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Visibility From Invisibility: The South Bay's Tongan American Community

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The Inglewood Avenue corridor in northern Hawthorne is home of Southern California's largest concentration of Tongan Americans. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Along a two-mile stretch of Inglewood Avenue, just south of the 105 Freeway and southeast of LAX, is northern Hawthorne, home to the largest concentration of Tongans in Southern California.

But even if you didn't blink, you'd probably still miss it. You won't see any of the usual tell-tale signs of immigrant communities: no restaurants, no markets, no signage in the country's language. According to the 2010 Census, Hawthorne is home to some 656 residents of Tongan descent -- 57 more than in the entire City of Los Angeles, and nearly twice the number of the community's other pockets in Long Beach and Carson. Small Tongan enclaves can also be found in the Inland Empire. Most of the 23,000 Tongan Americans in California live in the Bay Area.

Tonga is a kingdom of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, located two-thirds of the way towards New Zealand from Hawaii. Once a protectorate of Britain (though never a formal colony), Tonga adopted the English language, Christianity, left-side driving and rugby. Following their recovery from World War II, Tongans began emigrating to the United States in the 1960s.

Though there are no murals or signs, Tongans can be found in large numbers in Hawthorne within the congregations of local Methodist and Mormon churches. They shop at Korean- and Fijian-owned markets that stock Tongan food products. The sole visual signage of the Tongan community are the offices of the Tongan Community Service Center, a nonprofit agency that has been in existence since the 1980s. The organization is active in issues common in Asian/Pacific Islander communities: immigration, empowerment, education, health, violence. Twice a month, they have a food giveaway program for low-income clients, some of whom come from as far as the San Fernando Valley.

Further up the street is the center's satellite office, which boasts a computer lab and youth programs, which is popular with students from nearby Hawthorne High School.

"We are intimately involved in trying to create leaders of our youth," said Vanessa Tui'one, the center's program manager and a second-generation Tongan American. She recalled her group's involvement with the local community and law enforcement in stemming incidents of gang and ethnic tensions with Latinos and African Americans at nearby Lennox Park, which has tended to scare away members of the community from enjoying its recreational resources.

But she attributed the community's tight-knit nature, with its strong emphasis on family, faith and connectivity through word-of-mouth and even digital social media, as its primary strength.

"We're a happy community, generally speaking," she added.

For an active Tongan community, yet relatively hidden amongst the area's other immigrant cultures -- and even amongst other Pacific Islander cultures -- visibility is an issue.

"I absolutely think the community should be more visible," siad Isi Vunileva, a health educator for the Tongan Community Service Center and an Inland Empire resident. "There is a demand for more entrepreneurship in our community, for more stores, buildings, restaurants that represent our culture."

Vunileva attributed the community's apparent invisibility to the lack of access to financial resources.

"The concept of credit still hasn't gotten into the Tongan cultural system," he said. "People work, earn money and save, but not much beyond that."

Vunileva added that his organization doesn't provide financial education to their community due to the fact that most available grants are health-related, but he'd like that to change one day. In the meantime, the community continues to live, work, play, pray and grow within the multicultural fabric of Southern California. It's only a matter of time before it makes its presence known.

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