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miércoles, 19 de agosto de 2009

Fifty years after winning statehood, the Aloha State looms larger than ever on the American cultural -- and political -- landscape ( You must read )

Image and video hosting by TinyPic San Francisco Chronicle Jeff Yang A half-century ago this Friday, the territory of Hawaii was granted status as the 50th, and so far final, member of the United States. And while most residents of the Eastern 49 are likely to let this anniversary pass without so much as an "Aloha," Hawaii's joining of the union is well worth raising a glass in commemoration of a state that both complicates and reaffirms the very meaning of America. This is, after all, the state that stretched our nation's reach a quarter of the way around the globe: Sitting some 2,400 miles off the coast of California, Hawaii is nearly midway between the U.S. mainland and Asia -- it's just another 3,850 miles as the crow flies from Hawaii to Japan. But Hawaii's uniqueness extends far beyond its location. It's the only state that's always been majority nonwhite -- as of 2005, according to the U.S. Census, nonwhites represented 73 percent of Hawaii's population -- and it's also the only one that's majority Asian American, with 55 percent of Hawaiian residents claiming Asian ancestry. That includes people of multiple races, who make up 20 percent of the state's inhabitants. "Interracial marriage was being practiced in Hawaii from the middle of the 19th century onward," says Tom Coffman, who moved to Hawaii in the mid-'60s and spent much of his early career as a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, documenting the fledgling state's political development. By the 20th century, notes Coffman, so-called "mixed" marriages didn't even raise people's eyebrows: "Of course there was still racial tension, but at the same time you saw the foundation of something new to America, the beginnings of a working multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural society." While it may be naive to call Hawaii a glimpse into America's future, President John F. Kennedy suggested exactly that in a speech on June 9, 1963, declaring that "Hawaii is what the United States is striving to become." The speech, Kennedy's first to focus on the raging topic of civil rights for black Americans, took place in Honolulu during what would be Kennedy's final tour of the Western states. Two months later, a baby boy was born at that city's Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women & Children who would grow up to exemplify the ideals cited in Kennedy's speech -- America's first multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural president, Barack Hussein Obama. Born in the U.S.A. It's a sign of our times that this indisputable fact -- President Obama's birth in Honolulu -- continues to be disputed; according to a July 31 poll by Research 2000, one in 10 Americans believe he wasn't born in the United States, and, as a result, should have been ineligible for the presidency. That's a staggering statistic, but it reflects the degree to which a certain segment of the American populace feels alienated by Obama's election, and the dramatic and irrevocable changes to our culture and society that have made it possible. Consider that the last American commander-in-chief to have faced widespread conspiracy theories regarding his legitimacy was, ironically, JFK; still the only Catholic president in U.S. history, Kennedy was subject to scurrilous but widespread slander that his faith placed him in a position of divided allegiance -- to his country and to the Vatican -- with the latter tie threatening to put a Kennedy-led America "under the foot of Rome." It was fear, not hatred, that led many to whisper about Kennedy, and a similar fear is visible in the eyes of protesters raging against Obama's agenda. The fear then was of the unknown changes a racially integrated America might bring to the lives of white Americans. The fear today is of the next logical step beyond integration, into a future where the lines between peoples and nationalities are blurred entirely by racial blending and globalization. "We shouldn't diminish the genuine concern some people have about issues like health care reform, but if you look at the big picture, there's a common thread linking these protests -- the desire to maintain a status quo that hasn't existed since the 1950s," says Christopher Lee, Hawaiian-born producer of films like "Valkyrie" and "Superman Returns," and founder of the University of Hawaii-Manoa's Academy for Creative Media. "America is changing, the world is changing, and the biggest symbol of that change is the guy who's the president of the United States today." Fear of a Flat Planet The 1950s, after all, were when America began a half-century reign as the world's preeminent superpower, yet they also represented the last chapter of European-dominated immigration to America. By the end of the '60s, following the passage of the landmark Hart-Celler Act of 1965 -- which eliminated quotas restricting non-European immigration -- most new arrivals to the U.S. came from the East and South. From 1955 to 1964, 50 percent of U.S. immigrants were from Europe, with just 8 percent coming from Asia; since Hart-Celler, some 38 percent are of Asian origin, versus just 17 percent hailing from Europe. For nativists seeking to a return to the Fifties, the narrative around this surge in Asian immigration has frequently used the propaganda imagery of World War II, emphasizing the exotic and opaque nature of Asian cultures, and suggesting, in poorly veiled terms, that this inscrutability hides the potential for disloyalty -- intimating, in essence, that people rooted in Asia can never truly be American. It's fascinating to see how those seeking to impugn the president have relied on similar suggestions. He is inscrutable, some say. He has roots outside of America. He comes from a hopelessly alien background that includes not just a Luo tribesman father and an Indonesian stepfather, but also birth and upbringing in volcano-studded, tropical, mostly-Asian Hawaii. "People can't help but think of Hawaii as 'exotic,'" notes Chris Lee, ruefully, citing Cokie Roberts' suggestion that Obama vacation in a less "foreign-seeming" place than the Aloha State. "You always have visitors here saying things like, 'Well, when I get back to the States,' and you have to gently remind them that they're actually still in the States. Whatever our landscape or the majority of our people might look like, we've been a state now for 50 years, with full faith and credit under the U.S. Constitution." The State of the Nation That status -- full faith and credit under the U.S. Constitution -- represented the culmination of a fight that began decades before the attack on Pearl Harbor propelled America into World War II. As fear and anxiety mounted on the mainland, it was evident