climate change

[OPINION] Maui on my indignant mind

Patricio Abinales

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[OPINION] Maui on my indignant mind

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'My Moro friends in Mindanao will see a lot of familiarity here, where imperial governments imposed on them instead of leaving them alone'

My daughter and I moved to Hawai’i over 11 years ago. I did not want to do it as I was happy in Asia. Family concerns, however, left me with no choice: my late wife wanted me to raise our child in the United States (in Japan, she would just be bullied to submission for her skin color and her being non-Japanese). So I moved here, taking over the position of the esteemed Prof. Belinda Aquino, founder of the Center for Philippine Studies and the only scholar on the Philippines in what was then the Asian Studies Program (we are now a full-fledged department). I was not good at administrative work, but I think I did well with the teaching part. At least, that is what the RateMyProfessor website says. 

My single parenting skills were also so-so. I ended up raising an American kid, but someone who also finds herself very much part of the community. She knows she is not Hawaiian and recognizes the United States government’s overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and subsequent of the islands into the body politic (now as the 50th state) aided much by settler colonialism. Out of that respect, she plans to devote her life here to help in Hawaiian emancipation, in whatever shape and form.

I do not share my daughter’s commitment to her new imagined community. I am a transient here, and during my stay here, I have tried to do the best that I can to teach the young people here (Hawai’ian, migrant, hapa) about the Philippines and Southeast Asia – the world where I grew up and the world I intend to return to soon.

And this is perhaps because I am an “essential outsider” (a term used to describe the Anglo-Chinese during the colonial era). I have come to admire the people of Hawaii, share their pain, and marvel at their resilience.

The Maui fires were devastating, and you can see the hurt in people, not only in TikTok or Instagram but in your everyday encounters with locals. You say good morning to the “Auntie” driving the bus and mention “Maui,” and both just watch each other’s shoulders shrug and eyes almost tear up. 

But like many others, “Auntie” also tells me, “We are not just Maui strong! We are Ohana, Uncle.” You feel that pride swelling up in her, and it is at that moment that you, as an outsider, genuinely appreciate what the word means. 

You are welcome to help. You are more than appreciated for commiserating. But you do so knowing that at the end of the day, if you are not of this land, your role is to support. Hawaiians will figure out how they will grieve and rebuild their Lahaina. 

And from this distance, you realize how those in power (alas, elite Hawaiians included) have not been good to the island’s people. You can start with history, with the illegal occupation of the Kingdom by the United States government, the imprisonment of their beloved Queen Liliuokalani, the turning of the land into sugar and pineapple enclaves, and the droves of outsiders coming in for work mainly, but also for the prime real estate much later. 

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All these have taken their toll on the community. Native Hawaiians only comprise 6% of the total state population and 21% if you include those who are mestizos (or, in local parlance, hapa). They are also the poorest. In 2019, according to the US Census Bureau, 14.8% of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live in poverty (versus 9% whites – haoles), and 5.9% are unemployed (compared to 3.7% haoles). Scientists studying the aging process have alarmingly noted that “[n]ative Hawaiians have the largest years of productive life lost and the lowest life expectancy when compared to the state’s other major ethnic groups.” 

Or, to put it another way – to live comfortably in Hawai’i, one must have an income of at least $70,000 if you are single and $120,000 minimum if you have a family. Native Hawaiian families average 3.9 members and their median income was $76,100 in 2016 – one wonders where they get the $43,000 needed to reach the bare minimum.

In my neck of the woods, this inequity is also quite palpable. The percentage of native Hawaiian students was a miserly 15.5% in 2021, and there is no indication that it will ever experience any significant jump.  While 88.7% of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have high school diplomas, their numbers dipped after that: 23.8% have bachelor’s degrees or higher and a measly 7.4% did post-graduate school. The median household income of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders was $66,695 (versus $71,664 among white households).

The state does allot a big chunk of its budget to education and health, but it is also notorious for how much its resources have been wasted. Again, back to my neck of the woods: in 2022, the University’s athletic department received $42 million, much of it going to a 125-man football team with a miserable record. The total scholarship budget available to 28,073 students (on the four main campuses) was $63.3 million. Assuming a distribution of these resources, each athlete would theoretically have received $336,000. At the same time, only $2,255 would be available to each student (this would increase to $2,433 if we add the $5 million in grants from private foundations).

Eleven years later, a rail system that began construction in 2012 with a $5.122-billion budget has only completed 63% of its 20-mile, 21-station network. The cost is now “forecasted” to reach $12.074 billion. The system is now the most expensive infrastructure program in the United States – at 20 miles! Residents complain about this, and legislators now add a brag in their campaign resumes that they had brought in some federal bacon to add to the rail bill. 

The rail story is symptomatic of the state’s more extensive infrastructure program. The infrastructure report card is a “D+,” broken down as follows: aviation (C); bridges (C+); coastal areas (C-/so much for keeping the beaches pristine); dams (D); drinking water (D+); energy (C-); roads (D+); schools (D+); solid waste (C); stormwater (D-); and wastewater (D+). 

The Maui fires exposed just how much the system has broken down. The electric company did not have a plan to cut power to minimize the risk of the fires spreading. The warning system did not work, and no one activated this even if it was clear that the wildfire had spread and witness after witness noticed the absence of emergency services in town. Confronted by criticism, Herman Andaya, the absent administrator, responded with this lamest of excuses: “We would not use sirens in a case like this…. That’s not what we normally would do. We just don’t use sirens for fires.”

Andaya, however, stands on some legal ground here. In 2022, the state government’s February 2022 Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan classified wildfire as “low risk” even as a year before, Maui officials were already warning that its fire prevention capabilities were “inadequate” and its firefighters unprepared to face these challenges.

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Faced with these absurdities, Hawaiians have come together and, amidst the tears and anger, buckled down to help each other, not waiting for the government to fulfill its obligations to its people. They have also accepted aid from friends and sympathizers in and outside of Maui. But the couple of times I witnessed these acts of benevolence, the body language of the aid recipients consistently said this: this is our struggle, we are committed to rebuilding a better Lahaina; this is what Aloha means, we are Ohana.

And those of us “looking in” and living here temporarily, under their good graces, must accept that ours is only a supporting role.

My Moro friends in Mindanao will see a lot of familiarity here, where imperial governments imposed on them instead of leaving them alone. And I am sure if told the whole story, some of them will indeed muse: “I wish the Hawaiians had access to guns as we had when we fought the Filipino colonialists.” But alas they don’t; so it is all weapons of the weak for them, a long-protracted war, with very little prospect of success. –

Patricio N. Abinales teaches Asian Studies at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa. He will leave Hawai’i when he retires.

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