It did not take long for the little geysers of hatred to erupt earlier this month after local news outlets gave prominent play to what was described as a “melee” between Samoans, who had been attending a bridal shower in Cerritos, and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.
“One guy called me the next day and wouldn’t give his name, but he was furious,” Samoan community activist June Pouesi recalled. “ ‘Why don’t you Samoans learn to live here?’ he wanted to know. He went on and on with the stereotypes.”
Pouesi doubts that the image of Samoans improved much in the minds of such people a week or so later after reports of a deadly measles outbreak among Samoan children in Hacienda Heights. The outbreak, part of a countywide epidemic, has so far killed two Samoan children and an infant who had not received vaccinations that are readily available and free.
On Monday, however, Pouesi and others among the 60,000 Samoans in Los Angeles County were hoping the attention paid to both matters would bring about something good.
“Maybe these experiences will provide the sensitivity to our population that will . . . help us help ourselves,” said Pouesi, coordinator of the Office of Samoan Affairs, a nonprofit, privately operated agency established six years ago in Carson.
Her comments were echoed by other Samoans who describe themselves as one of the most ignored and misunderstood ethnic groups in Southern California, one that is hit disproportionately hard with poverty, high unemployment and school dropout rates and youth crime, including gangs.
Pouesi said publicity about the measles deaths might make more Samoans aware of government services, such as the county’s immunization program.
Others said they expect the Cerritos incident, which led to allegations of police brutality, to rouse Samoans to new levels of much-needed political and community activism.
Samoans, despite stereotypes that paint them as aggressive, “tend to be very passive and respectful of authority,” said Samoa-born Dhyan Lal, principal at Carnegie Junior High School in Carson.
Said Vaai Siofele, host of a local radio program targeted at Samoans: “Sometimes it takes something like this for people to wake up and see what’s going on.” Pouesi said her agency, which provides such services as job training and interpreters for those who speak only the language of their home island in the South Pacific, is the only Samoan agency in the area that receives government money.
When the agency was begun in 1983, she said, “it was like pulling teeth” getting a $75,000 grant from the county.
The problem, Pouesi said, is that Samoans are a relatively new ethnic group in the United States and, as a group, have not yet learned how to extract what they need from government and politicians.
A contributing factor, she said, is that Samoans and other Pacific Islanders are often lumped demographically with Asians, many of whom are generally better educated and more prosperous.
“It makes us invisible when you don’t break us out,” she said, “and we don’t get the kind of attention we need from the government and other agencies.”
According to Pouesi, who was born in American Samoa and spent time in Hawaii before she and her family moved to the Carson area, Samoans did not arrive in the United States in significant numbers until the 1950s.
Almost all were people who had been associated with the U.S. Navy in their homeland, she said. Almost all of that group and successive waves of Samoans, settled on the West Coast. According to estimates, there are 90,000 Samoans on the West Coast, compared with about 10,000 in the rest of the country.
Like all immigrant groups, Samoans said Monday, they were immediately stereotyped. In their case, they were portrayed by others as overweight, mean and prone to physical violence.
Lal and others said that those stereotypes may have led deputies to “overreact” Feb. 11 when they went to the home of a family in Cerritos, reportedly to answer complaints about a noisy party.
When deputies arrived, they numbered about 100, according to accounts of people who were at the bridal shower, and were wearing riot gear.
Sheriff Sherman Block has said the deputies responded appropriately when they subdued and arrested 35 of the party-goers because people in the house hurled bottles and other objects at them.
The people at the party said they provoked no one and accused the deputies of indiscriminate brutality.
Last week about 250 Samoans protested the incident by marching in front of the sheriff’s station in Carson, where 75% of Los Angeles County’s Samoans live.