to the population of the territory, about 40 percent of whom were Japanese Americans, that drastic and dangerous proposals were under consideration. During that period, a diverse group of the island's community leaders fought to maintain ties across racial and ethnic lines, to forestall a mass internment of Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry, and ultimately, to pave the way for Hawaii's second-class standing as a territory to be replaced with the protected status of statehood. "When you think about it, Hawaii evolved from the crisis of World War II into a state in just 18 years, a relatively short period of time," says Coffman, whose film "The First Battle" explores efforts by Hawaii's leaders of that era to protect their unique society. "And that's in large part due to the efforts of these visionaries. What they did not only laid the foundation for Hawaii to become a state, it also ultimately shaped postwar America." Five years after the ratification of Hawaiian statehood, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was before the Senate, and facing devastating resistance from the same forces that had opposed Hawaii's admission to the union. The final confrontation came in the form of a 14-hour filibuster, enacted by West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd. The filibuster was finally defeated by a bipartisan group that included Hawaii's first two elected senators, Hiram Fong and Daniel Inouye. "From its very beginning as a state, Hawaii has served as the template for an increasingly cosmopolitan, increasingly diverse idea of America," says Coffman. "Back in the Sixties, I quite clearly felt that what I was seeing in Hawaii was the future of our nation -- look at California today, at New York City. Hawaii sparked people's imagination that that kind of society could actually be possible." Nothing, of course, comes without a struggle, and even today, Hawaii faces unresolved questions regarding the status of Native Hawaiians, whose rights as a sovereign people were trampled in the territory's original annexation, and who remain without redress for the losses they've suffered. But many Hawaiians believe these challenges can be overcome if the fundamental concept underpinning Hawaiian society is preserved. "At the core of Hawaiian culture is the spirit of aloha, an ideal of love, openness, nonjudgment and generosity," says University of Hawaii-Manoa professor Anne Misawa. "After the statehood bill passed, Rev. Abraham Akaka, the elder brother of Sen. Daniel Akaka, delivered a sermon at his church in which he acknowledged that fears and challenges remained, but that these represented an opportunity for the people of Hawaii to show they had the spirit of aloha. It was that sermon that led to our nickname, the 'Aloha State.'" Looking at today's American landscape, one wishes that the aloha spirit would spread to the mainland. And that, certainly, is worth a toast. To 50 years of the 50th state: Bottoms up -- Okole maluna. ----------------------------------------------------- PopMail While researching this column, it struck me that the newfound prominence of Hawaii on our political scene is part of a subtle, outward migration of influence -- away from the nation's middle and the central coasts, and to its "emerging edges." It's worth noting that two of the key personalities in last year's presidential election, President Obama and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, hail from the two newest and farthest-flung states in the Union. In some ways, this speaks to the game-changing role of electronic media, which over the past 50 years has made it possible to play a significant role in the American dialogue, regardless of the remoteness or obscurity of one's physical location. The power of connectivity to overcome geography is what led Chris Lee to found U. of Hawaii's Academy for Creative Media, a program that provides training in film, video and multimedia production to Hawaiian undergrads. The program has expanded to more than 300 students, who have collectively produced over 500 short films and animated works. "If Hawaii's going to thrive into the next century, we need an alternative to the service industry," says Lee. "And I look at places like Singapore -- like New Zealand, even -- and I think, that's where we need to go. Now that the world's connected up by broadband, there's no reason why we can't be core players in film production, digital media, animation and gaming. We don't have to be seen as nothing more than a tropical backlot -- we have a lot more going for us than blue skies and beaches." Lee has been pushing for Hawaii to invest in the kind of infrastructure that would draw media-related businesses to the state. "It's what Singapore has been doing now for the past decade, very successfully," he says. "And we have a lifestyle advantage: If you're a media creator and you have the choice, would you rather live in Hawaii or in Singapore?" Another interesting topic that arose in the course of writing this piece was the question of whether there might ever be a 51st state. There are a number of candidates, the most prominent being Puerto Rico, recently in the news for being the ancestral home of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "Do I think America is ready for Puerto Rico to become a state? Yes, I do," says Rafael Rodriguez, president and founder of the Center for Puerto Rico Equality and Advancement. "If you think about it, we're much physically closer to the U.S. mainland than Alaska or Hawaii. If Hawaii is a 'bridge to Asia,' we have a strategic location that makes us a bridge to Latin America. But we've been dealt with very differently in our history than Alaska or Hawaii, which were incorporated as U.S. territories immediately in 1898. Puerto Rico was not, and the language used to deny that status was frankly very racist." Of course, many of those same strains continue to exist in American political discourse -- they were evident during Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. "I'm a Republican, and I frankly was dismayed," says Rodriguez. "There were gross misrepresentations made about Judge Sotomayor -- not least of which was people referring to her as an immigrant. First of all, she was born in the Bronx, and even if she were born in Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Coming from Puerto Rico to the U.S. is migration, not immigration, and that's a critical difference.". Rodriguez confident that in the next few decades, Puerto Ricans will enact a referendum embracing statehood. "We just want to be part of the club," he says. "We eat the same food, we watch the same movies, we're the same as people on the U.S. -- and we want to be treated equally, as a part of this great nation. We just have to get back on the agenda, and I believe that the end result will be statehood for Puerto Rico."

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