Portuguese American Journal

Naka Nathaniel: A voice from Hawai’i to the world – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

Meet Naka Nathaniel! A journalist born in Hawai’i with roots in the Azores, who spent much of his career covering invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, North Korea, Paris fashion shows, car shows and the Olympics. He was detained while working in Iran, Sudan, Gaza and China. In fact, he has worked as a journalist in 60 countries and brought to light important stories about sex trafficking, climate change and the plight of women and children in developing countries.

While based in Paris, he developed a unique style of mobile journalism giving him the ability to report from anywhere on the planet. His work in Darfur was nominated for an Emmy in 2006 and footage from travels with Nicholas Kristof was used in the HBO documentary “Reporter.”

On 911, footage from his rooftop in Brooklyn of the second plane hitting the South Tower was aired worldwide and featured as the dominant 911 image on NYTimes.com.

These days, Naka lives in Waimea, on the Big Island. After being the primary parent for his son, Naka recently returned to journalism, writing a column for Honolulu Civil Beat, focusing on Portuguese and Hawaiian culture and his experience moving back home to Hawai’i.

In this interview with Millicent Borges Accardi for the Portuguese American Journal, Naka Nathaniel recalls memories growing up in Hawai’i, his journey to learn more about his Portuguese heritage, and his career as a journalist in a world of turmoil and uncertainty.

Q:  I really enjoyed your article in the Honolulu Civil Beat, “The Portuguese Influence In Hawai’i Goes Beyond Ukes And Malasadas” What Portuguese “influence” big or small do you feel has influenced Hawai’i culture the most?

A: That’s kind of you to write. I think that’s a tough question to answer because influences are seen throughout Hawai’i. But, if I had to choose just one it’d be the humor.

Q: You are a journalist by trade, how does being Portuguese help in your career?

A: I hate to lean into the stereotype, but the reputation of the Portuguese (at least here in Hawai’i) is that we’re pretty extroverted. That’s a great trait for a journalist.

Q: You have been in the field in Paris, Iraq Afghanistan, Sudan, Gaza and China, North Korea, working in 60 countries What do you think is a journalist’s role to society in 2023?

A: This is a great question. More than ever, our societies need access to high-quality information. Journalists are needed to help communicate with audiences.

Q: On 9/11, you filmed the second plane hitting the South Tower. How did the impact of 911 change our country? Change society? The media?

A: Sadly, the attacks made us react from a place of fear and anger, which makes sense because we were all afraid and angry. I wish we had been able to better contain those emotions when it came time to our collective decision making.

Q: You live on the Big Island of Hawaii now—Your great-grandparents were born on São Miguel in the Azores and traveled to the plantations of Pahala in 1883.  Do you still have relatives in the Azores? Like Meredith Vieira have you retraced your roots?

A: We visited the Azores for the first time in 2019 (we had already visited Mainland Portugal a few times), and I was struck at how much São Miguel reminded me of Hawai’i. I’m happy to think that when my Portuguese ancestors arrived here at the end of the 19th century that they would have found the landscape to be welcoming and familiar.

I did visit the Emigration Museum on São Miguel. We did find the manifest for the S.S. Bell Rock the steamer they traveled on. It’s on my list to track down the distant relatives someday. Hopefully, we’ll get a better reception than the one Michael Imperoli and F. Murray Abraham got in the second season of “White Lotus.” When they found their Sicilian cousins, they were greeted with invectives and chased away by knife-wielding aunties…

Q: Do you read Portuguese-American writers and/or Portuguese literature? Who are some of your favorites? Can you cite a passage that is meaningful to you?

A: I’ve read some Pessoa and Saramago but in English. I wish I had more room in my brain for languages. Of course, I love that “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free… I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” is written by a Portuguese-American, Emma Lazarus.

Q: What is the significance of the term saudade to you?

A: I think of a woman that I knew in Atlanta named Saudade. We’d see each other often in the grocery store and we’d greet each with a “Bom Dia!” She was a happy vibrant soul, so when Saudade passes through my mind, I think of her smile.

Q: What elements of Portuguese history and culture you would like to learn more about?

A: I think there’s a lot of lessons I’d like to learn about the events in Portuguese history (like the Lisbon earthquake) that had greater ripples across globe. The last book I read about Portugal was by Barry Hatton, “The Portuguese: A Modern History.”

