Puerto Rican immigration to Hawaii

Puerto Rican immigration to Hawaii
Image of both islands taken by NASA

Puerto Rico


Puerto Rican immigration to Hawaii began when Puerto Rico's sugar industry was devastated by two hurricanes in 1899. The devastation caused a world wide shortage in sugar and a huge demand for the product from Hawaii. Hawaiian sugar plantation owners began to recruit the jobless, but experienced, laborers in Puerto Rico.


  • Prelude 1
  • First immigrants 2
  • Discrimination by the "Big Five" 3
  • Struggle for U.S. citizenship 4
  • Struggle against discrimination 5
  • Puerto Rican influence 6
    • Food 6.1
    • Music 6.2
  • Puerto Ricans in Hawaii 7
  • The Puerto Rican "coquí" in Hawaii 8
  • Notable Hawaiian-Puerto Ricans 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12


Damage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane San Ciriaco.

In the 19th century Puerto Rico depended mainly on its agricultural economy. The island together with Cuba was the Spanish Crown's leading exporter of sugar, coffee, tobacco and cotton. When the island was ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War, as stipulated by the agreements of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, most of its industries were taken over by American industrialists. Cheap labor was provided by Puerto Ricans who depended on the nation's agriculture as their only source of income.[1]

On August 8, 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco, with winds of over 100 miles per hour, struck Puerto Rico and, on August 22, another hurricane followed. The floods caused by 28 days of continuous rain damaged the agricultural industry and left 3,400 dead and thousands of people without shelter, food or work.[2] As a result, there was a shortage of sugar from the caribbean in the world market and a huge demand for the product from Hawaii and other sugar producing countries. To meet the demand, plantation owners began a campaign to recruit the jobless laborers in Puerto Rico.[3]

First immigrants

Type of steamship that carried Puerto Ricans to Hawaii

On November 22, 1900, the first group of Puerto Ricans consisting of 56 men, began their long journey to Maui, Hawaii. The trip was long and unpleasant. They first set sail from San Juan harbor to New Orleans, Louisiana. Once in New Orleans, they were boarded on a railroad train and sent to Port Los Angeles, California. From there they set sail aboard the Rio de Janeiro to Hawaii.[4] According to the "Los Angeles Times" dated December 26, 1901, the Puerto Ricans were mistreated and starved by the shippers and the railroad company. They arrived in Honolulu, on December 23, 1900, and were sent to work in one of the different plantations owned by the "Big Five" on Hawaii's four islands.[5] By October 17, 1901, 5,000 Puerto Rican men, women and children had made their new homes on the four islands. Records show that, in 1902, 34 plantations had 1,773 Puerto Ricans on their payrolls; 1,734 worked as field hands and another 39 were clerks or overseers (foremen).

Discrimination by the "Big Five"

The "Big Five" was the name given to a group of sugarcane corporations that wielded considerable political power in the Territory of Hawai‘i and leaned heavily towards the Hawai‘i Republican Party. The Big Five was Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., Amfac and Theo H. Davies & Co..

The owners of the "Big Five" were Caucasians who would indulge in discrimination and bigotry against ethnic groups who worked the plantations. They had an association called the "Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association" (HSPA) whose power could be considered as equivalent to an oligarchy. The Attorney General of Hawai‘i, referring to the Big Five, said in 1903, "There is a government in this Territory which is centralized to an extent unknown in the United States, and probably almost as centralized as it was in France under Louis XIV."[6] Wages and living accommodations depended upon their job and race. Europeans were paid more and received better quarters. Most of the workers moved from plantation to plantation to work because they did not like the work they did and because of the racial discrimination.[7]

Struggle for U.S. citizenship

External audio
You may watch a short segment of the documentary "Puertorriqueños en Hawaii" (Puerto Ricans in Hawaii) here

According to the State of Hawaii Data Book 1982, by the year 1910, there were 4,890 Puerto Ricans living in Hawaii.[8] Both Puerto Rico and Hawaii were territories of the United States however, the passage of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, the same year that the United States entered World War I, granted American citizenship to the Puerto Rican resident in Puerto Rico and excluded those who resided in Hawaii. Yet, the "non-citizen" Puerto Ricans were assigned draft numbers and were expected to serve in the military.[9]

