At a glance, Tomasina may look Palagi, but a simple “hello” and you will get a greeting in Samoan that one did not expect coming. For her entire life, she has never been away from her Samoan community. Even by how she presents herself, she dresses in a puletasi (traditional Sāmoan female attire) at public events and never leaves the house with her signature sei (flower) on her ear. Her aura, the way she speaks, everything about Tomasina is Samoan.
But there’s more to her story than what meets the eye. Tomasina is not afakasi (mixed ethnicity) or a person who is appropriating the culture or people. Born to white parents, Tomasina has gone through circumstances evolving from a broken promise that eventually brought her to the care and nurture of every aspect of the Sāmoan experience. A journey so unique for one who encompasses the heart and soul of a Sāmoan.
Tomasina “Sina” was born to John Butler and Regina Monaco in Bremerton, Washington on Christmas Eve in 1984. At only a few months old her parents along with Sina arrived in American Samoa with a Sāmoan friend, Mark Fuimaono. Mark later returned and Sina’s parents took their chances to make the islands their new home. However, within a few months, both realized they struggled to make a living.
John made a return trip to the states with the promise he would find work and bring his wife and child back to the mainland. A promise he never kept. Young Sina and her mother were both abandoned.
A Samoan couple who lived next door showed great compassion for Sina and her mother’s situation and took them into their home. When Regina’s older daughter ran into some legal troubles, she had to depart Samoa to help her. Sina was left in the care of the couple they were staying with. Months turned into years, and her mother would never return.
Piui and Faleiva Maae, the loving couple became Sina’s parents and raised Sina as the youngest of their seven older children. Sina was only six months old at the time and by nurture, Sāmoan became her first language. Her father worked in the tuna canning industry and her mother was a farmer. Sina and her siblings all grew up working on her mother’s plantation, and by eight years old, she was her mom’s right hand helping her sell their crops at the Fagatogo marketplace in the town area.
“Some people may perceive that as a hard life,” said Sina. But I am blessed because of my humble beginnings. Some of my siblings were a lot older and they became parental figures to me, and I was very spoiled and taken care of. I was especially close to my brother Folau who was 4th to the oldest. When we would walk to work in the plantation, he’d carry me from one village to the next. Some evenings in a weaved coconut basket he’d put the crops in one basket and me on the other all the way home.”
From a young age Sina knew she was a fa’afafine, she felt more herself around girls and preferred to play with barbies rather than toys for boys. “My father was a humble man, so he was very understanding when I started showing my femininity,” Sina recalls. But my mom ran the household, so she was strict. It was all tough love when it came to her. Eventually, my family came around to accepting me as I am.”
Being a fa’afafine was not the only identity Sina struggled to connect with at home. She also saw how her skin color was different from her siblings and parents. When she was 10 years old, she finally had the courage to ask her mom. “Why do I look different from you mom?” “My mom cried and finally told me the truth.” “You were adopted. But it’s as if I birthed you and I would never ever treat you as you were not my own.” Mom, said. “I saw how deeply affected my mom was and I never brought that subject up again.”
Sina’s family are devout Seventh Day Adventists and she attended Iakina Elementary, a school of the Church. She graduated from Leone High School in 2003 and moved off Island in 2005. She found her first job at Disneyland before earning her certification as a Medical Assistant. Eventually, she settled in Washington state and today works full-time as a caregiver for people struggling with mental health. “I love my job.” she says. “I took care of my dad when he got sick until the day he died. That made me passionate about being in the medical field because I want to take care of people and give back to the community.”
When her mother Faleiva suffered a stroke in 2013, Sina was prepared to leave her life behind and move home to care for her, but a phone call would change her plans. “My mom told me on the phone that’s it’s better to stay and keep my job so I could care for her financially,” Sina remembers. “My sister Feiloa’i resigned from her job and became my mom’s caretaker. That is how I’ve been caring for my mom from afar ever since. My sister, when she calls for money for bingo or even cigarettes sometimes Iʻll cause a fuss but lʻll never say no. You can’t because that’s what we were taught growing up to always take care of our families.”
In 2018, a woman messaged Sina on Facebook whom she soon discovered was Britney, her biological sister. They had a lengthy conversation and Sina asked if she was in contact with their mother. She had seven biological siblings, but most do not hold a relationship with their mother, but she learned through Britney that her mother remarried and was living in Idaho.
A few days later she received a phone call, and it was her biological mother, Regina. “I would never take anything away from my upbringing in Sāmoa because I had a good life.” Sina recalled. “But I needed answers because these were the thoughts that bothered me. Why did you leave me in Sāmoa? I asked her.” She said, “I knew they were really good people, and they became so attached to you that I didn’t want to break that bond. I trusted them with my life and your life as well,” she said. “I told her that I am the person I am today because of them and I’m very thankful that I grew up the way I did. I owe it all to my parents.”
In 2021, Regina’s husband passed away and ended up moving in with her sister-in-law in Yakima, Washington. Sina called her one day and asked her if she wanted to live with her instead. In May of last year, Regina moved in. “There was no reason for her to live with her husband’s family after he passed away,” says Sina. “She is 67 years old now and it’s our turn to take care of her. This is what the Fa’a Sāmoa is all about.”
“Do you feel you have forgiven her?” I asked Sina. “I never held any ill feelings against her because I had a good life. If I had not, probably it would have been different. Everything she said matches up with what my parents told me. So, there was nothing there to forgive.”
Sina was living in Hawaiʻi in 2006 when Mark who had brought her biological parents to Sāmoa said that he was in contact with her father, and he wanted to speak with her. “All my life I waited for that phone call” said Sina, “But when I finally did all he ever talked about was himself. He came off as very conceited and boastful and went on and on about himself and everything he had. Yet at the back of my mind, so why then did you abandon my mom and me? After that conversation, I made my peace I didn’t want anything to do with him anymore.”
Sina tries to visit American Samoa every year and has been in the process of moving back. Each month she sends money to build her home piece by piece and plans to finish it by 2024 before moving home for good. As we came to the end of our conversation, I told Sina how humbling her story made me feel and that I was truly blessed to learn about her journey. What do you hope people reading your story will take away from your life lessons? I asked her. “That our culture and everything about it is beautiful.” She spoke. “I wouldn’t wish it any other way. All the values of life I learned because of the Fa’a Sāmoa. I am and will always be a proud Sāmoan. I am also a proud fa’afafine woman. Others will not always agree with our lifestyle, but you cannot allow the negativity to block your blessings. Only you can control your destiny not them. Take care of your family, work hard, be persistent and never forget where you came from.”