Faith and Tradition Guide Tongans in Sea of Troubles : Immigrants: Despite hardships in a new land, they shun welfare, value the family and retain their island roots.

Susan Paterno is a regular contributor to Orange County View.

Milika Amasio sits upright, fingers poised, voice ready. "Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high . . . There's a place that I've heard of once in a lullaby."

She is at the piano in her family's living room in Santa Ana, thousands of miles away from the grass hut where her father was born. Tonga. That's what she tells her friends when they ask "Where are you from?"

Tonga, 12-year-old Milika says before sitting down to entertain guests with her piano playing, is a place to visit relatives. She would never consider living there. "Skies are blue . . . And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true."

It was a dream of Milika's parents that brought the family to Orange County nearly two decades ago from the tiny South Pacific island nation located just east of Fiji. Her father, Amoni, was one of the first Tongans to settle in Southern California.

Today, 10,000 Tongans live throughout the Southland, making it the largest such community outside the archipelago of 100,000 people.

Milika's parents came for the same reasons that so many immigrants come to the United States: to escape the poverty of their homeland.

A land shortage in Tonga has deprived many men of their legal right to a small plot for cultivation, exacerbating the problems of the subsistence economy. Many more Tongans are expected to arrive in the United States, Tongans living here predict, as the economy on the island worsens.

Once here, the majority of Tongans struggle. They live with large families in high crime neighborhoods, work long days in factories and do manual labor, remembering fondly the farm life they left behind: free land, free homes, trees full of mangos, coconuts and bananas.

Despite the hardships they encounter in the United States, Tongans have an advantage. They do better in school than other immigrants, rarely accept welfare and are much more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators, according to police and social service providers.

Community leaders attribute their success to continuing ties to village traditions reinforced by strong religious beliefs. Nearly all Tongans in Orange and Los Angeles counties belong to Christian churches, with a majority claiming membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Tongan Mormons in Orange County, as in Inglewood, Riverside, San Bernardino and as far away as Utah, have their own branch of the church, called a ward, which is separate from the mainstream congregation. It doubles as a church and a support network, giving the Tongan community a center that holds it together.

Besides teaching liturgy, the church introduces Tongans to American customs: teen camp-outs, Girls Club, Boy Scouts, weekend retreats, cooking and sewing classes, marriage and family counseling.

At the same time, it gives them a place to maintain island traditions. In the evenings at the Santa Ana Tongan church, members sometimes practice traditional drumming, dancing and songs--rewritten to praise the Mormon Church. About twice a year, the group performs at church-sponsored Tongan feasts, complete with roasted pig, native clothes, and dancing and music.

The noise occasionally upsets residents in the predominantly white middle-class neighborhood where the church is located, but the two groups are planning to meet to find a way to coexist peacefully.

The Amasios belong to the Santa Ana Tongan ward. After services on a recent Sunday afternoon, the Amasios went home and gathered around the television set, listening as church leaders warned against abortion, homosexuality and drug addiction in a televised address.

Plastic slipcovers protect the new furniture. Family portraits and honor-roll certificates fill the walls. An elderly relative, wearing rubber thongs, a Windbreaker and a florescent ski cap, sleeps in an armchair. The Bible holds a prominent place in the room.

Milika Amasio is the oldest of five children, a junior high school student at a school dominated by Latinos. Her neighbors speak Vietnamese and Spanish. Her family shops for island coconut juice, corned beef and taro root at Samoan grocery stores. She avoids local gangs by sticking close to her two best friends--both Filipinos.

Statistics say she lives in one of the county's poorest neighborhoods, but her life is far from impoverished. Her father, a year before Milika was born, bought their house in a Santa Ana neighborhood of California bungalows, tall shade trees and tangled gardens bursting with blooming flowers.

Their freshly painted brown wood house is surrounded by tropical plants, an island oasis with a basketball hoop. Though Milika and her little sister, Kapiolani, 8, have seen drug dealers selling to youngsters at the park nearby, the family feels safe enough to leave and lock only the wrought iron gate out front.

At home, Milika speaks Tongan to her grandfather, learns traditional island dances and plucks sugar cane for snacks from the back-yard garden. She is also typically American: She plays piano at church services every Sunday, loves junk food and roller-skating.

The girls at school tease her because she shops for clothes at rummage sales instead of at the mall. "They say, 'Why do you wear that?' " Milika relates with the painful shyness of a teen-ager trying to fit in. But she adds: "I'm waiting to hurry and grow up so I can buy my clothes from the mall with my own money."

The parents, like many others, sometimes have a hard time understanding their children. "They forget their shoes or clothes at a friend's house and lose them," Amoni, their father, said. "They just assume food will be on the table. I think kids in the United States are awfully spoiled."

