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L.A.'s close-knit Tongan community struggles with poverty

Statistics show half of Tongan Angelenos live in poverty. But, they say, a culture of sharing means 'no Tongan is here to get rich.'

November 28, 2013|By Emily Alpert Reyes
  • After church, Saia Holani sits with two of his children, 3-year-old Ana and 4-year-old Kaho, right, in the family's apartment in Inglewood. Katisha, 6, sits nearby.
After church, Saia Holani sits with two of his children, 3-year-old Ana… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)

Dusk fell on the Imperial Highway apartment as Saia Holani scrambled to find a spare lamp, having handed off his own to a neighbor in need. Four of his children romped through the darkened living room, still in their Sunday best, as his wife offered pink wedges of watermelon to guests.

"No Tongan is here to get rich," Holani had said earlier, outside the humble chapel of the Lennox Tongan United Methodist Church. "Even the smallest thing — we give."

Families who trace their roots to the South Pacific islands of Tonga are among the poorest — if not the poorest of all — in Los Angeles County. The most recent Census Bureau estimates available show half of Tongan Angelenos are living in poverty. Unemployment is dismal. Incomes are sparse.

Yet even through the recession, Tongans and their churches held fast to their culture of sharing, drumming up funds for faraway schools, nearby funerals and friends in need. When Holani struggled to find work, his brother-in-law chipped in. Fellow churchgoers let him know about odd jobs, sharing chances at cash.

Now that he has a steady job managing maintenance for an apartment company, Holani readily gives back — a lamp, some money, whatever he can. Despite their hardships, Holani still sees the United States as "the land of opportunity." It was no mistake to bring his wife here, to raise their nine children on these shores. At his Inglewood apartment, he proudly displays a framed "copy of the copy" of the Declaration of Independence.

"It's Canaan," Holani said, dropping the Biblical reference with ease. "The land of honey and milk."

Waves of Tongans began leaving their South Pacific nation in the '60s and '70s to find better wages and education for their children, many trading a life of fishing and farming for paychecks and schooling abroad. Some headed to nearby New Zealand and Australia. Others migrated to Hawaii, California and Utah.

Scholars believe the Tongan diaspora now outnumber Tongans on the islands. Cathy A. Small, a Northern Arizona University anthropology professor who has long studied Tongan communities, visited a Tongan classroom a few years ago where children were told to write letters to their mothers in New Zealand, saying what they wanted for their birthdays. Nobody found the assignment strange.

Before the recession, overseas Tongans poured as much as $101 million into the nation's economy in a single year, more than a third of its gross domestic product at the time. The numbers have since fallen to roughly $70 million, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Holani was just 7 when his widowed mother moved them to New Zealand. Eventually, he met his future wife, Atelaite, in Tonga. They married two weeks later, and ultimately decided to make their home in Los Angeles, where her ailing mother was living. She remembers being afraid to look at the police officers toting guns, that food and clothes seemed cheap compared to the islands' imports.

But the rent? "In Tonga, you stay in your house for free!" she exclaimed.

In Los Angeles, many Tongans clustered in Hawthorne, Lennox and other areas near the airport, lured by the discount flights available to some airline workers. Sione Holakeituai, now a white-haired retiree, once spent his days laboring at an electronic lock company, his nights loading planes at LAX.

His wife worked for Continental. "Now we are going to fly until we die," the Mormon bishop said with a smile.

Others found work in construction or tending to the elderly. But the skills that many Tongans brought to the U.S. — fishing and farming — did not translate easily into big earnings or a swift ladder to the middle class, Small said. Some had trouble getting jobs they were trained for: Holani had worked with New Zealand prison inmates, for instance, but said he hadn't gotten his government paperwork transferred before leaving New Zealand.

And though many sought a better education, Tongans often landed in areas with struggling schools. Outside a church, 20-year-old Oli Saafi bemoaned stereotypes of Tongan Angelenos — gangs, getting knocked up, or putting sports over studying. The college student vowed to be different, to do right by the dreams of her grandfather.

The Tongan community here is so tiny that its Census Bureau estimates are blurred by wide margins of error. But they paint a worrisome picture: College remains rare for Tongan Angelenos. Less than half are in the labor force. And the average income per person — including kids — hovers around $8,100.

"It just doesn't make sense on a lot of levels," Small said. "You would think that people that have a 99% literacy rate, who were living with low crime and a strong focus on education, that they should be doing better in this country." Instead, "they're being absorbed into the underclass."

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