It seems rather strange that I did not have a true awareness of ethnic and cultural difference until I was seven or eight. I had noticed many of the houses in my neighborhood flying the colorful fish that marked “Boy’s Day”. One of my classmates had received one of those LCD handheld games that were so popular in the 80s, saying that his parents had given it to him for Boy’s Day. I did not know that presents were part of that whole deal, so when I got home I asked my parents if I could have something for Boy’s Day. My mother’s response was, “No, that’s only for Japanese people.” I realized then that there were things that set apart people just from who their families were. As for myself, there was little awareness of any racial or ethnic difference at all.

My surname is Portuguese, but my father’s side of the family did not do much in the way of celebration of that heritage. My aunt would joke about my sister being “Queen of the Holy Ghost Parade.”, but by that time, it seemed that the actual Holy Ghost Parade had passed into history. In fact, my paternal family seemed to be the last Portuguese living in the upper reaches of Kalihi Valley, their neighborhood now filled with Filipinos, speaking Tagalog and Illocano. The church “Our Lady of the Mountain”, so styled in what I would learn as an adult to be a traditional Madeiran church, which my great grandfather had laid stones for the stairs leading to the grotto of the virgin on the side of the valley walls, was now Portuguese only in it’s architecture and one elderly priest. We are still the only Portuguese family left in the valley; not counting the ones lying in the overgrown graves in a tiny yard stuck between two Manila McMansions, yet change is constant. The neighborhood now houses many Samoans, who have built their own churches and planted breadfruit where once vineyards were and then fighting chickens. I digress. If my upbringing was not Portuguese, it was still profoundly Catholic, though not of the shifting ethnic churches, but instead of the cosmopolitan bedroom community were all the descendants of the various plantation workers who had moved up into the middle classes now lived. And as atheist as I am, I cannot but look fondly on the religion I was raised in.

One of the things about Catholicism in Hawaii, is that it forced a blending of groups that was not practiced amongst the Protestant churches here. Most of the leadership was European in the early days, and often at odds with the descendants of the Calvinist missionaries who dominated the economic and cultural spheres of the island for over one hundred years. Whereas the plantation owners strove to keep the various groups in separate ethnic camps, and created a hierarchy of races in Hawaiian society in order to keep the labor divided and distrustful of each other, every Sunday there was one Latin Mass to which the Portuguese, the Puerto Ricans, the Filipinos, and the converts amongst the Hawaiians, Chinese and Japanese attended. The fathers themselves being not of the elite and celibate had no issue with intermarriage amongst their flock, even if the individual families were often against it, and thus both my paternal and maternal lines admixed long before I was born under the auspices of the Catholic Church, universal and holy.

Thus, the Catholic church and school which I went to as a young boy had no predominant ethnic group. Being all the offspring of better-off middle class families, whatever tension there was sublimated at first, and mostly appears solely in retrospect. Many were mixed like myself, biracial and triracial, with haoles (Caucasians) and Asians between. We knew there were differences. It’s impossible not to know, here in Hawaii, especially back in the days before political correctness. Ethnic humor based on stereotypes was the most popular form of comedy, as instanced by the routines of Frank DeLima, Rap Replinger, and the Bumatai Brothers. We would make jokes about each other, and if they got too nasty, the teachers would crack down, but still, as a youth, Frank DeLima would come around to schools to give a motivational talk interspersed with light-hearted ethnic humor. My sister who is in education says that the now elderly DeLima still does his tour of the schools, but much of the ethnic humor has been shorn from his routines. Even so, all the ethnic jokes did not engender a sense of difference that occurred that one time on Boy’s Day, nor perhaps the sense of difference perceptible to the teachers or myself now as an adult. No, that stronger sense of difference would come later when I first came to battle with being Hawaiian in middle school, though I suspect it is not the battle most of those who claim to be Hawaiian have had.

Next: Part III Imua

Advertisements