There is a strange feeling of homecoming I experience when in Hawaii. The climate, vegetation, and maybe even the prevalent melanin level are constant reminders of my tropical birthplace.
And in these post-modern post-colonial times, the political history of these islands is as fascinating, rich and uneven as the landscape itself, and the more I learn the more I internalize into my own understanding of world events during the 20th Century.
From my window right now I can see the spot where generations of ali’i (leaders or chiefs) were born, as well as where Kamehameha I (perhaps most famous of the ali’i) had his first European-style home built, a shoddy two-story structure whose only remains are marked by new brick outlining the foundations. Just over the seawall is the birthing chair-shaped rock where the chieftess performed her labor under the approving gaze of the leaders serving as ceremonial witnesses. But the volcanic watchers of Lanai and Molokai across the Auau channel, the acacia trees and the hibiscus bushes are parallel if not identical to the vistas of my earliest years.
Driving into Lahaina from the airport, the tree-shaded highway mirrors the one between Colima and Comala, the city of my birth and my mother’s respectively. In the islands’ past as sugar, coffee and fruit plantation client states I also find an echo of my grandmother’s legendary-to-us family plot, cleared and worked with my adoring grandfather after her siblings received better parcels that quickly slipped their hands. She grew fruits and flowers and, yes, coffee. Like the ali’i’s powers being curtailed by encroaching western interests, the mayor of Comala threatened to use eminent domain if she didn’t cede land for an expansion of the cemetery (while the world dealt with an influenza epidemic). In an account published in a local history book, she’s recorded as assenting with this ill-wish: “I hope you’re the first one buried there.” He was.
And there I find another connection, even if it’s only visible to me: the woman was a kahuna, a title I only recently wondered enough at to work out from my rudimentary knowledge of language and religion. The best translation is priest/ess, sorceror/sorceress or the catch-all “shaman”, but is derived from the animistic world-view called huna. She was a healer, counselor and guide, using plants she specifically grew in her gardens, even decades after she gave up her land in Comala so her daughters could study nursing in Colima; whether she liked their branch of healing, I haven’t really investigated, but I know that she felt strong enough about her religion to literally join a war to defend her beliefs.
She could treat internal and external pains, swollen limbs and broken hearts. My mother saw her create infusions for birth control as well as stomach-settling mint tea. When she asked why she sometimes used the tea for a variety of non-related issues, she said “sometimes it’s not the tea, but the listening that they need.”
It never wanes, but my admiration for this tough, indomitable Mexican woman is again renewed as I visit the birthplace of Hawaiian kings.