The Influence of Portuguese Culture in Hawaii: From Ukulele to Malasadas

The influence of Portuguese culture in Hawaii has been significant and is still evident today in various aspects of Hawaiian life, including music, food, and traditions. The Portuguese began arriving in Hawaii in the late 19th century, primarily from the Azores and Madeira islands, to work on sugarcane plantations. Over time, they integrated their traditions with the local Hawaiian culture, leading to a unique blend that continues to shape the islands' identity.

But before we start with the key aspects of the cultural influence, let’s take a brief look at the history of the Portuguese in Hawaii:

History of the Portuguese in Hawaii

The history of the Portuguese in Hawaii is rooted in the late 19th century when Portuguese immigrants arrived on the islands to work on sugarcane plantations. These immigrants came primarily from the Azores and Madeira, which are islands located off the coast of Portugal. Their arrival and subsequent integration into Hawaiian society had a lasting impact on the islands' culture, economy, and social fabric.

Immigration to Sugarcane Plantations:

In the 1870s and 1880s, Hawaii's sugar industry was booming, and plantation owners sought a source of cheap labor to work on the sugarcane fields. They turned to various immigrant groups, including the Portuguese, to fill this labor demand. The first Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawaii in 1878 aboard the ship "Priscilla." Over the next few decades, thousands of Portuguese men, women, and families made the long journey to Hawaii in search of better opportunities.

Working Conditions and Integration:

Life on the sugarcane plantations was challenging and labor-intensive. Portuguese laborers, like other immigrant groups, faced difficult working conditions, long hours, and low wages. Despite these challenges, the Portuguese immigrants adapted to their new environment and contributed significantly to the development of the sugar industry.

One notable aspect of the Portuguese immigrant experience was their interaction and integration with the local Hawaiian population. Over time, a unique cultural fusion emerged as the Portuguese traditions mixed with Hawaiian customs. This blending of cultures gave rise to the distinctive Hawaiian-Portuguese identity that continues to be celebrated today.

Cultural Contributions:

As mentioned earlier, the Portuguese introduced various cultural elements to Hawaii. The ukulele and malasadas are just two examples of their contributions. In addition to these, Portuguese language and religious practices also left a mark on Hawaiian culture. Portuguese words, such as "ohana" (meaning family) and "bucha" (meaning stomach), became integrated into the local dialect.

The Catholic faith was strong among the Portuguese immigrants, and they established churches and religious practices that influenced the broader Hawaiian community. Festivals and traditions, such as the Holy Ghost Festival, were introduced and have become an integral part of Hawaii's cultural landscape.

Influence of Portuguese Culture in Hawaii

Legacy and Descendants:

The descendants of Portuguese immigrants continue to be an important part of Hawaii's population. Many have risen to prominence in various fields, including politics, business, and the arts. The contributions of the Portuguese and their descendants are celebrated during events like the annual Portuguese Festival, which highlights the rich heritage and cultural impact of this immigrant group.

Ukulele and Malasadas: The Two Specific Examples of Portuguese Cultural Influence in Hawaii

One is a musical instrument, the other is a type of pastry. Ukuleles and Malasadas are perfect example of how cultural exchanges can go in many directions but somehow always end with food and fun. Ukulele has become the most prominent represent of Hawaiian music and culture, while Malasadas are an integral part of Hawaiian cuisine. Let’s take a detailed look at each of them:


The ukulele is a small, four-stringed musical instrument that is commonly associated with Hawaiian music and culture. Its unique sound and portability have made it a symbol of the Hawaiian Islands and a beloved instrument worldwide. The ukulele's impact on Hawaiian music and culture is profound, shaping both the local musical landscape and influencing genres far beyond the islands.

Origins and Evolution

The ukulele's origins can be traced back to the 19th century when Portuguese immigrants, particularly from the Madeira and Azores islands, arrived in Hawaii to work on sugarcane plantations. These immigrants brought with them a similar instrument called the machete, which had a small, guitar-like body and four strings. As the Portuguese immigrants integrated into Hawaiian society, the machete's playing style and design evolved to suit local preferences, eventually giving rise to the modern ukulele.

The name "ukulele" itself means "jumping flea" in Hawaiian, referring to the rapid finger movements used to play the instrument. The ukulele is typically made in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. Each size produces a distinct range of tones, contributing to the ukulele's versatile sound.

