Hawaii’s history is filled with examples of families who have had to deal with the issue of fragmented title as ancestors pass away without leaving wills identifying who will inherit the lands left as their legacy. I am one such ancestor who inherited land at Pila‘a that I have worked with my immediate family to maintain and pay property taxes on over the course of four decades. There has been recent misinformation in the news about my intentions to secure this land in order to pass it along to my family, so I wanted to correct the record and share my story with the community.
The “quiet title” process was developed because it is not practical for hundreds of individuals, many of whom don’t know each other, with fractional interests in a small parcel of land, to cohabitate. Quiet title has been used for decades in Hawaii, and many states have similar systems. While it is not a perfect system, the goal is to provide clear ownership of a parcel of land while providing fair compensation to those individuals with fractional interests in the land. The suit for partition is often the only legal remedy available for people to address this situation.
Manuel Rapozo, who for all intents and purposes bought the parcels around 1894, remains the legal owner of the lands in question, was my great-grandfather, and died intestate in 1928. Me and my immediate family (wife, children and grandchildren) have been living on, using, cultivating, caring for, and protecting the family lands in Pila‘a for more than 40 years — and so far as I know are the only members of the Rapozo family that have done so. Manuel leased the lands to the Kilauea Plantation very early on. After his death in 1928, the lands continued to be leased by the plantation, which cultivated sugar cane on the two parcels that were most habitable. As far as I know, after the plantation went out of business, no one in the Rapozo family lived on them or used them.
I was born on and have spent most of my life on Kauai. I was born in Kilauea, where my great-grandfather, grandfather and my mother lived and worked for the Kilauea Sugar Plantation. I was born in the plantation’s medical dispensary in 1944.
When I started a family at age 30, a primary concern, like many young families, was securing affordable housing. After my first child, paying rent became a concern on a very lean family budget. At a family gathering, an aunt heard me complaining about the rising price of local rentals. She took me aside and said, “Why don’t you live on grandpa’s land?” This was the first I ever heard that there was land in my family.
I discovered that four small parcels of land were listed as belonging to my great-grandfather Manuel Rapozo. He must have been a very thrifty man to be able to purchase them as he was a Portuguese plantation laborer who immigrated to Hawaii from the Azores Islands, then a possession of Portugal. He had seven children and earned very little in a time when plantation laborers were paid maybe a dollar a day in wages. He purchased these lands for $250 in March of 1894 from a German man named Max Schlemmer, someone who I suspect was a land speculator.
I was unable to find that anyone in the family had ever lived on or cultivated those lands. Manuel Rapozo leased the lands to the Kilauea Sugar Plantation while he was alive. After he passed away in 1928, apparently the leases were extended until the plantation went out of business in 1971.
Knowing then that my family had a rightful claim to the land, I did the research, which enabled me to locate the parcels of property on the land itself. They were located in an extremely “off the grid” location: no roads, no power, and no government water source, the nearest being more than three miles away in Kilauea.
Beginning in the mid-’70s, my immediate family (wife and three successive children) had the parcels of land surveyed, cleared them one by one, prepared the land for planting gardens and restored the ‘auwai system (irrigation) and lo‘i complex (taro pond fields) that once existed there. We began setting out coconut, ‘ulu and other fruit trees for more long-term subsistence benefits, grew vegetables for subsistence, and continued work on clearing the land, modifying and improving our living arrangements. This work on the ‘aina went on for more than 40 years and continues to go on today.
During the intervening years, we built a formal house out of recycled building material on one of the parcels that was comfortable, but still “off the grid.” The house survived two hurricanes, one (Iwa) in which we (wife and three children) spent an entire hurricane within its shivering walls.
I am unaware of any other descendant of Manuel Rapozo who has attempted to make use of the lands or who has offered to assist in paying the property taxes or to contribute to clearing the lands and having them surveyed. I want to resolve the issues pertaining to the title on these lands in order to secure for my immediate family our legal share of these lands that we have invested time and money into caring for over the course of the past 40-plus years.
The only legal process available to determine what is appropriate under the law is the quiet title process. That process is designed to designate a single owner over each of the four parcels that are part of our great-grandfather’s lands. At the same time, it would provide monetary compensation to all other family members who are determined by the court to be legal heirs of our great-grandfather’s estate. At this time, more than five generations later, most (several hundred) only hold small, fractional interests. The auction is the final step in the process to separate everyone’s interest and compensate everyone in the family fairly. I intend to bid in order to retain my family’s fair share in what remains of the property.
I have spent more than half my life tending to these lands and have been given shares in the ownership from my mother (now deceased), and other family members of her generation. Hopefully, my family and I will be able to continue to live on and care for these small plots of land well into the future. In the past, my immediate family and I have invested uncounted hours of our lives and significant resources to care for these lands with no security for our investment. I feel that the only recourse is to allow the legal system to finally resolve the relevant issues. I pursue these actions of my own volition in order to make that dream a reality.
Carlos Andrade, A Pila‘a resident, is a retired professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.