Hilo, Hawaii is nearly 2,500 miles from the mainland of the United States and even further from Mexico, Central America and South America. But for Hispanics who move here, it can feel like familiar territory. 

“What I love about Hilo culture is that it’s similar to Latin culture,” said Marlene Calderon, a retired accountant who was born in Panama and spent most of her life in California. “That’s why Hispanics like it here. With the culture here, they may have just met you, but they embrace you, feed you, love you, and pretty soon you feel like family. That’s how Hawaiians are. The cultures are very similar.”

Calderon, who moved here in 2012, is one of the Hawaiian transplants who is helping make Latinos the fastest growing ethnic group in the state.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the “Hispanic or Latino” population grew 40 percent between the 2000 Census and the 2012 American Community Survey.

The Hispanic population was 87,699 in 2000, but grew by 35,123 and is now 122,822, the data shows, and now represents about 9 percent of Hawaii’s total population of 1.4 million people.

About a third of Hawaii’s Hispanic population is identified in census data as Puerto Rican. That’s due to a presence here that dates to the early 1900s, when thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to the island chain to work the sugar plantations. Those immigrants joined the melting pot of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and other laborers who came for the same reason.

The sugar industry has almost completely disappeared, but the mix of ethnicities remains. Residents with an Asian background comprise about 39 percent of Hawaii’s population, Whites represent about 25 percent, and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders represent another 10 percent.  

Many Hispanics who move to Hawaii today come to work in the robust tourism industry, as well as the construction and agricultural sectors, Calderon and others said.

Andrea Dela Cruz, for instance, moved here from Mexico in 2012 because her husband found work as a veterinarian on a local dairy farm.

Dela Cruz recently opened a store in Hilo called Mi Tierra Mexicana that sells food, candies, and clothing from her native country.  

On a recent Wednesday morning she cradled her month-old baby boy in her arms behind the counter. Dela Cruz said she has watched the Hispanic community grow during the past couple years, particularly in the Kona area of Hawaii Island (also called the “Big Island”).  

“There are more people in Kona, for the coffee and the macadamia nuts,” said Dela Cruz.

Dela Cruz loves Hilo. The second largest city in Hawaii after Honolulu, Hilo’s population is just 43,000 and feels even smaller.

“It’s beautiful, and the climate I like,” Dela Cruz said. “It’s slow, which I like for my baby. The people are friendly and always say good morning and always say hello and aloha.”

Other recent arrivals moved to Hawaii for less predictable reasons, including Calderon. Her husband died in 2000, and she retired from her job with the state of California in 2010. After retirement, she was seeking a change.

“I saw a Craigslist ad that said ‘the Big Island awaits you,’ and I answered it,” she said.

On a recent Thursday night, Calderon and other Hispanics gathered at the Elks Club in Hilo. Below a large, stuffed elk head mounted on a wall, local residents line-danced across an open floor. Drinks flowed from the bar, and nearby a potluck-style dinner covered a table.

Dance, particularly salsa, helps bring members of the local Hispanic community together, said Calderon.  

“That’s how I got to meet a lot of people,” she said.  

Elizabeth Moore, who is a mix of El Salvadoran, Puerto Rican, English, Spanish and Portuguese, was also at the Elks Club with her husband and told her story of moving to Hawaii. Following her service in the U.S. Army, Moore applied for a position with the Federal Aviation Administration. She needed to select three states where she would move for a job, and her husband suggested making Hawaii one of them.   

“He said, ‘Let’s do Hawaii,’ and we actually happened to get it,” said Moore. “It was a weird gamble.”

Moore, 30, now manages the air traffic control tower at the Hilo International Airport and has adjusted well to island life.

“It’s a pretty easy-living kind of place,” she said. 

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Thatcher Moats is a freelance journalist living in Hilo