October 27, 2006
East Valley meets Pacific islands
Art Martori, TribuneFor the past 40 years, natives of the Pacific island of Tonga have come to Mesa in droves to chase the American dream. They left behind family and tradition to pursue a better education, the promise of economic opportunity, religious fellowship — and football.
As the Tongan enclave swelled and spilled over into other East Valley cities, its members became more ingrained in American culture. While they built a life for their families, they also laid the foundation for future Tongan immigrants to the Valley.
“I think they found Arizona because they didn’t like the cold weather,” said Aisea Levatau, a Tongan who moved to Mesa in 1973 and started a catering business. “It’s almost like home. Mesa is a peaceful place to raise a family.”
Some Tongans, like Levatau, run successful businesses, others became leaders in the Mormon church and a few rose to prominence in the athletic world. At least two Tongans who played football for Mesa High School went on to the pinnacle of the sport — the National Football League.
In Mesa, the Haka dance might be the most visible sign that the community has embraced the Tongan culture. The grunting, stomping performance has become a tradition before every Mesa High football game.
It started in 2004 when one of the Tongan players asked coach Dennis Barker if they could try something new to warm up for a game against the Dobson High School Mustangs. The coach agreed, Mesa High won the game, and the team has done the dance ever since.
Barker said the Haka dance ranks high among the many warm-up rituals he’s ever seen in his 35 years coaching football. But he insists that they honor its meaning: strength and dedication.
“If we do it, we need to honor that warrior culture,” he said.
The East Valley has a longstanding tradition of Tongan football standouts. The legacy works its way from NFL stadiums across the country back to Mesa High.
Sika Hema graduated from Mesa High in the 1960s and went on to play in the NFL. And the Tongan legacy at Mesa High continues. Taitusi Lutui, a 6-foot-6, 365-pound offensive lineman, graduated in 2001 and now plays for the Arizona Cardinals. And Sebastian Siaki graduated last year and went on to play football at the University of Hawaii.
Three Tongan members of the Mesa High football team lingered at the stadium after a recent practice. Similami Tuituu, 17, Sosaia Mataele, 16, and Pasiaka Fahina, 15, said Tongan teenagers form a tightknit group and friends are always nearby.
“We’ll go over to each other’s house sometimes and chill,” Tuituu said. “We’ve known each other since we were kids.”
Tongans represent a very small portion of the East Valley’s population. But they kept close ties with each other as their numbers grew over the past four decades, which has helped reinforce their own island heritage.
Levatau, 59, said he was among the first Tongans to emigrate to the East Valley.
“When I was here in 1973, there were only five Tongans,” he said. “In 1973, I didn’t even know the difference between Tempe and Mesa.”
Today, Mesa has more than 370 residents from the Pacific islands, the second-largest population of Pacific islanders among East Valley cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Tempe is home to the greatest number of Pacific islanders: 455.
There is no official count of the Tongan population, but Levatau said he thinks there must be hundreds of Tongans living in the East Valley.
The Tongan population isn’t centralized to any one neighborhood in Mesa, but there are small enclaves of Tongans surrounding a few of Mesa’s religious institutions. These include a ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near Country Club Drive and Brown Road, and a Methodist church near Alma School Road and University Drive.
Many Tongans adopted the Mormon faith when they lived on the island, which was influenced heavily by Mormon missionaries. The first Mormon missionaries arrived in Tonga in 1844, three years before Mormon pioneers arrived in what would become Salt Lake City, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia.
During the 1970s, more Tongans became involved in the Mormon church, which prompted church leaders to authorize services in the Tongan language. In 1985, a Tongan ward of the Mormon church was founded in Mesa.
The 67th Ward of the Mormon church has about 500 members, most of them Tongan. They’re led by Bishop Epeli Tauveli, a native Tongan.
Tauveli, 40, came to the U.S. in 1988 and became a bishop in 2005. Although Tauveli conducts services in the Tongan language, the message he delivers is universal, he said.
“It’s the same topic I always tell them: Family first, and then the other stuff,” he said.
Sinia Lutui, a 33-year-old member of the 67th Ward and Taitusi Lutui’s older sister, left Tonga in 1983 and graduated from Mesa High in 1991. She found values in Mesa that mirrored the lifestyle on the islands, she said.
“The main thing I love about Tonga is you’re safe,” she said. “In Tonga, even to this day, children go out and play. It’s a very simple and innocent life.”
However, the ruling monarchy in Tonga doesn’t offer its citizens much beyond safety and simplicity. Over 60 percent of its citizens are farmers and another 13 percent are unemployed. The Tongan government’s yearly budget is under $40 million, roughly the same as Apache Junction.
However, the literacy rate among Tongans is 98 percent. The promise of a good education and a strong community draw many Tongans to Mesa, Sinia Lutui said.
“For Tongans, it’s God first and education comes in right behind,” she said.
Nine years after Levatau became a U.S. citizen, he graduated from Arizona State University in 1982 with a degree in accounting. He then spent two years as a teacher in Tempe before opening a restaurant at Fiesta Mall.
The restaurant has closed, but Levatau said he now employs 14 workers at his new business Masama’s Catering, and most of them are Tongan. Masama’s started out small, Levatau said, but it has expanded in recent years.
As Levatau prepared a booth for Masama’s at the Arizona State Fair recently, he offered a few hearty words in Tongan to people he recognized.
At a concession stand nearby, native Tongan Malini Maile, 63, and his wife Dottie Maile, who is from Hawaii, talked about Pacific island culture.
Malini Maile said that in an ideal situation Tongans marry other Tongans. When his daughter married another Tongan, the families threw a tremendous party and roasted 75 suckling pigs.
“You know when you eat the skin, it’s all nice and crispy?” he asked.
Lanivila Maile, 24, and Sosefina Maile, 21, said their parents came to the East Valley so the girls could receive a good education. When they entered Mesa High, they already had a network of friends.
“In Mesa, a lot of us are related,” Lanivila Maile said. “But they’re always there — kind of like protection.”