Fa’afafine Pioneer: the story of Dr. Vena Sele

Dr. Talitigā Vena Sele

Her name itself has come to represent a symbol of excellence and unparalleled success, breaking boundaries for the Fa’afafine community. Vena was the first open Fa’afafine woman to earn a doctorate degree and the first to hold a deputy position within American Samoa. She also helped institute the first Fa’afafine organization that continues to serve Samoa today. Above all, Vena has mentored and inspired countless Fa’afafine to pursue their own success stories, many of whom affectionately call her “Mama”.

“My education counters any criticism. To be a Fa’afafine you must be educated.” She once quoted.

Vena’s High School Senior photo class of 1966

Mama was born in Fagaloa Bay in Upolu, Samoa to a close-knit family and has seven siblings. Vena spent most of her childhood and teenage years growing up in Fagatogo where her parents had served as catholic catechists; they served in Samoa, American Samoa and Hawaii. “My life as an adolescent was shaped and molded in the village of Fagatogo.” Vena recalled in her autobiography. “I remember meeting all these kids with English and foreign last names and who called their mothers and fathers ‘mommies and dads.’ It sounded so pleasant, as you might be aware, imitation was a strong method of learning behavior in the Samoan custom. Hence, when my parents called me, I copied the other children’s responses; I could hear laughter inside my home.” Vena’s entire upbringing was brought up in the Catholic Church and its traditions. She was an altar boy, the bell ringer, prepared flower bouquets for the altar and by age 12 she was a reading teacher for the Samoan bible school her father had supervised. “I remember as altar boys on Sundays, we would make sure to listen for whether someone would drop coins during our offerings. These coins would roll on the floor and vanished into the space underneath the church. We would rush out after mass and squeeze into the space underneath the church. We never found paper money but the coins would give us one or more ice cream cones.” As far as she could remember, Vena knew she was a Fa’afafine at a young age. She preferred hanging out with the girls and when boys were involved in their activities, she enjoyed playing the maiden characters in distress. When she had asked her parents to transform a storage hole where they kept bananas and taros under their kitchen into her own little cowboy shack, to their astonishment she had turned it into her own little dollhouse. “I would be playing in the shack with the girls during the day, but at night, while we waited our turns to call the bingo, the boys would be there. The young men of our parish had always treated me as another girl who had extended privileges to be there with them when evening came. The girls did not have that kind of freedom.” Vena remembered. Vena recalled one memorable time “When my father went to visit the congregation on Saturday’s, families would show their hospitality by offering him a drink – beer or hard liquor. Sometimes, he came home very intoxicated. When my mother asked him why he accepted those drinks, his reply was, “It is very impolite to refuse a hospitable gesture in the western culture, so when someone offers you something, accept it.” There were over 30 catholic families In Fagatogo. You could imagine the amount he consumed. When my mother was fed up with my father’s usual routine on Saturday’s she asked an altar boy to buy her vodka and drank the entire bottle mixed with lemon juice. When my father came home, they both talked and laughed at one another, both claiming that they were not intoxicated. “I had to say the evening prayers that day because my parents were both wasted. This was my last time seeing my mother taking any alcoholic drink and my father started to take it easy. My parents never verbally or physically fought; they were very supportive of each other.” Vena’s parents both passed away at age 82.

