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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.

HERITAGE: Fifth in an occasional series of stories on Orange County's diverse ethnic groups.

November 25, 1990|SUSAN PATERNO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES and Susan Paterno is a regular contributor to Orange County View.

SANTA ANA — 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.

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