California dreaming

By Angela Gregory

The bright lights of Hollywood lured Mona Porotesano from Apia 30 years ago. It wasn't that she wanted to be a film star. Rather, she felt a familiarity with California, a destination coveted by many other Pacific Islanders in search of a better life. "I was a movie-goer back home, so it was like I knew Hollywood."

Porotesano tells her story as she takes the Herald for a tour around the suburbs of Carson, Compton and Long Beach, where Pacific Island communities first formed 50 years ago in the southern bay area of Los Angeles County.

Not for her the sleepy life in Lepea village, or even the brighter lights of Auckland or Sydney. She wanted action. "In Samoa I was trying harder and harder and got nowhere. It was too slow for me. I'm glad I came to the United States."

But for Porotesano now it is not a matter of shunning her former life. As a matai (chief) she returns regularly to Samoa and in Los Angeles is a driving force in promoting the culture. She teaches the Samoan language to children from a church hall. "I call Carson a holy city - it is full of churches because Samoans are here. There are 80 Samoan churches in Los Angeles."

Auckland may think it is the largest Pacific Island centre in the world but after 50 years of migration to the US there are more Polynesians there than in New Zealand, even excluding Hawaiians.

Officially, the numbers of Samoans and Tongans in the US and New Zealand appear comparable but the American figures are thought to be unrealistically low because thousands do not fill in census forms because they have overstayed and fear deportation.

Despite the numbers, the huge wash of immigrants into America ensures even in California, where the majority of Pacific Islanders make their base, they are largely unrecognised.

Los Angeles documentary-maker Karin Williams, of Cook Islands descent, says Pacific Islanders have a high profile in New Zealand but in the US they fall below the radar. "The mainstream does not have a clue."

Williams has had a few Pacific programmes screened nationwide on the PBS, America's public broadcast service, with films on tattooing and Samoan funerals, but it is a struggle.

For decades, Pacific Island migrants to America were not formally identified as a distinct group. Until 1980 they were recorded in the "other" category in the census, then shifted into an "Asian and Pacific Islanders" category, the meaninglessness of which was highlighted when it created the impression Pacific youths were high achievers in education.

Not until 2000, after intensive lobbying, was the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander category carved out.

For Porotesano and her Pacific Island peers in Los Angeles, maintaining a profile is an ongoing challenge. The tireless 58-year-old is a founding member of the Pacific Island Community Council, which for the past 15 years has held a festival highlighting the cultures of about a dozen Pacific countries, including Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and the Cook Islands.

The event attracts white Americans and other ethnic groups, particularly old GIs who served in the Pacific. Pacific Island entertainment has provided a backdoor route into America for Polynesians without the automatic rights of entry of those from American Samoa or Guam.

Porotesano arrived with a Samoan music group, and others make use of sporting tours in the same way. Porotesano married, had children, and found work as a library assistant. Her husband was left an invalid after a work accident, and her pay may be humble, but she is still living at least some of the American dream. She drives a smart car, and their Carson townhouse is valued at $380,000.

Real estate has skyrocketed in the suburb she describes as a former swamp. For those who did not buy, high rents are pushing out the low-income Pacific Island families. Some say that is not necessarily a bad thing. Pat Luce, executive director of the National Office of Samoan Affairs, argues Pacific Islanders need to branch out more.

America is a less-forgiving country than New Zealand. The family connections immigrants seek when arriving from the islands, consolidated around church, are a strength and a weakness.

"Those who do well are prepared to move to where the work is. Others who stay together risk becoming an isolated community," says Luce.

Pacific Islanders are still mainly found in cheap housing areas, are employed as manual workers and rank among the lowest socio-economic groups.

Luce, an American Samoan, says Pacific Islanders want to recognise their uniqueness but have to adapt to the new western world to which they migrated.

But she says those from what was formerly Western Samoa tend to assimilate better than American Samoans, who "have access to everything, find it easier to qualify for social assistance and so are quite content to settle for that. Those who know they have limited opportunities get out working". And that takes a mindshift away from island ways.

As in New Zealand, young Islanders find tension between the conflicting cultural demands of home and school. "It can be quite difficult to bridge, the process is confusing, so they take on new kinds of behaviour and mannerisms, like gang culture," says Luce.

As a Pacific advocate Luce has been trying to push programmes in education, health and other social services, but was frustrated at a lack of hard data. She was the driving force in getting Pacific Islanders identified in the census, enabling her office to start arming itself with relevant statistics to seek out and support subsidies and grants.

Samoan businessman Sam Lea'ana is already aware of a couple of hard facts, including one he is not too pleased about. "I understand that per capita Polynesians are number one represented in the military, and are the number one welfare recipients in America. That latter statistic I'm very ashamed of."

Lea'ana, from Arizona, feels it can be turned around through education and a focus on families. He regularly returns to Samoa where he runs cable television, having left Apia for Hawaii when he was 11.

He studied international economics at the University of California, Berkeley, near San Francisco, and has six American-born children.

Lighting another cigarette, he is for the moment hanging out with a small group of shabbily dressed Samoan men at Park Village in Compton, where he is trying to help the community.

He first returned to Samoa in 1986, which highlighted for him the problems for Samoans who find it hard to adjust the island mentality, "fa'aa Samoa" (way of life), in a land where individualism rules.

"Instead of leaving it at home, they bring it here. The islands are very conservative. In the islands, everything is much freer. Here it is all about money. The opportunity depends on the person."

