Manufou Liaiga-Anoa'i

Interview by Crystal Talitonu

Manufou Liaiga-Anoa'i is a native of San Francisco, of Samoan heritage. She has been an active leader in political and community organizations in the Samoan American community of the Bay Area. Manufou helped to found several organizations, such as the Pacific Islander Youth Alliance (1996), SF Friends of American Samoa & Samoa (2009) and Parents In Action (1997).

Manufou's work with Samoan Parents in Action helps to meet the needs of the Samoan community, providing advocacy, resources, translation services, helping parents navigate school and government agency systems. “Many times parents just give up. They just take what they’re dealt, and they don’t try fight it or appeal it because they’re not familiar with the process.” Manufou founded the Miss Samoa Golden Gate Pageant in 1999, as a scholarship pageant “to empower young women to learn that they have a voice and they can truly make an impact.”

For six years (1998-2004) she worked for SF Mayor Willie Brown, Jr. as the Special Assistant Liaison to District 11 for Pacific Islander Community and Women's issues. She was also the Campaign Director for Supervisor Amos Brown's 2002 Re-Election Campaign. In addition to this work, Manufou belongs to numerous other community organizations and shares her experience and knowledge with many people in her community. Manufou is married and has four children, aged (at time of interview) 6, 12, 14, and 19.

Manufou also intentionally involves herself in political and community organizations outside the Polynesian community to help represent the Pacific Islander voice that is often missing. “I think part of my role and my life's mission is to expose other people to our people and vice versa...because Pacific Islanders and Samoans, more specifically, are like the minority of minorities.” She considers the work that she does as helping people, part of her culture tautau, a culture of service.

Early Roots: Samoan Church & Family

Manufou Liaiga-Anoa'i was born in San Francisco. She was born to one set of parents but raised by another, a practice that is very common in Samoan families where adoptions and sharing of children between family members is common. She considers the two families, with a total of 17 children, as all her siblings.

Her parents had immigrated from both Samoas (American Samoa and the indendent nation of Samoa) as part of that first wave of Samoan immigration to the San Francisco Bay Area. In the immigrant Samoan community, churches served as villages, and Manufou's parents were founding members of the first Samoan Church in Northern CA, formerly known as Anoais' Church under the Congregational Christian Churches of American Samoa. Growing up in the monolingual Samoan Church also meant “getting a lot of the language. A lot of our upbringing was just based on being Samoan. I was forced to go to church, like many of us. Sitting in church not understanding what the faifeau (pastor) was saying forced us to learn the language. We couldn’t speak English at home.”

“We had aoga Samoa (Samoan school) every summer and I got to learn how to do the faa samoas (Samoan way), the suas, the togas (fine mats), the sewing. We actually did a lot of the embroidery at the church because the mafukaga tina was very prevalent at the time. We don't see that anymore.”

Church and Gender

Manufou also experienced the Samoan church, with its culture, as restrictive to her as a woman.

“Going to a Samoan church, the culture very strangely enough overlaps the religion... and for me it suppressed my voice. I think in our culture women aren’t always allowed to speak up and I used to see that a lot in church. It's like, 'No, we're gonna give the boys the chance to do this first. And if we can, we'll let the girls do it next.' I was always the rebel. I was always like, 'I count too, you know. We matter. We're members of this church too. Why can't we read the Bible? Why can't we do the offering?' But they would only let the boys.”

“I think there are certain roles because of the culture. They’ve suppressed us as women. For me what has been liberating was we were able to see a change in leadership. They began to see our vision and realized it wasn’t something that we were trying to strip away from who we are as a church and a community. I love that I see the younger youth, especially the females, knowing that they can speak up. But when I was growing up it wasn’t allowed in church”

“I was kicked out a few times like in meetings at church and was told “kaukalakiki” “tama ai”(who do you think you are)? But I was so on fire. I knew in my heart that he was speaking for me. I had an outlet at home more than anywhere else but not church.”