Amoni grew up poor in Tonga where the per capita income is $20 a week and toilet paper costs $1.50 a roll. It is a patriarchal, feudal government with a king and nobles, no television, one radio station and a single weekly newspaper.

As in other parts of the South Pacific, Mormons boast high conversion rates in Tonga, prompting many island natives to come to the United States, where the church is based. In many respects, Mormon Church customs mirror Tongan culture, Amoni said. Both put family first and believe in traditional gender roles, sexual modesty and education.

Amoni's father, a subsistence farmer, converted to Mormonism before his children were born. Amoni and his 12 siblings went barefoot year-round and only ate bread and butter at Christmas because it was such a luxury. During the summer, Amoni worked in the fields for 10 cents an hour to earn enough money to pay his $23 high school tuition.

"My father told us education is the only way to improve yourself," he said. After his father died, the family nearly starved. Amoni went to Hawaii and worked as a dishwasher for $1.35 an hour, sending all but $25 a week to his mother, who became well-off enough to help poorer relatives.

As soon as he was able, Amoni returned to school, a Mormon university in Hawaii. In exchange for paying his tuition, the church hired him to perform native dances of various South Pacific islands at the Mormon-owned Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Oahu.

He eventually came to California, drawn by the promise of better-paying jobs and opportunities for his children. But there are trade-offs, he said. Here, parents contend with gangs, drugs, homelessness, the abandonment of elders. On the island, the only warning they give their children, he said, is, "Don't trip over the coconut tree."

To Amoni's daughters, Tonga is a mystery. "When I tell people where I'm from, they ask me all about it. And I don't know," Kapiolani concedes. "So I just say I'm from Hawaii."

Amoni smiled. "I'll take them to the islands and let them walk the streets," he said. "Then, maybe then they'll understand."

As more Tongans arrive in Southern California with less education, problems persist. Church member Rebel Vete, a friend of the Amasio family, recalled how two of her cousins joined a Tongan gang in Los Angeles. One is serving a 45-year prison term, the other was paralyzed in a gang shooting, she said.

Vete blames her aunt and uncle for straying from church teachings. "When you go away from what the leaders say," she warned, "you get into trouble."

The church provides emotional and financial support to struggling members. If a member is seen with gangs, for instance, "they're sent on a mission to the islands," Vete said. The result: There are no Tongan gangs in Orange County and only one in Los Angeles, according to police.

Church officials constantly seek new recruits; as soon as someone arrives from the islands, Amoni said, "we run them down and catch them. We get them into the church." In five years, Tongan membership in the Orange County Mormon Church has increased fivefold, from 60 to more than 300, with an average two to four conversions a month.

Even more members belong to the Mormon Church in Inglewood, the oldest Tongan community in Southern California. Tongans originally settled near the airport "so that when relatives arrived, we could borrow a car to pick them up," said Sioana Tuione, director of Tongan Social Services in Gardena.

As more came, they began moving to Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where strong local economies meant plentiful jobs in gardening, construction, tree-trimming and concrete-pouring. Very few accept public assistance, according to government statistics.

"In our society, it's shameful to accept welfare," said Tuione, whose agency assists Tongans in need. "We live close to each other to share. Sometimes we have a hard time helping (those in need) because they won't admit how hard it is to live in America."

So few Tongans accept welfare in Orange County, for example, that there is no separate category for them. Tongans also do well in school: Natives of the Pacific islands have the lowest dropout rate in Orange County schools, next to Asians and Filipinos, according to a 1988 Department of Education study.

While a traditional, conservative upbringing may serve the children well at home and in school, it can create conflicts for teen-agers and young adults, Tuione said.

As they struggle to enter the mainstream, they have few role models and little practical advice on how to break into the professional classes, she said.

Vete, for example, graduated with top grades from a Santa Ana high school and planned to go to college. But last year, she became engaged to a native Tongan who was serving his church on a mission in Orange County.

When her husband returned to live in Tonga, Rebel went with him reluctantly. In less than a year, she has flown back to Santa Ana four times, spending most of her savings.

She would like to attend college but doubts she will now that she has married. More important, she said, is convincing her husband to move back to Santa Ana.

"Santa Ana is home to me," she said. "And there's no place like home."

TONGA Location: South Pacific island kingdom 3,000 miles southwest of Honolulu. Nearest neighbors are Fiji on the west and New Zealand on south. Size: 270 square miles, smaller than New York City. Composed of 169 volcanic and coral islands in three major groupings known as Haapai, Tongatapu and Vavau. Some of the volcanoes are active. Capital: Nuku'alofa Population: 108,000 (1989 estimate) Form of Government: Constitutional monarchy. Only remaining kingdom in Polynesia. Sources: 1990 World Almanac, World Book Encyclopedia.

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