I have also been interested in how Portugal spread its culture not only to Brazil but also to India and other parts of Asia.

Q: What inspired you to make Hawaii your home?

A: We wanted to help my father complete his journey. He left Hilo after the deadly tsunami in 1960 and moved to the Marshall Islands. He was there for almost two decades before his work transferred us to Texas. He’s been there for the last four decades, and we thought it was only fitting that he return to Hawai’i. Our being here was supposed to help him make that journey.

Q: What are the differences between visiting Hawaii as a tourist versus living there?

A: I’ve been writing a bit about this. Hawai’i is a very welcoming place, but the tourism industry hasn’t been great for residents. Fortunately, there are a good number of efforts to recalibrate tourism in Hawai’i and we are starting to hear success stories.

Q: What aspects of the Portuguese culture did you introduce to your son?

A: He first visited Lisbon in 2017 and loved bopping around the city. I fondly remember sitting next to the Tagus River in many different places eating little custard desserts. Now, he’s exposed to a lot of Portuguese-Hawaiian culture. He loves the comedy of Frank de Lima and he makes himself “round-round” eggs for breakfast most mornings.

Q: In Hawai’i, what is the most “Portuguese” thing you can do? Like if you were going to show someone the heart of the Luso culture in Hawaii where would you take them?

A: We’d grab some malasadas and head to Hilo and go visit my dad’s cousin, Wendell Paiva. He’s a retired police officer and we’d talk story. He’s the most direct connection I have to our ancestors and their very Portuguese-Hawaiian way of life. There is a Festa annually on O’ahu that I look forward to attending.

Q: More than any other place with Portuguese immigrants, Hawaii seems unique in that the Luso culture has blended with other heritages. Why do you think this happened in Hawaii and not in other states?  What elements are present in Hawaii that allowed or encouraged this melting pot of wonderfulness?

A: I’ve read a very little bit of anthropology about this and I think it was based on all the cultures here acceding space to each other. I lived in New York for a number of years and while there are now very good Portuguese restaurants in the city, there was little presence of Portuguese culture. I know there were neighborhoods, like Ironbound, in New Jersey, but I’ve never lived in another place where Portuguese culture is very present. The interesting thing though is that there isn’t a huge Portuguese population in Hawai’i, yet our most notable instrument is Portuguese and our food and humor is infused with Portuguese influences.

Q: What are your favorite Portuguese foods?

A: Our family’s cookbook is full of Portuguese-Hawaiian recipes. I loved malasadas and pao doce because they were always made at the beginning and end of Lent and my birthday was always somewhere around there. As an adult, I now have fond memories of kneading the dough, making a cross on top and then covering it one of my Vovo’s kitchen towels. When I was a kid, I probably didn’t feel that eager to knead, but now I’m glad for those moments with my family.

I loved the split pea soup my Vovo would make with hamhocks and Portuguese bean soup too. And for breakfast, nothing tops linguiça and round-round eggs.

And I love the TAP ads that have been touting Portuguese chefs. Yet…

The best Italian food I ever ate (and therefore the best meal I ever ate in Portugal) was made by a chef of Nepalese (not Neapolitan, Nepalese) ancestry cooking in Lisbon. It was amazing, and we ate there three nights in a row. So, whenever a friend visits Lisbon we heartily recommend that restaurant, Come Prima. I love how it shows off the cosmopolitanism of Portugal.

Q: Can you share a family Portuguese recipe?

A: I have a half-dozen different recipes for malasadas so I don’t have just one to share. I did write about my Aunty Ida’s Sweet Bread recipe.

Q: I am always saddened and a little surprised when celebrities with Portuguese heritage do not take on at least ONE Portuguese-themed project.  Tom Hanks comes immediately to mind. He could do so much for our culture if he just ONCE played a Portuguese character or produced a movie in a Portuguese community like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon did with Boston.  Who would you most like to see tackle a Portuguese project?

