Portuguese American Journal

Donna Binkiewicz: ‘The saga of my Portuguese family in Hawaii’ – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

Dr. Donna Binkiewicz, a lecturer in history and California culture at California State University at Long Beach, usually focuses on recent US political and cultural history, as well as California history, with secondary research interests in labor and immigration history, but her most recent endeavor is a historical novel entitled Between the Sea and Sky: The Saga of My Portuguese Family in Upcounty Maui, 1881-1941 (2021), an exploration which cleverly blends history, and fiction into the generational saga of a  family of Portuguese immigrants who travel from the Azores to Maui for a better future amid the booming sugar plantations of Hawaii.

In Binkiewicz’s own  words:

There are plenty of other books about Hawaiian history, focusing on the plantation businesses or featuring Japanese workers who became the majority after 1900. However, Portuguese were also important in the West and in agriculture.  My book reveals that between 1880-1900, Portuguese immigrants were the third largest immigrant group in Hawaii.  They also became the third largest group of property owners rather quickly, as many of them moved off the plantations and took advantage of the Kingdom of Hawaii encouraging independent homesteads.

The Portuguese community on Maui established small farms and ranches Upcountry and contributed to the expansion of Catholicism as a major religion on the island.  My focus on the women and their role in the community is also a unique aspect.  The story of my family is part of these broader trends, and this book should appeal to a variety of readers interested in the Portuguese diaspora, immigration and labor history, and the history of Hawaii.

Dr. Donna Binkiewicz  received her BA and MA from the University of California, Berkeley and completed a Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She has published several articles about US arts policy, Federalizing the Muse: United States Arts Policy, 1965-1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and the historical novel, Between the Sea and Sky: The Saga of My Portuguese American Family in Upcountry Maui, 1881-1941 (2021).


In this interview with Millicent Borges Accardi, Donna Binkiewicz speaks of her research and the motivation to tell the untold Portuguese immigrant experience in Hawaii, through the saga of her own family.


Q: What was the motivation for titling the book, Between the Sea and Sky?

A: I struggled to find a title for a while, writing down ideas and was not satisfied with them.  Then one day, I wrote that phrase into one of the chapters and it hit me that it was the perfect title. 

It reflects of the location of Makawao—a town on the slopes of Haleakala Mountain on Maui.  Haleakala is over 10,000 feet high and seems to be touching the sky and Makawao town is about 1200 feet above sea level.  The wording captures the family’s sea voyage and the settlement on the slopes of the mountain.  Secondly, it also reflects the sentiment of being in-between things. 

[The main character] Margarida uses the words to capture her feeling of being between her past life in Portugal and her ultimate after-life in heaven where she hopes to be reunited with her husband.   I also discuss the Portuguese immigrants being considered as “in-between” peoples in the racial hierarchy of the period because they were European but not accepted by the Anglo-American planters as fully “white,” yet they were also considered above Asian or Black workers.   The title hints at all of these themes.

Q: Were there a lot of Portuguese immigrants working on Maui in the 1880s?

A: Portuguese immigrants began to arrive in large numbers during the 1880s when the sugar planters wanted to recruit more workers and King Kalakaua of Hawaii also wanted to attract settlers who could help bolster the declining population.  Hawaiians had been devastated by diseases brought in by colonial settlers.  Portuguese immigrants numbered roughly 16,000 between 1880-1900.   At the time when the da Costa family arrived on Maui, Portuguese were the third largest ethnicity listed in the 1884 census of Hawaii (42,000 Hawaiians, 18,000 Chinese, 9,377 Portuguese, 2,000 Americans).  After 1900, the largest immigrant group became Japanese.  It was one of my goals to highlight the importance of the Portuguese immigrant population in the late nineteenth century, which is not often mentioned in writing about Hawaii. 

Q: Margarida is said to keep (uphold) her family’s Portuguese traditions. Can you share what those traditions were?

A: Margarida and her family continued to speak Portuguese at home for at least three generations.  The children began to learn English and would have spoken “pidgin English” among their peers of many ethnicities.  Even my mother, who was fourth generation, understood a lot of Portuguese and used many words, even if she did not maintain the language.  Portuguese families also worked to establish Catholicism as an important religious element in Hawaii. They brought their religion with them and became significant portions of the growing Catholic communities in the islands.  I write about how the Portuguese families worked to build the churches in the Upcountry Maui towns and supported them with donations of time and auction items (like cattle, food items, and crafts). 

