Local

Pacific Islanders looking to Inland Empire for affordable housing, escape from gangs

Sina Fifita instructs girls from her Tongan Methodist church in Lennox in a traditional Polynesian dance, to perform at a church service. Fifita, who lives in Hawthorne, said several peers have moved inland recently, including her best friend from high school.
Sina Fifita instructs girls from her Tongan Methodist church in Lennox in a traditional Polynesian dance, to perform at a church service. Fifita, who lives in Hawthorne, said several peers have moved inland recently, including her best friend from high school.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Sina Fifita instructs girls from her Tongan Methodist church in Lennox in a traditional Polynesian dance, to perform at a church service. Fifita, who lives in Hawthorne, said several peers have moved inland recently, including her best friend from high school.
Sikoti Uipi brings in packages mailed to his home in Mentone, a community just outside Redlands. Uipi, who runs a small security company from home, moved from Bellflower with his family in February. They relocated from a two-bedroom apartment to the five-bedroom house they rent now.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Sina Fifita instructs girls from her Tongan Methodist church in Lennox in a traditional Polynesian dance, to perform at a church service. Fifita, who lives in Hawthorne, said several peers have moved inland recently, including her best friend from high school.
Rev. Paula Haeane moved to Pomona from Long Beach five years ago to minister to a growing Tongan flock. The Tongan-born minister says he misses the ocean, but he understands the appeal of inland communities for Pacific Islanders.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Sina Fifita instructs girls from her Tongan Methodist church in Lennox in a traditional Polynesian dance, to perform at a church service. Fifita, who lives in Hawthorne, said several peers have moved inland recently, including her best friend from high school.
High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo is president of the Samoan Federation of America in Carson. He said many Samoans have left the Carson area where he lives and moved inland, drawn by cheaper housing.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC


Listen to story

03:58
Download this story 1.0MB

In the driveway of a small house in Lennox, just yards from the 105 Freeway, the sound of rush-hour traffic competes with a gentle Polynesian melody as young girls practice a Tahitian dance.

The girls are rehearsing for an upcoming performance at their Methodist church, one that serves a mostly Tongan congregation. A few feet away, a group boys work on their own routine, a thumping Tongan warrior dance, slapping their knees in time to the music.

In neighborhoods like this one throughout the Inland Empire, Pacific Islanders are setting down roots in a migration that is taking them from South Bay's poorer communities where they have established communities for decades to places like Pomona, Riverside and Moreno Valley.

According to the latest census numbers, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations of Riverside and San Bernardino counties more than tripled between 2000 and 2015, rising from 9,012 to 34,938.

Attracted to the inland's lower housing costs and escaping violence among Tongan, Samoan, and Latino and African-American gangs, Pacific Islanders are leaving their well-established communities behind and building new ones in search of a better life.

Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Population

County Population - 2000 Population - 2015 % change
Riverside County 3,902 18,241 367%
San Bernardino County 5,110 16,697 227%

Giving up the familiar

Sina Fifita, a 24-year-old Tongan, grew up in Hawthorne. “Hawthorne has the biggest population of Tongans," said Fifita. "Then Lennox, and Inglewood."

She works with the Tongan Community Service Center, a social service group based in the South Bay, and has seen the changes underway first-hand.

In the South Bay and areas in Carson and Long Beach, Pacific Islanders can find Samoan food, Tongan places of worship and Polynesian dance instruction. But lately, communities are dispersing as Pacific Islanders find the coast and near-coast becoming far less affordable and much less hospitable.

Three friends who Fifita grew up with have left her neighborhood in recent years, and all have moved east. Her best friend from high school left last year with her family.

“They wanted a bigger space," Fifita said. "They only had two or three rooms in the house. So that is why they moved to Riverside, because they could get a place for cheaper, or the same price.”

Some are seeking better job opportunities in industries like construction. Others who live in neighborhoods where Pacific Islander, Latino and African-American gangs collide want to get away from the violence and move their kids away from the influence of the gangs.

That is what drove some of Fifita's friends to pack up. “Moving to Riverside was their way of getting out of the 'hood, getting out of the ghetto," she said.

Once inland, the Pacific Islanders try to rebuild a sense of community. But those left behind find maintaining old ties can be difficult, said High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo, president of the Samoan Federation of America in Carson.

