In Euless, Tongans usher in the New Year with traditional feast

Posted Wednesday, Jan. 01, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Americans have Times Square. The British, fireworks on the Thames. In Mexico, it’s a street festival around the Zocalo. in Mexico City.

For the large Tongan community in the United States, specifically Euless, the New Year’s celebration starts with a pig roast.

Tongans in Nuku‘alofa, across the South Pacific, had already begun celebrating the New Year when Paula Aleamotua started prepping a holiday pig roast at 6 a.m. Tuesday in Euless.

Aleamotua and his helpers worked all morning to roast nine pigs to perfection.

“It is very important,” he said of his duty.

Nuku‘alofa is the capital of Tonga, a Polynesian state consisting of 176 islands stretching about 500 miles in a north-south line between New Zealand and Hawaii.

Although North Texas is more than 6,000 miles away, Tongans here still ring in the New Year in the traditional way — with family, prayer and a feast that reminds many of the islands of their ancestors.

“I look forward to it,” said Losaline Falahola, 18, who helped prepare side dishes for a New Year’s Day feast at the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Euless. “It is a time when we celebrate our faith, our traditions and our culture. We celebrate a new year.”

The king and the majority of the Tongan royal family are members of the Free Wesleyan Church, a Methodist-like denomination. But the Tongans who have become so intertwined with life in Euless ushered in 2014 with New Year’s Eve services honoring various religions.

Many have traditional meals that have been long planned and are the result of many volunteers coming together.

The feast includes roasted pig and traditional Polynesian dishes that recall South Pacific island heritage, including sweet potatoes, corned beef, octopus, shrimp and fish.

The holiday is a time of prayer and connections to God.

During the first full week of the New Year, Tongans attend daily church services, said Patisepa Haisila-Finau. Special feasts are organized throughout the week.

“It is called Uike Lotu,” she said, explaining that Tongans ask God to guide their families in the upcoming year. Each day, they pray for a specific theme. For example, they pray for church leaders and families.

The purpose of this “Week of Prayer” is to come together, lift families and prepare for 2014 with God at the center, Haisila-Finau said.

“We pray for our royal family because we have the king and queen,” Haisila-Finau said. “And we pray for our countrymen.”

A little bit Polynesian

North Texas is a melting pot of foreign influence. But Euless has a special relationship with the Tongans who began migrating to the Northeast Tarrant city in the 1970s.

Many moved because of jobs, family ties and the existence of established Tongan churches. They were often drawn to job opportunities at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

“The airlines,” Haisila-Finau said. “It was easy to get jobs at American Airlines at the time.”

Today, Euless counts about 3,300 Tongan residents, according to census estimates. Tongan churches, civic activities and even sporting traditions have sprouted across the city.

Tongans have also settled in Arlington, Richland Hills, Keller, Watauga and Grapevine. Although large Tongan communities exist in California and Hawaii, many like Texas.

“This is home,” Haisila-Finau said. “This is home for us. Euless, Texas, is our home.”

Among early Tongans in Euless was Halatono Netane, who moved to North Texas in 1971. ( Netane’s history was compiled by the Euless Historical Preservation Committee.)

Haisila-Finau’s father, the Rev. Sione Haisila, who turns 78 today, moved to North Texas in the early 1980s. In Euless, he formed the church that became the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.

The Free Wesleyan Church is on Pipeline Road, a few blocks west of Main Street. Nearby are several churches with Tongan ties, including Mormon, Catholic and Baptist congregations.

“You find most Tongans, during New Year’s Eve, at church,” said Winona Alusa, 29.

Euless became a little bit Polynesian with the migration of Tongans.

“Their presence here has made some changes in the community,” said Ofa “Mary” Faiva-Siale, projects coordinator for the city of Euless.

Faiva-Siale, who has served as a liaison for the Tongan community, said the imprint is visible in the Polynesian stores in Euless. City leaders also routinely meet with the Euless Tongan Community Committee.

But the most visible mark was made on Texas high school football. The Haka chant practiced by multi-year state champion Trinity High School is “the most obvious” evidence of the Tongan influence, said Faiva-Siale.

“It’s completely in Tongan,” she said. “It honors Euless Trinity and its football program.”

‘Not a feast without a roasted pig’

The Tongan tradition of roasting pigs outdoors is also part of Euless’ social fabric.

Vernon Gilmore, an inspector with the Euless Fire Marshal’s Office, said the city has a process for allowing outdoor pig roasting. Typically, an applicant fills out a form about 24 hours in advance. An inspector checks the area where the pig will be roasted to ensure safety.

Gilmore said the roasting often takes place during holidays or family gatherings.

“It could be for a wedding, or a funeral,” he said. “I’ve done an inspection for a roast for a returning solider.”

On Tuesday, volunteers roasted nine pigs for the church feast at the Free Wesleyan Church. The pigs roasted for about four hours over an open oak wood pit. At a church assembly hall nearby, volunteers set long tables with fruit centerpieces.

Plates full of corned beef, fish and chop suey were also prepared. The scent of wood and roasted pig filled the air — a reminder that a Tongan party was in the works.

“A feast is not a feast without a roasted pig,” Haisila-Finau said.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675 Twitter: @dianeasmith1

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