Portuguese congregations also celebrated the Holy Ghost feast, an Azorean tradition, which included processions to church before Mass.  Women also cooked for the priests—most of whom were Belgian or Dutch—and did their laundry.  Women don’t often appear in the historical records but did a great deal of the daily work that supported the communities. 

They practiced and handed down traditions like building lapinhas at Christmas, spending Sundays with family, making malasadas for Shrove Tuesday, and baking bread in their fornos.  Food, of course, is passed down from generation to generation.  I even include some recipes in the book of the Portuguese foods, like bean soup, Vinha D’alhos, and malasadas.

Q: What social and economic changes took place in Hawaii before World War II?

A: Portuguese immigrants arrived in the Kingdom of Hawaii, but they would witness the overthrow of the monarchy by the white, business class as well as the eventual annexation of the islands by the United States in 1898. White Americans remained the ones in positions of power, while other ethnicities had less access. Portuguese, as Southern Europeans, were not accepted as the same as the “Haole” or white, elites. Nevertheless, there was an expansion of Catholic communities and school access for the children of immigrants.  In 1917, Hawaii’s residents also experienced the First World War and served the American effort as soldiers or by supporting the war effort.  People became more Americanized in that period.  Portuguese also were part of the labor force that allowed sugar production to accelerate and they saw the beginning of the pineapple industry and establishment of the cannery on Maui. 

While there were many jobs, they required hard physical labor and long days, even in the best times. Most benefits went to the planter class. However, many Portuguese families saw an improvement in their economic positions by the 1920s.  Afterwards, workers were hardest hit when economic difficulties resulted from the Great Depression.  Many lost jobs and their ability to sell home farm products—including pineapples—to the plantation establishments.  In the 1930s, many left Maui to find work elsewhere, thus, many families were split apart. While World War II was dangerous, it also brought fresh jobs and recognition of Hawaii’s residents as Americans.  After WWII, working class of all ethnicities demanded—and eventually—won better wages and treatment from their employers as well as greater inclusion in state politics; I experienced both a growth of unions and the rise of the Democratic Party.  Socially, over time, women gained more ability to choose their own marriage partners, vote, and work in greater varieties of jobs.

Dr. Donna Binkiewicz

Q: What sparked the initial idea for Between the Sea and Sky?

A: Really, I’ve had this project in mind for a long time.  I have always been fascinated with history and in my family history. 

Whenever, I told others about my family on Maui, I found people to be very interested in the story as well.  Not enough is known about the Portuguese in Hawaii, so I felt the combination of a multi-generational family story within the broad historical context of immigration, Portuguese, Hawaiian, and US history was a topic readers would enjoy and want to learn more about.  I began doing serious research in the summer of 2015 to explore writing a book.  I felt, as a historian and a descendent of Portuguese immigrants, that I was uniquely qualified to take this on.

Q: The work is a blend of non-fiction (family history) with fiction. How did you decide to use this form versus a non-fiction historical account?  What are the pluses and minuses?

A: Initially, I was planning to do a more traditional history monograph. However, I also wanted the book to be accessible to all readers.  I settled on the blend of history with sections of historical fiction conversation to draw the reader in and to bring the history to life through the eyes of the family members in the story. 

Readability is an advantage of the creative elements and it allowed me to include more detail than I could by relying only on direct historical documentation.  I did a lot of archival research and reading about the historical periods and places, and I relied on many oral histories from the University of Hawaii to infuse the creative sections with true material.  While the conversations are a creation of my historically trained imagination, they capture the reality people were actually experiencing in those contexts.  This book is about real people, not fictional characters. 

Q: What did you learn about your own family in doing the research for this book?

R: My Portuguese ancestors had a great deal of fortitude and faith.  They worked very hard over the generations to find opportunities and to create a better future for their families.  I’m grateful for the legacy they left for us.  I dedicated this book to the younger generations, who I hope will enjoy learning about the past and will keep alive their memory. 

Q: Can you discuss what your research entailed?  Did you visit archives? Interview family members? Consult church  records in the Azores?

A: I really began with my Portuguese families’ genealogies and spent time with census records and some online materials from the Azores and ship manifests for arrivals in Hawaii. I spoke to a lot of my relatives on Maui to gather their recollections and stories of the family.  I gathered family documents and photos. 

The Portuguese Genealogical and Historical Society in Honolulu was very helpful, and I went to the University of Hawaii, Manoa, to work in the archival Hawaiian collections, looking at sugar plantation records and anything I could find about Portuguese workers. 

