The Coqui: One’s National Treasure is another’s National Menace

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In 2012, on our Hawaiian honeymoon my wife and I had just finished an incredible tour of the volcanos on the Big Island.  We arrived at the airport in Hilo and as we were getting our things together I heard it.

Co-QUI

Co-QUI

I was confused. I looked around. That couldn’t be right?

Co-QUI

This was the wrong part of the world, how are they here?

Co-QUI

I was flooded with a feeling of home for a place I had not lived in for 25 years, and was nearly halfway around the world.

The coqui is a tiny frog, no more than two inches long.   

For a frog so small it makes itself known, Their call can hit 90 decibels.

The coqui is a beloved and treasured mascot of Puerto Rico.

 

Throughout “Almost Like Praying,” a song written by Lin-Manuel Miranda to raise awareness and raise aid money for a Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria, the song of the coqui is sampled throughout, but can most clearly be heard at the very end of the song.    

“Almost like Praying” celebrates Puerto Rican culture and heritage in many clever ways, sampling a coqui was a nod to a beloved symbol connected to the island. This did not go unnoticed in the comments, and some even saying how they became emotional at hearing the call of that little frog in the song.  

I smile as I remember listening to the song of the coqui coming from outside the wood paneled windows of my grandparents home as a small boy in Puerto Rico.

Coquis are so loved and their song is such a part of the Puerto Rican identity that there are lullabies about the coqui:

English Version:

Spanish Version:

But I was not in Puerto Rico. I was in Hawaii. Coquis are native to Puerto Rico, and are generally only found in Puerto Rico. Why were there coquis here?

I did not think much of it until I returned home. It was a lovely moment in an amazing honeymoon, something that reminded me of my little island in the Caribbean.

Then I googled “Coqui” and “Hawaii.”  

Oh.

It seems that sometime in the 1990’s a small population of coquis stowed away on a ship that originated from Puerto Rico or perhaps even Florida.  They found a home on the Big Island, which was quite similar to that of Puerto Rico, but with no native predators the coqui population blew up.

Whereas in Puerto Rico the sound of the coqui is considered a musical and wondrous part of the landscape, in Hawaii their song has been described as a “Loud, incessant and annoying call from dusk to dawn” by the Hawaii Invasive Species Council.

“Annoying? The coqui’s song is music!” Was my initial reaction. But I took a step back. The coqui is an entrenched national treasure in Puerto Rico. But in Hawaii, its song is not just out of place it’s LOUD and out of place. There is no heritage associated with their song and it was destroying the natural night time song of Hawaii.

In taking this step back, I read with fascination about this issue. How a small population has come to love the song, but how there is a movement to keep the frogs from spreading off the Big Island to the other Hawaiian islands.

This entire little episode made me appreciate our differences and our similarities. I fell in love with Hawaii both because I love the Polynesian culture, but part of it felt like home, like Puerto Rico. I guess I am an island boy at heart. But while these similarities are real and worth exploring, it is the wonderful differences between these two places that make them unique and amazing.

Perhaps the coqui frog just did not get the message.    

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