Vena with classmates 1965 
Vena in Honolulu in the 1980’s

Vena had always been a top student and finished top of her class every semester in grade school. She attended both Chanel college in Samoa, Fia Iloa and Samoana (then known as High School of American Samoa) and graduated from Samoana in 1966. In the past, American Samoa had a dual high school system. Samoana was on a new innovative educational television approach and Fia Iloa catered to government contractors, dependents, and those whose first language was English with a curriculum based on United States standards. It was obvious the two schools’ academic programs were not comparable with each other. Dismayed at the elite reputation of the Fia Iloa School where the individual’s intelligence was measured by the English speaking proficiency, Vena composed a letter with her father’s signature to the principal expressing his (her dad’s) upset over the system’s discriminatory practices. The principal was both shocked and amazed at the in-depth thoughts of a Samoan parent willing to relocate his child where they felt comfortable and happy to learn. He signed the transfer papers to Samoana. Vena returned from college in 1970, and the Department of Education was under investigation for the discriminatory nature of Fia Iloa School. A public hearing was held to hear testimonies of the public who supported or opposed the dismantling of Fia Iloa. Vena testified against the system. “I was told by the Attorney General’s office that my testimony had the strongest impact on the panel’s decision to dismantle Fia Iloa.” Vena recalled. “I was the product of both school systems and pointed out the very nature of discriminatory practice. I told them I was all for acceleration if it were integrated into the curriculum where everyone could be eligible to advance in their own discipline.” Many supporters of the school did not appreciate Vena’s testimony and told her the only reason why she had a scholarship was because she could read, write and speak English and was unfair for her to deprive students of that opportunity. The Department of Education dismantled Fia Iloa and students were moved into several High Schools around the island. Vena attended Missouri State, later renamed Trueman State University, and graduated with her Bachelor’s in Speech & Drama in 1970. While attending School off island Vena experienced culture shock and chose to keep her identity as a Fa’afafine hidden by acting in male mannerisms. 10 students from Samoa attended the same college with her and they helped her with her pretense and some she had to pay. Showering together in the dormitories was agony for her; she would wait late at night to take showers. Some evenings the boys would call her for food and when she refused, they threatened to tell her roommate that she was a Fa’afafine. Devastated, she bought them food with her own money. These were the same Samoan boys whose sexual satisfactions were accommodated by her. One night she had enough and told them that instead of them telling on her she would tell her roommate that she had sex with them. “No Samoan male’s integrity was threatened by such act. But now in America they were afraid. It was hell on earth, but I was determined to succeed.” remembers Vena. Vena had recalled many Fa’afafine who had gone off island for further education and returned married to women and declared their “straight” indoctrination. As a result, many Samoans believed that it was a choice to continue being a Fa’afafine. Nevertheless, she was determined to prove that such a statement was untrue. When she left Samoa, she adapted into the demands of a different society but with a conviction that after accomplishing her goal, she would have demonstrated that such stereotyping of the Fa’afafine is only a sign of ignorant minds.

Vena with friend Michelle Eneliko in the early 90’s.

Returning to American Samoa in 1970 Vena taught Drama at Samoana High School and Manu’a High before committing entirely as an instructor at American Samoa Community College in 1973. Although she experienced innate discrimination in the workplace pertaining to advancement, she worked hard to establish a superior reputation to prove her capabilities and qualifications. At the same time, she was fully aware of the importance of the culture, responsibilities in the family, church and village. She modeled her life and every endeavor undertaken to be the closest to a perfect “woman” in Samoan society. She earned both her master’s and doctorate degree through programs that were initiated locally from the mainland. Vena held many positions at the college including Deputy Director and Dean of Student Services. In 2003, while the college board was going through the selection process of appointing a new President, Vena held the reins of President of the College for three months becoming the highest ranking Fa’afafine in American Samoa at the time. Later that same year Vena officially retired from the College after 33 years of service.

Vena with Tasha Atio’o after Co-hosting Miss S.O.F.I.A.S Pageant, American Samoa 1991
Vena with Ericha Thompson and Cherie Ripley, 1996 Miss S.O.F.I.A.S Pageant

Vena formed lifelong friendships with Michelle Eneliko, Dr. Adele Satele Galea’i, Dr. Oreta Togafau and Leroy Lutu, who were all locally known and very successful in the community. In 1980, Vena lived with Leroy at his well-known home, nicknamed the “Beverly Hills” of Tutuila. It was the gathering place for many in the center of the bustling town life of Fagatogo village. Fa’afafine from around the island sought shelter at Beverly Hills and Vena became Mama to all the high school aged Fa’afafine.  It was here Vena and Leroy pioneered the first Fa’afafine organization in Samoa in the 1980’s. Annual pageants and events were held by the organization to fundraise money for the children’s ward at the local hospital, the women’s auxiliary and their major charity: the convalescent home for the elderly. Today the organization is known as S.O.F.I.A.S, Society of Fa’afafine in American Samoa. In 2006, Vena was honored by S.O.F.I.A.S with a lifetime achievement award. Miss S.O.F.I.A.S. 1988, Stacie Titiali’i, said in a statement of the organization’s impact “Vena and Leroy were the jet-setters that inspired and aspired many generations of Fa’afafine and that extended to communities outside.  They are the pillars of the Fa’afafine movement that elevated the Fa’afafine status here in the Samoas as we see it today.  It was their efforts and courage that changed the views of many about Fa’afafine, even internationally.  They instilled the premise that Fa’afafine, when given the opportunity, can and do move mountains and drain oceans and it is through their works inspired many Fa’afafine to move beyond and away from the “stereotypical” perception of a Fa’afafine.”

