When we think of places like Tahiti, Palau, and Samoa, the first thing that might come to mind is vacation. But, for many, those island nations are home.
To get a better life and obtain more employment opportunities, however, islanders leave home and join the military or go to school. Many end up staying in places like the Fort Hood community to raise a family. It's estimated there are more than 30,000 Pacific Islanders living in Central Texas. The Islanders are from a diverse mix of islands, each with their own culture and traditions, locations like Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Pohnpei, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
And it's that family connection that runs deep in the islands.
These islanders are raising children, the next generation, some who have never experienced the island life of their ancestors, or even their parents.
"A lot of the islanders refer to this area as 'Little Guam' because retirees, not even retirees, but relatives that are related to the retirees, find out that the economy is cheaper here, so they tend to move out here and enjoy life. Other than struggle, because in our island, it's pretty hard, it's expensive, just like Hawaii," Elias Sarrosa, Owner of EZ Pig Roast in Killeen said.
Sarrosa is an Army veteran who had moved his family with military life, then settled in the Fort Hood community.
So, what does it take to preserve those island cultures for the younger generations?
Sarrosa, who is from Guam, grew up with the time-honored tradition of pig roasts and he did not want that tradition to die for the islanders living in Central Texas.
Food is an important part of the island cultures and Sarrosa aims to keep the culture alive with his business. He has had the business for more than 20 years, catering for events like this Central Texas Asian Pacific Festival in Harker Heights.
"Now we're gonna marinate it and throw it in the roaster for 4-5 hours at 450 degrees," he explained, early on the Saturday morning of the festival.
The Sarrosa family aims to pass on the culture to the next generation through food, but also through dance and music.
"We try to pass it on to her, and that's what she does with her group, is pass it on to them and share that," Sarrosa said.
That is where Sarrosa's daughter, Elisha, comes in. She is Co-Owner of Baila Pacifica, one of many local groups teaching children and adults the dances of Tahiti, American Samoa, Guam and New Zealand.
"Because this is a Fort Hood area Army base, they'll come here and say my kids never been to the islands, so they don't know what their culture of dance looks like, so we show them. At the same time when we're showing them the dances, we're telling them what it means," she said.
The Hawaiian concept, Ohana, means building a strong, family bond with others nearby, who may not necessarily be related by blood. Elisha did not at first plan to represent that concept with her dance group, but it has grown.
"Throughout the years, it was supposed to be a business, and then people started coming and then we started to love each other and it was like, okay, we're dancing but we're also a family," she said.
Wayne Tiliaia, Co-Owner of Baila Pacifica said:"It's good to teach the kids our culture that they haven't been exposed to within the islands, they're so far from home."
Dance practices aside, they have something called Baila Fun Days.
"It is important for you to spend a lot of time together as a community, to see how the elders treat the kids and how the kids treat the elders. And it's a lot about food. We want to feed you. We want to make sure you're good to do and have energy, so right there is the culture, it's love," she said.
Baila Pacifica helps the children learn from the past and become the leaders of tomorrow. Elisha said she sees how the kids change as they become more comfortable with the group.
"The more they spend time with us, the more we put them into uniforms and tell them to smile and make them dance in front of thousands of people. You can see them grow out of their shell," she said, through tears.
The Samoans in Central Texas are also finding ways to preserve their culture for the younger ones. Serita Sasa, who everyone calls "Miss Kay" is a leader at Koinonia Children's Academy in Killeen.
"Language skills are so easily picked up when they're younger that for us many times memorization is the easiest way," she said.
In fact, the community is still singing a Samoan song hundreds of years old, a sendoff to Samoans heading to war, first sung on the sandy shores of American Samoa. The battle may be different, but the same words apply today. That same song is used in Samoan churches, even in the Fort Hood community, to send off Samoan soldiers to combat in places like the Middle East.
Samoan Song: "Tama Samoa e, se'i ala mai"
"Pe afai e goto le la
Pe a LILO ou fanua
Aua ne’i galo ai
Samoa o le nu’u mo Le Atua
Ch: Tama Samoa e, se’i ala mai
Ua lutia oe i peau
E lagona moni
E tautua ai
Samoa mo oe e faavavau"
"When the sun sets
And your lands are distant
You’re a child of God
Ch: Child of Samoa, be diligent
When you face challenges/battles
Serve the Lord
he will guard you."
"So for those of our moms and dads, grandpas, and grandmas, that join the military, they ended up settling out here as a way to kind of make a better future or at least to have a higher paying job and from there they can help support their families back home," Sasa said.
The islanders stress the important cycle of the young ones caring for the elderly.
"We don't have really a nursing home system, or elderly care, it's all based off of that expectation that your younger ones will take care of you when you're older," she said.
But preserving the island cultures begins right in the home.
"Soy sauce and vinegar because you're making this big of a bowl," said mother Lucille Mantanona to her high school-aged daughter, Erin.
"First we put blended peppers. We call it dinanche in Guam," Erin said.
Erin Mantanona, a Chamorro, moved to the states from Guam seven years ago, but the island influence has stayed with her.
"It was my dad who taught me, so my dad learned from my grandma because my grandma always cooked in the family. So then, my dad taught me, so now I'm carrying on the finadene," she explained.
She is explaining how to make the traditional Guamanian dipping sauce that can be used on anything from chicken to rice. The recipe helps Erin feel closer to her island roots and she plans on passing on the island lessons, including the recipe, when she has kids of her own.
"Even though we may not be living on the island, I'm still going to teach them the way the Chamorros live," Erin said.
Because if the traditions and customs are not passed down, they’ll die off.
"We try to share it as much as we can," Sarrosa said.
The islanders may be divided by the tide in the Pacific, but they are now united by Texas pride.
"They often say when you leave Samoa, you take 2 things: your last name, or your family's name, and your religion. So you take God with you and your family," Miss Kay said.
Family, or "Ohana" in Hawaiian, is translated to the word "Aiga" in Samoan and "Familia" in Chamorro.
So no matter where the Islanders may serve in the military, family will be there to support them.