High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo of the Samoan Federation of America in Carson points to old photos from cricket games and other community events. He said sometimes he runs into people he hasn't seen for a while at an event and learns they have left the neighborhood.
High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo of the Samoan Federation of America in Carson points to old photos from cricket games and other community events. He said sometimes he runs into people he hasn't seen for a while at an event and learns they have left the neighborhood.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

"When they move...there goes a family of probably about 15 people," Faletogo said. "The parents, the grandparents, and their children. So there is a disconnect. I know it's affecting the community, that closeness of the community. It is affecting it, this migration inland."

Faletogo's group organizes an annual Samoan Flag Day celebration at a local park in Carson. The event kicked off last weekend. There he expected to run into peers he hasn't seen around lately.

"We don't see them at the store, we don't see them around at the church, we don't see them any more until we see them at Flag Day," Faletogo said. "And that is when we find out that they moved."

Usually he learns they've gone to Riverside or San Bernardino counties.

One recent afternoon, Faletogo worked on plans for Flag Day in his modest Carson Street office.  Through his window across the street, he can see a big new apartment building. Faletogo has heard it will contain affordable housing units, but not affordable enough for many in his community, as he sees it.

"When you are on Medicare and when you are on welfare and minimum wage, affordable housing here is not affordable at all to that family," Faletogo said.

Tongans and Samoans, along with other Pacific Islander groups, are among the lowest-earning ethnic groups in the United States, according to a report from the advocacy groups Empowering Pacific Islander Communities and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Faletogo said the cost of housing is the main factor driving Pacific Islanders out of communities like Carson.

"A lot of Samoans, when they came here, this is where they wanted to stay," Faletogo said. "They wanted to stay near the ocean, because that is life to them. But, unfortunately, they are slowly moving away from that life that they expect and love so much, the ocean, because of the affordability of places."

Building community anew

Nearly 50 miles away in Pomona, Tongan-born Rev. Paula Haeane said he misses Long Beach. He moved to Pomona five years ago when his Methodist church transferred him to tend to a growing flock of Tongan churchgoers. At first, he was a little reluctant to relocate.
 
“I said to the district, 'I will miss the breeze of the ocean,'" Haeane said. "I woke up every day in Long Beach and walked outside and enjoyed the weather — because it’s like the homeland.”
 
Getting used to the dry, inland climate has been tough, he said, but Haeane understands the appeal of the area, especially for families.

“I can see a lot of benefits here for our Tongan community," he said. "Better living in the Inland Valley than the Long Beach area. New houses. Not only that, but there are a lot of new schools in this area.”

Families often find they have left the problems of the gangs behind, Haeane said.

Churches like Haeane's are key to building new communities for many transplanted Pacific Islanders, said Alisi Tulua, chief operating officer of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities.

The children may land in different schools, but church "is the one place where you can see...the perpetuation of culture and tradition," Tulua said. "It becomes in large part where you start to establish your identity as a Pacific Islander."

Tulua said in some cases, Pacific Islanders moving inland have established their own congregations where there wasn't one. Many belong to Protestant faiths or the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Even these bonds, however, are subject to fraying, Tulua said, especially as the second and third generations come of age, move away, and marry outside of their ethnicities.

Sikoti Uipi, his wife, Emily, and their young son and daughter (not pictured) left Bellflower and moved to Mentone just outside Redlands in February. They're renting a five-bedroom house for not much more than they paid for an apartment in Bellflower.
Sikoti Uipi, his wife, Emily, and their young son and daughter (not pictured) left Bellflower and moved to Mentone just outside Redlands in February. They're renting a five-bedroom house for not much more than they paid for an apartment in Bellflower.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Earlier this year, Sikoti Uipi and his wife packed up their two-bedroom apartment in Bellflower, just north of Long Beach. Uipi is a second-generation Tongan American. His wife, Emily, is of European descent.
 
The thirty-something couple settled with their children in Mentone, a small community just east of Redlands. For a family with two young kids and a third on the way, it's been a good move, Uipi said.

“Now we’re in Redlands, in a beautiful home, a five-bedroom home, three baths," Uipi said. "So we’re growing, so we’re happy.”

They pay just a little more than they did for their Bellflower apartment. Commute-wise, it works out: Uipi works from home, running a small security company that he owns.
 
There are drawbacks. His parents and other relatives are an hour and a half away. He used to see them often, but not lately.

“Maybe two, three times a month," Uipi said. "Not as much as we used to."

There isn't much of a Tongan community in Redlands yet, even at a Mormon temple in Redlands where he and his wife worship; both Uipi and his wife grew up in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. 

Still, Uipi's brother-in-law who is Samoan, lives nearby, and Uipi said he met a young Tongan couple that moved in recently down the street.

All beginnings of a community, even if one far from the ocean.