercado de la Raza, help other Spanish speaking business owners navigate the red tape in Hawaii. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Many people of Hispanic heritage say Hawaii’s welcoming atmosphere and aloha spirit feels similar to what they experience in Latin America. The emphasis on family, the ability to welcome people from other cultures easily and the desire to host social gatherings to celebrate important events all make people of Latin American descent feel at home, they say.

But community leaders say people providing services to the Hispanic community need to be aware of differences like language barriers and cultural sensitivities.

Dr. Lisa Sanchez-Johnsen, a clinical psychologist who owns Hawaii Hispanic Latino Health and Wellness, said more medical providers are needed who speak Spanish, understand Hispanic culture and can build trust in the community. For example, providers working with the Hispanic community might better understand that patients may feel strongly about having family members with them at medical appointments. 

“If you say, ‘Oh, only one person is allowed,’ you might unintentionally offend somebody,” she said. “You could make them not want to return for their clinical visits.” 

Community members also would like to see more public signage translated into Spanish, community announcements available in both languages and a physical hub where Hispanic residents and visitors can go if they need help. 

For now, Mercado de la Raza, which was decorated on Friday for Mexican Independence Day with colorful piñatas and red, white and green products emblematic of the Mexican flag, serves that purpose, Villarino said.

“A lot of what people say when they come here is, ‘Oh, I love hearing Spanish,’” he said. “They come here, they love that feeling of being amongst people who either understand their culture or speak their language.”

Source : CivilBeat