The Plantation owners, like those that comprised the "Big Five", found territorial status convenient, enabling them to continue importing cheap foreign labor; such immigration was prohibited in various other states of the Union.[10] In 1917, Puerto Ricans in the island, believing that they were entittled to the same rights that every other U.S. citizens had, tried to sign up to vote in a local Hawaiian election and were denied their rights by the county clerk who claimed that early immigrants to Hawaii were not covered by the Jones Act.[9]

Manuel Olivieri Sanchez, a court interpreter at the time, became enraged in what he viewed as a violation of the civil rights of his fellow countrymen. He encouraged his fellow Puerto Ricans to protest by telling them that "If you are not allowed to vote, don't answer the draft call".[9] Olivieri Sanchez led a legal battle for the recognition of the Hawaiian Puerto Ricans as citizens of the United States. In the first legal battle the lower court ruled in favor of the county clerk, however Olivieri Sanchez did not give up the fight and took the case before the Territorial Supreme Court, which reversed the decision of the lower court, granting the Puerto Ricans of Hawaii their United States citizenship.[11]

Struggle against discrimination

Olivieri Sanchez' victory was not welcomed by members of HSPA, who depended on the cheap labor non-citizens provided. In 1930, HSPA began to circulate false rumors, they made it be known that they (HSPA) were planning to recruit laborers in Puerto Rico, while at the same time they had the "Honolulu Star Bullentin" and some local newspapers they controlled run anti-Puerto Rican stories, that—for example—claimed Puerto Ricans were "unhealthy hookwormers who had bought disease to Hawaii".[9]

In Dec. 1931, Olivieri Sanchez wrote a letter to the editor of the "Hawaiian Advertiser" where he stated that he saw all of the rhetoric as a tactic by the HSPA to push all the different ethnic groups in the local labor force back to work on the plantations. He was right, the HSPA wanted to persuade Congress to exempt the territory from a law, which in 1924 was requested by California to prevent the migration of Filipinos and Japanese nationals to the U.S. (National Origins Quota Action (Immigration Act) and Johnson Immigration Act of 1924).[12] HSPA's secretary treasurer claimed that the association was unwilling to import Puerto Ricans to Hawaii. His defamation of Puerto Ricans condemned not only the Puerto Ricans of Hawaii, but also those on the island. Despite the efforts of Olivieri Sanchez, HSPA had their way and Hawaii was exempted from the stern anti-immigration laws of the time.[9]

The power of the plantation owners was finally broken by the activist descendants of the original immigrant laborers. Because they were born in a United States territory and they were legal American citizens, they gained full local voting rights and actively campaigned for statehood for the Hawaiian Islands.[13]

Puerto Rican influence

Currently, there are over 30,000 Puerto Ricans or Hawaiian-Puerto Ricans living in Hawaii. Puerto Rican culture and traditions are very strong there. One of the traditions that is still practiced is the "compadrazgo". When a person baptizes somebody's child, he or she becomes the "padrino" (godfather) of the child and the "compadre" or "comadre" of the child's parents. There is a relationship of respect, mutual affection and obligation between the child, parents and compadres. The children ask for a blessing "La Bendición" and the padrinos respond with a "Dios te bendiga" (God bless you).[4]


As in Puerto Rico, the Hawaiian-Puerto Ricans enjoy the preparation of the pasteles (meat pies) during the Christmas holidays. The confection of the pastel is an event where the whole family participates. Some of the members of the family cut the green bananas and season them while others prepare the masa (dough). The masa is then filled with seasoned pork and cilantro and then wrapped in banana or ti leafs and tied with a string. It is then cooked in boiling water. Once ready, the pastel is unwrapped and eaten.[4]


External audio
A "Thinline" Cumpiano Puerto Rican Cuatro.
You may listen to Hawaiian-Puerto Ricans playing the "Cuatro"

When the Puerto Ricans immigrated to Hawaii they took along with them their music and their musical instruments. Among the musical instruments introduced to Hawaii was the Puerto Rican cuatro. The Cuatro was a four stringed guitar developed in Puerto Rico in 1875; however, it eventually evolved into a ten stringed guitar. Other musical instruments introduced were the Maracas, a rattle containing dried seeds and the Guiro (percussion instrument made out of a gourd and played with a scraping stick). Soon, these instruments were not only limited to playing Spanish songs but, were also absorbed by the typical songs of Hawaii.[4]

