Metropolis: Friday, September 29, 2004
Ilaiasi Ofa takes a break during a broadcast of the Voice of Tonga’s cable tv program. (photo by Joyce Tsai)
‘In pretty much every Tongan household, someone works for the airlines.’
Tying Tonga to Texas

An island people have established a strong beachhead in Tarrant County.


Beneath the glint of silver-bodied planes arriving and departing from nearby Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Penilotu Asaeli sells fresh Polynesian-style breads and pies, offering folks in his Euless neighborhood a taste of his home country of Tonga.

Asaeli has lived in Euless for 20 years. Born and raised in Tonga, far away in the South Pacific, he first came to the United States in the mid-1980s. He landed in Los Angeles, but moved to this area after he heard from relatives about the opportunities here. They told him the living here is easier and more relaxed. “It’s a calm and cool place for children,” the bakery owner said. “L.A. and San Francisco are too rushed. Raising kids is better here. Less crime, and the cost of living is affordable.”

Though few outsiders realize it, the Hurst-Euless-Bedford region is home to an estimated 4,000 Tongans, giving it one of the largest Tongan immigrant concentrations in the United States, surpassed only by communities in California, Hawaii, and Utah. Like the islands that make up their country, the Tongans here have formed their own communities in the North Texas ocean, centering on churches, family-owned businesses, the airline industry — and even their own tv and radio shows, the latter with a worldwide audience.

Although Tongan families have spread over several cities in eastern Tarrant County, it’s not hard to find the heart of their community: Stand at the corner of South Euless Main Street and South Pipeline Road, and four Tongan churches are in sight. “The main thing Tongans do wherever they go to is they look for a church,” Asaeli said. “And if there isn’t one there, they work to build a church.”

Asaeli attends the Tonga First United Methodist Church, where on a recent Sunday more than a hundred Tongans gathered to celebrate an important religious day for the women, a day when they formally pledge their faith to God. The men wore their best western-style suits and traditional tupenus — kilt-like wraps. The women, as on every Sunday, wore the traditional taovalas — skirts woven from pandanus leaves — over their Sunday-best dresses. Several generations of former island families lined the pews, and the church was filled to the eaves with Tongan hymns, sung a capella or accompanied by a brass quartet. Two white candles burned on either side of a Bible, as groups of women dressed in red and white gathered to deliver heartfelt testimonies to God, and to lead the church in reciting verses in their native tongue.

Asaeli and his wife, Losa, were drawn to Tarrant County by the prospect of steady work and good pay with the airlines — an industry that has been a mainstay of Tongans in this country — as well as affordable homes and the support network of Tongan immigrants already in the area. Tongans who don’t work for the airlines often own or work in family-owned landscaping and construction businesses.

“In pretty much every Tongan household, someone works for the airlines,” said Telolini Kioa, who’s lived in the area for more than 15 years. She estimates that 90 to 95 percent of Tongan families in North Texas have at least one person employed with that industry. During the years when many Tongan families moved here, DFW Airport was growing fast, providing a steady stream of jobs. “Getting jobs was very easy back then, and information was spread word of mouth through extended families in California and Utah about the opportunities here,” said community activist Ilaiasi Ofa.

Locally, Tongans say, few people realize how much their group does to make planes run, or how much landscaping and construction work they do in northeast Tarrant County. In part, that’s because they are often confused with other minorities. “Some people think we’re Mexican,” said Roy Falahola, 19, who works for a plumbing company in Arlington. “People call you ‘Juan’ and try to talk to you in Mexican.”

Tonga, with three main islands and more than 150 tiny ones, is the only monarchy in the Pacific. When geography-challenged Americans ask Asaeli where Tonga is, he tells them: “Look for where the dateline shifts on a map. Tonga is like a dot on a map, but it’s a very powerful dot because it moved the dateline to the right to keep time with the West. It was the first country to celebrate 2000.” (In fact, it’s the first country to celebrate the New Year every year, he said.)

According to Ofa, it was the Church of the Latter Day Saints, which has missionaries in Tonga, that brought the first immigrants from that country to this area about 40 years ago. “A handful of people came from Tonga, and our community started up,” Ofa said. “Extended family came with them.”

Airline work at booming DFW Airport included the distinct advantage of flight benefits, making it easy for immigrants to go home to Tonga, which is an 18-hour flight away from the U.S., he added. Tongans took manual labor jobs, loading and unloading cargo, handling baggage, cleaning flight cabins, and preparing in-flight meals, which were “the only kinds of jobs available to newcomers who didn’t speak English,” he said.

Kioa said that Tongans have always helped others from their islands settle here by hosting newcomers in their homes until they are able to support themselves.” She said the Tongan philosophy of “what’s mine is yours” is the way they were raised back home, where “Everyone looks after everyone else.”

In fact, Ofa said, money sent from families overseas is a major source of income to Tonga, whose residents earn an average yearly income of $2,000. He said that Tongan-Americans contribute 70 to 80 percent of the $100 million that gets pumped into the Tongan economy from overseas immigrants, even though there are many more Tongans in Australia and New Zealand. “It’s a source of pride to Tongans in the United States,” he said. Kioa added that “Most of the families in Tonga survive because they have relatives overseas in America, Australia, or New Zealand who send food, clothing, and money.”

Ofa said that in the last 10 to 15 years he has seen a new wave of Tongan immigrants who have worked their way up in society, attending college and working in white-collar jobs. And he leads a community group that he hopes will enable even more Tongans, whose average income here ranges from $25,000 to $35,000, to make their way up the economic ladder in the States. Ofa’s group, the Voice of Tonga, is actually bringing worldwide notice to the Tarrant County community.

Established in 2000, the group has been working to help Tongans understand American systems of finding and getting help. “We established a dialogue with agencies on the federal, state, and local level to understand how we could work for the benefit of our people,” Ofa said.

The Voice of Tonga has partnered with Harris Methodist HEB Hospital to educate local Tongans on the dangers of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity and to help them overcome their distrust of hospitals and modern medicine. The group has sponsored immigration workshops, computer classes, and translation services for those in need.

The group, in cooperation with the HEB Independent School District, has even produced a popular cable television program in the Tongan language. The twice-weekly community service program addresses immigration, health, insurance, and social security issues. And the group’s radio show has gained popularity around the globe, taking calls about immigration from Tongans in places as far away as San Francisco, Seattle, Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand.

Ofa said it’s still difficult to get more traditional community members, used to relying on the old traditions of church and family, to accept help from the outside. Their vibrant churches — eight of them in Euless and Bedford, with congregations totaling several thousand people — are the heart of Tongan community life, and Sunday is the most important day of their week.

But outside one church on that recent Sunday, a group of teen-age boys who gathered next to the parked cars may represent the next challenge for this community. It’s the classic immigrant story — a younger generation torn between keeping the old traditions or adopting new ones in America.

In their world, books have taken a back seat to athletics. Tongans have become famous for skills on the football fields in Euless and Hurst, particularly at Trinity and L.D. Bell high schools where football is king. For a lucky few Tongan students, a football scholarship becomes the ticket to a college education. For most of the others, high school graduation leads to blue-collar jobs, usually in their families’ businesses.

“Some kids give up their dreams to help out their families,” Falahola said. “We stick together, take care of our own blood. Just raised like that.” Tongans may take some time in climbing the ladder to success in America, but he trusts they will make it in time. “We might not have people who go to Harvard, but give us 40 years and we’ll get there.”

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