The Department of Ethnic Studies Oral History Collection was a wonderful resource also.  The Hawaii State Archives also provided documentation of ships’ records, Portuguese immigration documents from the Kingdom of Hawaii, Hawaii census records from the Kingdom era, and some records of land sales. 

At Maui College, I also read the microfilms of The Maui News and other materials.  While I went to the Sugar Museum on Maui, they did not have records from the early period, though I did have success at locating some on-line documentation through the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, which houses the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese American Archives.  That archive is now digitizing Maui’s plantation worker records.  In the past two years, with the pandemic and shut-downs, I was fortunate to be able to access more materials online.

Q: When I was a kid we used to visit Maui (distant cousins) and I was struck by the wonderful  community there, near Front Street.  How was it to grow up in Upcountry Maui?

A: I have wonderful memories of Maui and, of course, I still go there regularly to visit family.  St. Joseph’s Church, where my Mom used to play the organ and my Grandpa was the choir master, is much the same.  Upcountry Maui is green and cool, and it presents the most beautiful views of Haleakala Mountain and of the fields and ocean below.  There are lots of beautiful rainbows, because it rains often. 

I have always loved the Upcountry ranches, where there are still lots of cows and horses and the annual rodeo.  My grandparents had a couple of acres of land around their home where they had animals, a farm plot, and garden– including a grape vine that they once used to make their own wine–and their own coffee tree.  The image on the front of my book was painted by my sister to capture what the area looked like in the old days. While the town has grown a lot, the visiting and “talking story” over cups of coffee remains the same.  I enjoyed doing just that as I gathered material for my book. 

Q: Your education took you off the islands, to Berkeley and UCLA and now you teach at the University of California Long Beach, have you found much Portuguese community in Long Beach and Los Angeles?

A: I have continued to be involved in the Catholic communities where I have lived, but not directly with the Portuguese communities until more recently.  I knew there were a lot of Portuguese in California, but I was not in parishes where they were active.  I still kept up with my family and community on Maui more. 

While I was busy with studies and writing my first book, which is about the history of the National Endowment for the Arts—so a very different subject—I didn’t think as much about connecting with Portuguese groups. 

I did find a great Portuguese restaurant a few miles from my home a few years ago and love to go there whenever I get a chance—I love Natas!  (Natas Pastries Café and Bakery). With work on this book, though, I have reached out and connected with the Portuguese Historical Museum in San Jose, California.  Its members maintain a beautiful and well-presented collection of Portuguese immigration history and culture there and have included this book in their collection.  I have also been in touch with the Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute at Fresno State and recently did a book discussion via Zoom with Diniz Borges, its director.  So I have been finding that Portuguese community connection.  

Q: You teach Cultural History and California History. How did writing this book fit into your scholarly and research interests?

A: My undergraduate and graduate studies were in United States history, especially American politics and culture.  Most of my research up to this point took place in presidential libraries and the National Archives as well as the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington D.C.  

I began to teach California history and started to work in some local areas after that.  Once I began to seriously think about writing this book, I also began to focus more on labor and immigration history.  I had done my senior thesis at Cal [University of California Berkeley] on an immigration topic, though I had moved on to more political history, I wanted to get back to the immigration field.

Q: What are some courses you teach at University of California Long Beach?

A: I teach a variety of US history courses, including the surveys covering both early US and recent US history, upper-division courses on Immigration and Ethnicity, the US Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the Twenties, Depression, and World War II, and the US in the World.  I also regularly teach the research methodology course for our entering History majors, and occasionally, the senior research seminar.

Q: What advice would you have for other Portuguese-Americans who are interested in tracing their family history?  What resources  would you recommend?

A: The Portuguese Genealogical and Historical Society in Honolulu is a great resource for those in Hawaii who want to know more about their families and how they arrived in Hawaii.  There are also some wonderful online groups, like the Facebook group on Portuguese Immigration to Hawaii.  I connected with a number of people and even some relatives I had never met, and they provided me with details I had not previously known, including information about family in the Azores.

Census records provide a great deal of information about families.  The Censuses from before 1940 had many more questions than they do now.  Researchers do have to be careful about spellings and realize that some records contain inconsistencies.  Still, if you have a good sense of what you are looking for, you can successfully locate more details.  Census records list households near each other, so when looking for one family, you can also find others on the same page. 

The Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese American Archive at UMass, Dartmouth, is another great place to find information and they have a lot of digitized materials online. 

Q: Can you share a passage or paragraph from Between the Sea and Sky, to entice PAJ readers who might be interested in reading your book?