Impact on Hawaiian Music and Culture

The ukulele quickly became an integral part of Hawaiian music and culture. Its cheerful and melodic tones perfectly complemented the relaxed and joyful spirit of the islands. Here's how the ukulele has impacted Hawaiian music and culture:

  • Traditional Hawaiian Music: The ukulele became a staple instrument in traditional Hawaiian music. It was often used to accompany hula performances, chant, and storytelling. Its bright sound and easy playability made it a popular choice for both professional musicians and amateur players.
  • Popularization of Hawaiian Music: In the early 20th century, Hawaiian music gained popularity on the mainland United States and around the world. The ukulele's compact size and charming sound made it an ideal instrument for showcasing Hawaiian melodies. Performers like King Kalākaua, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole ("IZ"), and later Jake Shimabukuro helped spread Hawaiian music globally using the ukulele as a central instrument.
  • Cultural Symbol: The ukulele became synonymous with Hawaiian culture, representing the laid-back and friendly ambiance of the islands. It is often featured in depictions of Hawaii, including movies, TV shows, and advertisements, further cementing its role as a cultural icon.
  • Contemporary and Cross-Genre Music: While deeply rooted in Hawaiian tradition, the ukulele's influence extended beyond its original context. Musicians began incorporating the ukulele into various genres, such as pop, rock, jazz, and folk. Its adaptability and distinctive sound made it a favorite among artists seeking to infuse their music with a touch of Hawaiian flair.
  • Community and Social Connection: The ukulele played a role in bringing people together. Ukulele clubs, workshops, and festivals emerged, fostering a sense of community among players of all skill levels. The instrument's approachability and ease of learning basic chords contributed to its popularity among beginners.

In conclusion, the ukulele's impact on Hawaiian music and culture is profound and enduring. Its role as an instrument of joy, connection, and expression has solidified its place in Hawaiian identity and beyond. From its humble origins among Portuguese immigrants to its global recognition as a cultural symbol, the ukulele continues to strum the chords of Hawaiian history and creativity.

Hawaii and Portuguese Culture


Malasadas are a delicious Portuguese pastry that has made a significant impact on Hawaiian cuisine and culture. These deep-fried doughnuts, coated with sugar and often filled with various sweet fillings, have become a beloved treat in Hawaii, cherished for their taste and the cultural traditions associated with them.

Introduction to Hawaii

The introduction of malasadas to Hawaii can be attributed to Portuguese immigrants who arrived in the islands in the late 19th century, primarily from the Azores and Madeira. These immigrants brought with them their culinary traditions, including the art of making malasadas. In Portuguese culture, malasadas are often associated with celebrations, particularly leading up to Lent. They are commonly enjoyed on "Fat Tuesday" or Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, as a way to indulge before the fasting period.

Cultural Integration and Tradition

In Hawaii, the tradition of making and consuming malasadas took on a new significance. Over time, malasadas became a part of the cultural fabric, blending with local Hawaiian customs and festivities. They became associated with community gatherings, celebrations, and special occasions.

One of the most notable traditions linked to malasadas in Hawaii is "Malasada Day." On Shrove Tuesday, local bakeries and food trucks across the islands prepare and sell fresh malasadas to long lines of eager customers. This tradition not only offers a delicious treat but also brings people together to celebrate and share in the joy of this beloved pastry.

Variety and Creativity:

While traditional malasadas are often coated in granulated sugar, creative variations have emerged over time. Bakeries and food establishments in Hawaii have experimented with different fillings, including custard, chocolate, fruit preserves, and even savory options. These variations have added to the diversity of malasada offerings and catered to different tastes.

Impact on Hawaiian Cuisine:

Malasadas have had a lasting impact on Hawaiian cuisine in several ways:

  • Cultural Fusion: The incorporation of malasadas into Hawaiian culture reflects the blending of Portuguese and Hawaiian traditions. It showcases the ability of different immigrant groups to adapt their culinary practices to new environments, resulting in a unique fusion of flavors and customs.
  • Celebratory Food: Malasadas have become a symbol of celebration and togetherness in Hawaii. They are often enjoyed during festivals, holidays, and community events, adding a sense of festivity to these occasions.
  • Culinary Identity: Malasadas contribute to Hawaii's diverse culinary identity. They are a testament to the multicultural influences that have shaped Hawaiian cuisine over the years, showcasing the rich tapestry of flavors that make up the islands' food landscape.
  • Tourism and Cultural Exchange: Malasadas have become a popular food item for both locals and tourists, providing a tangible connection to Portuguese heritage. Visitors to Hawaii have the opportunity to experience and enjoy this unique culinary delight, promoting cultural exchange and appreciation.

