Faces of the Diaspora Series: An Unlikely Path to Missouri


Dawn-Erleen Fontanilla has experienced a lot in her 78 years of life: love and loss, community and solitude, the islands and the continent.

When she first moved from Hawaiʻi to Missouri in 2004, Fontanilla paid a visit to a local swap meet. She was on a mission to buy asparagus plants, but the vendor told her that it would take three years for the vegetables to fully grow.

Fontanilla passed on the purchase, with one thought resounding in her head: “Oh, my God, three years? I’m not gonna be here for three years.”

And, yet, almost 19 years later, she’s still living on the continent – one of hundreds of thousands of Kānaka to make a similar journey.

Fontanilla grew up in Kāneʻohe, Oʻahu, the eldest of four children. Her mother (who just turned 97) and sister still reside in the same house that she played in as a little girl. She and her siblings attended Kamehameha Schools. Always a “free spirit” Fontanilla recalls getting into trouble at school for her kolohe antics. Shortly after graduating in 1963, she got married and in a matter of a few years became the mother of five children.

Although the couple eventually divorced, Fontanilla’s grateful for the union because otherwise, “I wouldn’t have my children today,” she said.

Fontanilla moved to Hāna, Maui, with her keiki in 1970. What she didn’t realize at the time was that she would meet her second husband there. She remarried in 1972, and her new husband adopted her two daughters and three sons. For years, Fontanilla lived happily in Hāna, working at a variety of jobs and raising her children. In 1985, she relocated to Kahului where she obtained a commercial driver’s license and started a job driving a semi for a local trucking company.

When her mother had spine surgery in 1988, Fontanilla, who by then had separated from her second husband, moved back to Oʻahu to help care for her. The next 16 years were a whirlwind. While her mom was still recovering from her surgery, one of her sons had a serious car accident suffering a broken neck – fortunately, he fully recovered. Fontanilla decided to remain on Oʻahu.

In 2004, Fontanilla and her second husband finally divorced after being separated and on friendly terms for nearly two decades. It factored into her decision to uproot her life in Hawaiʻi and move to the American Midwest.

At the time, another of Fontanilla’s sons was driving cross country as a commercial truck driver.

He encouraged his mom to buy a house in Missouri where he was living at the time, describing it as being “like Hāna. It’s so green and lush.”

Fontanilla took the plunge, purchasing a home sight unseen. But when she arrived in Missouri in the middle of winter – which often brings freezing temperatures – she asked him, “Um, where’s all the green?”

At first, the move to the continent was an adjustment. Her property is surrounded by forest, and “I was scared to death because I heard all of these different animal sounds I had never heard before,” she recalled.

In addition to adjusting to differences in the climate, the flora, the fauna and the food, Fontanilla finds the people different too and says that she often witnesses bigotry on the continent, particularly against the Latinos in her community.

But she also points to changes back home noting that she’s unsure whether Hawaiians in urban areas are fostering connections to the ʻāina, culture and ʻohana like they used to. And she also reflects on the intolerance that many in Hawaiʻi feel towards white people due, in part, to historical injustice and the large military presence there.

“People are just people,” said Fontanilla, whose maternal grandmother was pure Caucasian and from New York. “Everybody’s human.”

Increasingly, she’s been blown away by the skyrocketing cost of living in Hawaiʻi.

“I don’t know how people do it,” Fontanilla said. “I don’t know how they can survive with the price of housing, the price of everything there.”

The son that encouraged her to move to Missouri has since returned to Hawaiʻi, and her ʻohana hopes she’ll move back too, but Fontanilla’s not quite ready to leave. For now, she’s happy living alone with just her dog, Chica, for company. “I love it out here. It’s quiet. It’s nice. It’s serene.”

Of course, she’s made friends and earned a reputation in her rural community as “the Hawaiian lady” who always wears a flower in her hair. She admits, “I miss Hawaiʻi, I miss the flowers, I miss the people.”

Although she has been happy in Missouri – and has seen friends move to Texas and elsewhere and find contentment – Fontanilla has mixed feelings when asked if she had any advice to others considering a similar move. “If you can just keep the Hawaiian culture alive, I say go for it if you can’t afford to stay in Hawaiʻi,” she said.

As for the future, Fontanilla said, “I have a feeling I’ll know when I’m going to kick the bucket.” And she plans to return home before taking her last breath.