Women who were examples of community activism for her

Manufou credits her mother as one of the key influences on her path to be engaged in community activism. Her mother taught her to always speak up for what is right.

“I think that comes from her faith in God which she instilled in me and all of my siblings. She always told us that it's important to have the courage and trust in God to speak up, even when you're standing alone and it may be that way from the beginning to the end of that journey. But you have to do what is right. I’ve stood alone many times, but I remember her voice telling me that I only have one person to answer to, and He’s up there, and nothing else matters as long as what you’re doing is right. She infused that spirit in me.”

Her mother also exposed her to her first community meetings. When Manufou was seven years old, her mother took her to community meetings to be her translator because her mother's English was limited. Her mother was a board member for Samoa Mo Samoa and another organization that emerged out of The Samoan Civic Organization. The Samoan Civic Association was founded by Ernest Reid and William Alaimo, who were both uncles. The group was organized in the early 1960s as a voice for the Samoan community. Manufou's mother and another active woman, Nofoiluma Tuiasosopo, though they had limited English, were bold advocates. “These women would go and advocate in Sacramento and Luma would walk into Mayor Feinstein's office, Mayor Agnos'. She never requested an appointment. She demanded to be seen and it was always because of her people.”

Another woman, Manufou's sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Evanston, was instrumental in getting her started in politics when she encouraged her to run for class president which she won. From there, Manufou went on to Lowell High School, the preferred college preparatory public high school in San Francisco.

“It started with Mrs. Evanston in my sixth grade class. She told me that for people who don’t have a voice, it is important that those of us that are courageous enough to speak up, do so.”

“In the '80s I was exposed to Coke Anoai who did a lot of community organizing here in San Francisco and in Southern California. She was recognized a lot in Carson and Long Beach by the different mayors. She passed away a few years ago. She was a huge part of my life as far as encouraging advocacy. She got me involved in that form of advocacy outside of politics.”

Lessons learned

“When I worked for Mayor Willie Brown as his liaison for six years... I didn’t have a voice. I really didn’t, because I wasn’t sure how to speak up. I did, but I didn’t speak up as much as I could have. I realized that your voice is so much more powerful than you realize and some people think that they have to go in front of these people who are business men and politicians and sound educated and use big words that don’t make sense. I’m not down with that. I just think that if you speak from your heart and you're true to the cause, and not just there to network, but there to politicize the fact that you want to have your people to progress to the next level.”

“I wear my brown skin with pride. But I realize that some people can’t handle it. It’s a double edged sword because you feel hungry to make progress, but then you realize its a totally different world.”

“I’m still seeking how to keep God in my life and ensure that my kids know God. It’s a journey for me because I feel like I’m holding onto something that’s old and might be dead. And God is saying, “Let go,” and I haven’t. I don't know where He's trying to take me to, so I'm just waiting.”

“It's important that if you are advocating or you are driven to be involved in issues within the AAPI community that you are true to the cause of mobilizing our people as a whole and not for any other reason because its very deep work and it really requires your heart. I think that our people are in need of people who want to get their hands dirty to elevate us to a whole other level to a level we deserve to be at.”

“You have to have thick skin, you have to be armored all the time through prayer through faith and surround yourself with those perspectives.”

Manufou is a strong and independent Samoan woman who is always humbled  by the greatness of the rich Samoan heritage and culture. As a San  Francisco Native, she is always proud to represent the Golden Gate City  by the Bay.  Manufou loves music and considers it her "First Love." She  currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, but has had the  opportunity to call American Samoa her "other home". She aspires to  touch people's lives with the beautiful Polynesian Samoan spirit of  love, compassion and humility that has been instilled in her by those  who have touched her life. She loves politics and grassroots community  advocacy and truly believes that women have a special intuition,  conviction and compassion to make an impact in the political arena. She  stands by the belief that our different backgrounds bring cohesion to  the diversity that builds bridges. Manufou often finds herself  advocating for those who have been disenfranchised with local government and those whose voices are silenced.

Related links
- her website
Samoan Community Development Center in San Francisco