All in all, malasadas have left a lasting impact on Hawaiian cuisine by intertwining Portuguese traditions with local Hawaiian customs. Beyond their delectable taste, malasadas serve as a reminder of the diverse cultural influences that have shaped the islands' culinary landscape and the importance of food in building community and fostering connections.

Other Examples of the Portuguese Cultural Impact in Hawaii

Ukulele and malasadas may be the biggest but they are not the only examples of the Portuguese influence in Hawaii. Portuguese culture has left several other notable influences on Hawaii that have contributed to the islands' unique cultural tapestry. Let’s check some of them:

  • Language and Vocabulary: The Portuguese language has had a subtle yet lasting influence on the Hawaiian dialect. Many Portuguese words and phrases have been integrated into everyday speech. For example, the Hawaiian term "pau hana," which means "finished with work," is believed to have originated from the Portuguese phrase "pau à cana," meaning "work is done."
  • Festivals and Traditions: The Holy Ghost Festival (Festa do Espírito Santo) is a significant Portuguese religious celebration that has been embraced in Hawaii. This festival involves a grand feast with traditional Portuguese dishes, music, dancing, and a procession. The festival has become an annual event in several Hawaiian communities, showcasing the strong Portuguese religious heritage.
  • Family and Community Values: The emphasis on family and community values in Portuguese culture has resonated with Hawaiian society. The concept of "ohana," meaning family, has similarities to Portuguese family-centric values. This shared emphasis on familial bonds has contributed to the sense of community and unity in Hawaii.
  • Catholicism: The Portuguese brought their Catholic faith to Hawaii, which played a role in shaping the religious landscape of the islands. Catholic churches established by Portuguese immigrants became important centers for spiritual and social gatherings, contributing to the rich fabric of Hawaiian religious diversity.
  • Architecture: Portuguese architectural influences can be seen in some older buildings and structures in Hawaii. Features such as the use of wood, stonework, and distinctive roof designs reminiscent of Portuguese architecture have been incorporated into Hawaiian building styles.
  • Livestock and Ranching: Portuguese immigrants played a significant role in introducing and developing livestock and ranching practices in Hawaii. They brought with them expertise in raising cattle, which contributed to the establishment of cattle ranches on the islands. These ranching traditions continue to influence Hawaii's agricultural landscape.
  • Music and Dance: In addition to the ukulele, Portuguese influences can be seen in other aspects of Hawaiian music and dance. Some traditional Hawaiian songs incorporate Portuguese-style melodies and rhythms, showcasing a blend of cultural elements.
  • Culinary Traditions: Beyond malasadas, Portuguese culinary traditions have contributed to Hawaii's food culture. Dishes such as "Portuguese bean soup" (a hearty soup made with sausage, beans, and vegetables) and "sweet bread" (a slightly sweet, soft bread) have become local favorites.
  • Surnames and Genealogy: The Portuguese immigrants brought with them their surnames, which have become a part of Hawaii's diverse population. Many modern-day Hawaiians have Portuguese surnames, reflecting their ancestral connections.
  • Intermarriage and Heritage: Over generations, intermarriage between Portuguese immigrants and Hawaiians has resulted in a blending of cultures and traditions. Many Hawaiians today have mixed Portuguese heritage, and this diverse background has enriched the islands' cultural identity.


Overall, we can certainly say that the influence of the Portuguese in Hawaii is both significant and important. The Portuguese immigrants and their descendants have left a lasting and indelible mark on Hawaiian culture, society, and various aspects of life. Culture, music, food, festivals, religion and architecture are some of the many examples. The influence of the Portuguese in Hawaii is a testament to the power of cultural exchange and integration. Their contributions have enriched Hawaiian society, creating a dynamic and multifaceted cultural mosaic that continues to be celebrated and appreciated by residents and visitors alike.

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