Park Village in Compton is a fenced suburban ghetto. There is a sign warning that it is a crime watch area. Banana trees and island tropical shrubs line the concrete paths. Under a clear, sunny Californian sky you could think you were in Apia, or perhaps Auckland.

An elderly Samoan woman who moved into Park Village with her husband to be close to her grandchildren glares and mutters: "I don't like this place. America is not a free country."

Lea'ana sees too many able-bodied Samoans wasting their lives, mostly from a lack of education. "It is embarrassing seeing them under a tree gossiping. They are not old, but middle-aged, waiting for their welfare cheques. In Samoa, if you've got no job you can grow crops and go fishing. Here you can't do that."

Santa Ana social worker Anas tasia Loi-on's advice to Pacific Islanders wanting to avoid the poverty trap is to "live smarter", take advantage of resources and swallow pride.

"Everything can be obtained here. You just need to ask for it. But a lot of our people are so proud. They think if they ask, others will know."

She is frustrated at the lack of shared information. "LA is a huge place. The communities need help and education about what is available and the advantages America has to offer."

Loi-on has worked in social services for more than 30 years and has seen unemployment, domestic violence, child abuse and teenage pregnancies, problems familiar to Pacific Islanders in New Zealand.

Like many Pacific Island New Zealanders, Loi-on places a high value on education as a way out, helping to raise money for scholarships to help Pacific Island students pursue degrees.

Born on the Samoan island of Savaii, Loi-on had a scholarship to teachers' college in New Zealand, but the then 18-year-old had a Samoan boyfriend and her disapproving family did not think Auckland was far enough away. "I was told I was going shopping in America with my mother. Two months later I wondered why we had not gone back."

Now well settled in Orange County, Loi-on does not regret the enforced change of direction. "I'm very happy I came to the land of opportunity. You make the most of it. It's common sense - you need to set a goal and strive for that goal."

The goals of Samoan Benko Ta'ala, a one-time sheep shearer now living in the Rocky Mountains, have shot him into the Nasa space programme.

Apia-born Ta'ala arrived in the US as a 23-year-old, by way of New Zealand, about 25 years ago. He had saved hard to attend Brigham Young University in Utah, a well-trodden path taken by many Samoans and Tongans belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Through that church's schooling in Samoa he learned English before his parents migrated to New Zealand in 1966, where they settled in Wanganui. Ta'ala picked up fencing and shearing work until he had enough to get to Utah, where within seven months he met his American-born wife-to-be.

Ta'ala was soon married with a young family and his thoughts focused on how to earn a decent living. While studying biology he had also been working as the lead hand on the factory floor of an advance composites company. "It was cutting-edge stuff, not even being taught at university. I realised I had an advantage of hands-on experience, and took a four-year bachelor's degree in design engineering."

The 47-year-old is now a part owner and engineering manager of Rocky Mountain Composites, a research and development company working in aviation and aeronautics. The company has a lucrative contract with Boeing. TA'ALA and his family of three children now enjoy the pleasures of his success. They own 20ha of prime real estate bordering the Uinta National Forest in the Rocky Mountains.

Tongan advocate Percival Lehauli says many migrated from Tonga for economic reasons. Former project director of the Tongan Community Service in Los Angeles, Lehauli says many of his people found well-paid jobs doing outdoor work, not unlike what they did on the islands.

"Some earn $500 to $1000 a day cutting down palm trees. Others started learning to build brick walls, concrete work and driveways then other construction work ... it's much better money than in New Zealand." Others work as caregivers where the live-in jobs mean they can save.

But there is a downside. Lehauli says it can be tough on Tongan children often left unsupervised while their parents chase work.

"The kids tend to be left at home because both parents are working long hours. They can get involved with bad influences. It's a dilemma."

Some head to Utah for its safer environment. Samoan Ieti Tualaulelei decided to leave Los Angeles because it was too dangerous.

He arrived from Samoa in 1989 aged 15 after his older brothers already in the US urged him to join them. He started school but dropped out and worked in a factory and then in other light manufacturing jobs. Then, in February 1991, his brothers Pouvi, 34, and Italia, 22, were shot dead by a police officer called to handle a domestic dispute.

Tualaulelei moved to stay with other relatives in Orange County, later to Hawaii and travelled back and forth to Los Angeles, which he now discounts as a home. "It's too fast and too rough."

Tualaulelei says in Compton, drugs are pushed on the street and dealers go door-to-door seeking sales. He sees many Samoan youth tangled up in gangs. "And the gangsters don't come with their hands. They're not going to beat those Samoan kids because they are so big. They come with guns."

As we drive through Compton, Porotesano confirms gangs and violence are still problems, including rivalry between young Samoans and Tongans. She recounts the story of a 30-year-old Samoan man living in the suburb who was shot dead in a dispute.

As our drive ends we have seen shops selling taro, punnets of marinated fish in coconut cream, hot and ready-to-go Pacific-style meals, and island dresses and shirts, and a drive-by of the local golf course. Pacific Islanders are big on golf in California.

Porotesano pulls up to the carpark and makes one last observation. "We're still navigating, just not by boat."

For some the journey from the Islands has been a long one "Wherever I go I find Samoans, even a whole lot in Alaska."

* Angela Gregory and Martin Sykes' visit was sponsored by the Pacific Co-operation Foundation.

For further information about the foundation phone (04) 473 9402, email info@pcf.org.nz, website www.pcf.org.nz

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