In 1998, Master guitarmaker William R. Cumpiano and his colleagues wrote, directed and produced "Un Canto en Otra Montaña: Música Puertorriqueña en Hawaii" (A Song Heard in Another Mountain: Puerto Rican Music in Hawaii), a short-feature video documentary on the music and social history of the century-old Puerto Rican Diaspora in Hawaii.[14]

Puerto Ricans in Hawaii

The following table is in accordance to the U.S. Census 2000 Data for the State of Hawaii.[15]

Hawaii Puerto Rican Population
1990 2000
Total: 25,778 Total: 30,005
Percent of population: 2.3% Percent of population:2.5%
Hawaii Puerto Rican Population by County
Honolulu County 18,933
Hawaii County 6,243
Maui County 3,290
Kauai County 1,539
Total Puerto Rican Population 30,005

The Puerto Rican "coquí" in Hawaii

During the late 20th century, the "coquí", a thumbnail-sized tree frog endemic to Puerto Rico, became established in Hawaii, most likely as stowaways in shippings of potted plants. Its loud mating call, "music to the ears" of Puerto Ricans on their native highland, is considered an annoyance in Hawaii where this invasive species reaches much higher population densities. Unsuccessful efforts were made to exterminate the infestation.[16][17]

Notable Hawaiian-Puerto Ricans

Some of the Hawaiian-Puerto Ricans who have distinguished themselves are:[13]

  • Colón, Augie (1928-2004) - Percussionist with Martin Denny; originator of "jungle noises" in Exotica music.
  • Evans, Faith - A former state legislator and the first woman in the United States to serve as a U.S. Marshal.
  • Garcia-Alves, Felicia - In 2000, was recognized as one of the most outstanding women's basketball athletes in Hawaii, and in Puerto Rico.
  • Morales, Rodney – author of novel "When the Shark Bites (2002)" and the short story collection "Speed of Darkness (1988)".[18]
  • Olivieri Sanchez, Manuel - Led the battle for U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans living in Hawaii
  • Ortiz, Hilda - In 1924, became the first Puerto Rican teacher in Hawaii
  • Ortiz, Nancy - Host of "Alma Latina", a three hour Sunday radio show of Latin-American music.
  • Santiago, Alex - Former Hawaii State Representative

See also


  1. ^ Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History; by Sidney W. Mintz.; page:257; Publisher: Yale University Press; Place of Publication: no CT; Publication Year: 1960
  2. ^ Hurricane San Ciriaco
  3. ^ Hawaiian History
  4. ^ a b c d The Puerto Ricans
  5. ^ Los Angeles Times December 26, 1901
  6. ^ Star Bullentin
  7. ^ The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives
  8. ^ Puerto Ricans in Hawaii
  9. ^ a b c d e "Images and Identities", By Asela Rodríguez-Seda de Laguna, Pgs. 101 -102; Publisher: Transaction Publishers; ISBN 0-88738-617-2; ISBN 978-0-88738-617-6
  10. ^ Land and Power in Hawaii: The Democratic Years; by George Cooper, Gavan Daws; Published 1990; Publisher: University of Hawaii Press; ISBN 0-8248-1303-0
  11. ^ "The Puerto Rican Diaspora", By Carmen Teresa Whalen; Pg. 47; Publisher: Temple University Press (August 30, 2005); ISBN 1-59213-413-0; ISBN 978-1-59213-413-7
  12. ^ Jim Crow Guide: The Way it Was, by Stetson Kennedy 1959
  13. ^ a b Star Bullentin
  15. ^ U.S. Census 2000 Data for the State of Hawaii
  16. ^ http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9403EFDE1F38F936A15752C0A9639C8B63&scp=10&sq=coqui&st=cse
  17. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/01/us/hawaiians-lose-sleep-over-tiny-frog-with-big-voice.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
  18. ^ Star Bulletin "A novel journey" Personal tale represents the author’s 6-year quest

External links

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Puerto Ricans in Hawaii
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