A: During the lockdown, my kid watched “Greyhound” about forty times. He had read the original book, “The Good Shepherd,” and I think they could have easily turned Ernie Krause (Hanks’s character) into a Portuguese-American. Watching the movie once was enough for my wife and whenever she sees him watching it, she impersonates Hanks by walking unsteadily and yelling “Coffee.” Now, stay with me here as I go down this little rabbit hole…

I remember a Tom Clancy novel called, Debt of Honor that opens with a boat captain in the western Pacific named “Portagee” that uncovers some nefarious plot. What I remember most about the “Portagee” character was that he poured salt, not sugar, into his coffee. I asked my dad about this (I was too young to drink coffee when I read it) and he said he remembered his uncles doing this, however when he was a little boy, he remembered his Vovo making him warm milk with just a little touch of coffee to color the drink.

We’d later do this with my son and we called it “Frocky.” Anyway, Hanks should cast himself as the title character of a captain named “Portagee” who is reluctantly handing over command of the ship to his daughter played by Nelly Furtado, Katy Perry, or even better ‘Auli’i Carvalho. That would hopefully redeem Hanks.

Also, since it’s almost the holidays, we can’t forget the Portuguese storyline in “Love Actually.” Even though they were in France… Which reminds me, we lived in France for five years and that was the most contact I had with Portugal because the gardiens (the people who looked after the apartment building) were originally from Portugal.

In particular, I remember one of the ladies having very loud phone conversations with her mother. It was pleasant for me to hear the Portuguese, but Teresa’s loudness annoyed many of our neighbors.

Q: How has the Portuguese mass immigration to Hawaii added to its history?

A: It certainly added a layer of nuance. Up until the 1930 census, Portuguese was its own racial classification (it was changed to Caucasian). It helped create a cultural middle ground between the missionary class and the other groups who arrived in Hawai’i. The Portuguese also brought their Catholicism with them, which of course, introduced religious traditions that would be shared with people from the Philippines.

Q: Who has inspired you as a writer?

A: Everything I’ve read has inspired me to write. My writing is based on my reading and I’m lucky to have had the time and inclination to read quite a bit. I come from a family of readers, my mother, my wife and my son are voracious readers. Now, I’m inspired by different audiences. Before I write, I always think about the audience and that inspires what I write.

Q: What books depicting the Portuguese in Hawaii would you recommend?

A: I wish I could recommend something strong here. Hopefully, a book is written soon.

Q: You brought malasadas into the newsroom at The New York Times (when the Rio de Janeiro correspondent was visiting) How did that go?

A: They lived up to their names! They were badly cooked. I didn’t have a proper thermometer and I was judging them by the outside. They were nice and golden, but inside? A soggy mess. I’ve always struggled with getting yeast right and this was another instance of me not totally getting them right. Besides the correspondent, my wife also bit into one of those not fully cooked malasadas. To this day, she’s always wary when she takes a bite.

Q: What Portuguese customs, foods, and experiences do you most like to share with non-Portuguese?

A: The malasadas on Malasada Day (Mardi Gras) is my favorite and close behind is giving out loaves of pão doce on Easter Sunday.

Q: What do you think Portuguese-Americans can do to strengthen and build bridges with our homeland and its people?

A: Dealing with diaspora is such an incredible challenge. Especially when it comes to the language. If I had learned Portuguese from my Vovo, I’d probably sound like I was from the 19th century. I wish we had a way for a Portuguese-American to make the Portuguese national soccer team. That’d generate a lot of interest for example. I know a couple of pretty good Portuguese-Hawaiian kids that the Lusos should keep their eyes on.

Q: You have covered wars, tragedies, triumphs and protests around the world. What’s next for you as a journalist? As a writer?

A: I’m going back to teaching journalism at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. It’ll be fun to return to the classroom and encourage the next generation.

Q: Can you share an excerpt of a project that you are currently working on?

A: My sister, Auli’i, and I teamed up for an illustrated essay project. It’ll be released on December 1.

Q: Is there something you wanted to discuss that I did not cover?

A: It has been a lot of fun to contemplate all things Portuguese, Portuguese-American and Portuguese-Hawaiian. It really makes me wish that I could be with my Vovo and her family right now, playing music and eating amazing food.

Related Post

Donna Binkiewicz: ‘The saga of my Portuguese family in Hawaii’ – Interview (2021)


Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, including Through Grainy Landscape, 2021 (inspired by Portuguese writings) and Quarantine Highway (Honorable Mention at the Latino Book Awards 2023). Her awards also include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant), and Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal). She also curates the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series.

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