Vena with members of UTOPIA Washington at annual Christmas gala
Vena with Princess Auva’a, Tiare Fidow and Marion Malena at 2011 Seattle Pride Parade

While living in retirement in the state of Florida, Vena began penning her memoir. Her book, released in 2007 titled “Memoirs of a Samoan, Catholic and a Fa’afafine”, was the first autobiographical book of a Fa’afafine available to the public. She was candid on her life and struggles and her stern thoughts on writers and anthropologists who have made poor and degrading research about Fa’afafine. She also revealed her past love affairs, something she had kept mostly private. “My first romantic affair was with a police officer from Independent State of Samoa. The second relationship was with an educator. I was very cognizant of the dilemma faced by many Fa’afafine with their love relationships with men. Many of these romances ended in heartbreaks and bitter memories because men have decided to find themselves wives to bear them children. I became very cautious about love affairs and concentrated mostly as an adult caring for my parents and fulfilling other responsibilities.” Vena remembers. In 2009, Vena relocated to Washington state. Although retired from working, she was a busy bee and active in community and family affairs. She joined UTOPIA Washington and served as a member of the Board. A large migration of young Fa’afafine flocked to Washington state at the time. Mama took the new girls, fresh from Samoa, to apply for federal assistance while awaiting jobs. Some of the girls lived with Vena for a time and she delivered food to the girls’ homes when she was fully stocked. She was a strong advocate in helping members to establish the newly organized UTOPIA Washington organization. Everyone in our circle knew that when our doorbell chimed midday, it was a visit from Mama Vena; we’d bond over coffee, freshly baked scones and stories that lasted for hours. In 2013, Vena had agreed to perform in a special performance in the opening for the Miss UTOPIA International pageant, but a week before the pageant she suffered a massive stroke in her home. It has been nearly 10 years since she had her stroke. Our visits are rare these days as she is being provided the best of care by her niece, Theresa and her family. Vena still recognizes everyone, but the stroke left her debilitated, she is wheelchair bound and her speech slurred. The only time you will hear her coherently is when we sing along to some of her favorite classic Samoan songs, that is the most therapeutic communication for her each time we visit. In 2018 when UTOPIA WA launched its annual lū’au, Vena was chosen as the special honoree. That evening, in a rare public appearance in the front of a large crowd, her family, friends, and loved ones danced and praised her in all her glory; she was awarded the Fa’afafine Pioneer Award. Recently, she celebrated her 75th birthday this year! Although her tireless leadership, dedication and motherly touch is missed, physically she is still with us and that is a blessing above all. Thank you Dr. Sele for the burdens you have lifted for us, may we never forget your legacy and impact. We wish love, health and blessings to the pioneer woman, our beloved Mama Vena.

Vena during one of weekly visits with the girls 2012

I had always believed in the law of Karma. You are what you have been, what you have been is what you are now. You could never completely disregard the past because you had gotten to where you were at now from actions and happenings of the past. If your past was good, make it better; however, if it was bad, change it and make it better.

Dr. Talitigā Vena Sele 
Executive director of UTOPIA Washington honors Vena with Fa’afafine Pioneer Award in 2018 as her niece Theresa Ortquist looks on
A standing ovation for Dr. Vena Sele as she is Honored with the Fa’afafine Pioneer Award 2018

7 thoughts on “Fa’afafine Pioneer: the story of Dr. Vena Sele

  1. Dr Vena Sele was a classmate, class of ‘66. And later in life I found out that we are ‘Aiga’ , Masefau connection of the Maiava family.

  2. What a remarkable human being! Thank you Dr. Sele for living in your truth and for paving such a wide pathway for so many others.

  3. I am who I am today because of very few individuals that I will never ever forget. It’s because there is no way in this world that I would ever be able to repay these people. And you will always be the one at the very top of the line. In this special category, I, too, will remember Leroy Lutu, Rosie, Aida, Tanya Toomalatai, Leilani, Rosetti, Michelle Eneliko, Saua, Shevon, Marsha, Edwina, etc. and the list goes on. May God continue to bring focus, good health, security/safety, comfort and peace into your life and keep you blessed…. Faafetai for all that you have done. Alofa tele atu mo oe le tina…..

  4. What an amazing autobiographical. I knew Dr. Sele when I was working at the ASCC but through Mama Cherie Ripley. I only learned to say hello most of the time when we passed each other in the hallway in College. I respect Dr. Sele because she’s an important person in the island of American Samoa and it’s community, that is why I only speak when I am asked to. It is customer for us young adults to respect our elders. However, I am very grateful to say hello and met her even if it’s just a second it’s a moment I will never forget. You will always be remembered by a lot with your legacy.

  5. Well done Vena! It’s been thirty-six years since we worked together at the American Samoa Community College. You were an inspiration then and the lives you have touched keeps getting longer and longer.

    God Bless,
    Joe Stephenson
    Former Registrar and VA Coordinator

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