The gang name scrawled across the traffic sign was probably meant as a fearsome claiming of territory, except it was a 25 mph sign in a country lane on Kauai where goats nibble on dandelions in front yards and BVDs flap from garage clotheslines. Plus, the gang name, "Kalaheo Mafia," had already been taken by a bunch of old ladies.
In the 1970s the real Kalaheo Mafia had better things to do than spray-paint signs. They would stop traffic, buttonhole state senators, put the squeeze on government workers to provide senior citizen bus service and handrails in public toilets and county-sponsored Valentine’s dances in the community gyms.
They didn’t call themselves the Kalaheo Mafia. Others did, behind their backs, as well as a few other descriptive labels. When they were lunching at the Kalaheo Senior Center and crocheting blankets for unwed mothers, they sometimes called themselves the "L.O.L.s" for Little Old Ladies, but they dropped that name when they were out in the community nagging people into action.
They were a group of retired ladies from Kalaheo, Omao, Lawai and Koloa, most of them widowed, most with names that started with ‘M’: Mary, Margaret, Mildred, Mitsue. It would be too simple to say they were all Portuguese, though Kalaheo was at the time a notorious Portuguese enclave. The group was diverse, however, the only requirements for membership being a willingness to pester politicians, a desire for bettering the community and the ability to bake dessert involving mango, lilikoi or guava that would win the heart of a tight-fisted elected official.
Sometimes they did their work under the auspices of the Office of Elderly Affairs. Sometimes it was the Retired Teachers Association, for though not all were retired teachers, they supported the teachers’ values.
Sometimes their work was on behalf of a church, but mostly they were lobbyists for the people. If a kid in town needed an operation, they would crochet afghans and sell coffee-can bread until the money was raised.
If a school needed a new swing set, they would shake down local contractors until there was enough manpower and money to complete the job. If somebody almost got whacked crossing the street by the appliance store, there would be letters written and meetings scheduled to discuss a new traffic signal and crosswalk.
Their reign of municipal terror roughly spanned the Ariyoshi years. Once the 1990s came, they one by one died or moved with family to the mainland or just didn’t get out of the house as often. But if they were around today, no doubt they would spot the "Kalaheo Mafia" graffiti on the street sign, search out the offenders and give them a good scolding. And some mango bread.