 A: Many Portuguese laborers reached Maui at a pivotal point for the sugar industry and their labor contributed to its success.  Between 1877-1888, over 11,000 Portuguese immigrants arrived in the islands.  For Margarida and her children, the view from aboard the small steamer nearing Kahului harbor encompassed Spreckels’ sugar operation in their heyday of modernizing sugar mill production, railroad transport, and harbor extension.

      Francisco and his brothers took in the scene with awe. “Look at that!” Antonio pointed to the steam puffing from the locomotive making its way to the harbor.  “Is that where we will work?” He asked Francisco as his gaze settled upon the large mill building and tall smokestack billowing clouds into the air.

     “Perhaps. . . but we will be in the fields to start,” Francisco replied.

      Antonio kept his eyes on the amazing sights, but he looked back questioningly to Francisco as the ship kept sailing east.  “Why are we not going to the harbor?”

      Sandy beaches slipped past. Rocky shorefronts loomed higher as their vessel moved closer toward land.  The boys watched silently as they slowed near the mouth of a small gulch and anchored there. . . Out of Maliko Bay, rowed two boats to meet them.

      “Come on, all of you,” called the crewman in Portuguese.  “Bring your things along.  This is it.  Who among you can swim?”

      “What?” Margarida cried, “you mean us to swim from here?  What about the children?  And I cannot swim!”

      “Little ones ride in the boats.  You women can get in the boats with them and the sacks.  Men swim alongside or hang on. Hurry now. . .”

      Passengers gathered their belongings and queued up, some with eyes wide as they watch the men lower their things into the row boats that pulled up alongside.  Now that the ship had stopped, it bobbed up and down in the waves, and salty ocean waters splashed up into the rowboats also bobbing alongside, and not always in unison.  Once the men had stacked baggage, they reached up to help with the women and children.  Thereza went first, over the side, down the rope ladder, and into the arms of the boatman. She sat on the bags and watched her sister Maggie climb over.  They looked up to their mother…

      Margarida lifted her skirts and slowly made her way down the side of the heaving ship, her cheeks growing rosy as she released her billowing skirts and her modesty to grasp the ladder tightly.  In her mind, the two-minute descent had stretched much longer until she, too, settled upon the little boat…

      Maria Augusta stiffly passed her little daughter over to the crewman, who put her on his back and swung quickly over the railing.  “Hang on tight,” he ordered.  Little Maria closed her eyes and obeyed as if her life depended on it—which it did, since she didn’t know how to swim.  All the women breathed a sigh as their group huddled together again upon the rowboat

      Next came the men and boys.  Many of the Portuguese men had learned to swim back in the Azores.  Some had been fishermen or sailors themselves.  Fewer farmers had taken to the water.  Francisco had.  He climbed down, jumped into the sea, swam to the front of the rowboat, and hung on to the side.

“Your turn, Joao!  The ocean is warm here.  Warmer than Ponta de Costa,” he laughed, ‘And it will be like a baptism before entering our new home!”

      “Don’t be sacrilegious!” his mother called.

      Weighed down, the rowboat turned toward shore.  With several men swimming along and waves pushing them forward, it took little time to approach the beach… At last, they had arrived on Maui.


I include the above passage because it reveals the rather surprising way Portuguese immigrants were transported to outer islands.  In plantation records, they were even listed along with cargo and not as passengers.  From this humble beginning, the Portuguese worked hard to establish their communities and succeeded in moving up the social ladder.

Resources for Researchers

Portuguese Genealogical & Historical Society of Hawai‘i
1616 Liliha Street, Suite 308, Honolulu, Hawai‘i 

Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
285 Old Westport Road, Dartmouth, MA 02747-2300

Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute
Fresno State College of Arts & Humanities
2380 E. Keats MS/MB99
Fresno, CA 93740

Portuguese Historical Museum
1650 Senter Road
San José, California  95112

Portuguese-American Digital Archive at UMass Lowell
Lowell, Massachusetts


**Report a correction or typo to editor@portuguese-american-journal.com. We are committed to upholding our journalistic standards, including accuracy. Carolina Matos/Editor.


Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, including Only More So (Salmon Poetry), and the forthcoming Through a Grainy Landscape (inspired by contemporary Portuguese writings). Her poetry awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Fulbright, CantoMundo, Creative Capacity, the California Arts Council, The Corporation of Yaddo, Fundação Luso-Americana, the Foundation of Contemporary Arts (FCA Covid grant) and Barbara Deming Foundation. She lives in Topanga (canyon), California.

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