December 8, 2007
The Success Story of Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans East
It’s been almost two years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. While the major focus has been on the failure of the government to provide support to the majority African American community in the 9th Ward, the resilience of the Vietnamese American population in New Orleans East – a suburban community 15 miles northeast of downtown New Orleans – has been getting a great deal of attention. Both academic research and mainstream media seem to point to the idea of a hard-working community whose been through much worse than Katrina’s destruction.
Dateline NBC’s Stone Phillips picked up as camera himself – with the shaky shots it’s very much Corporate Media meets Youtube – and spent Tet with this community earlier this year. His Postcard from New Orleans was produced by Vietnamese American Tommy Nguyen, who gives us a little insider knowledge here about the experience.
It’s a good (though slightly saccharine) piece that highlights the strength of the Vietnamese American community surrounding the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church (MQVN). In fact, I learned that this community has a 90 percent return rate – way more than the rest of the city. My favorite part is when Phillips is interviewing Father Vien Nguyen about all the work they did to find the Katrina refugees, offer them services and bring them home and the father says: “We asked the government not to get in our way!” The Dateline piece talks extensively about how the Vietnamese community was used to upheaval and flooding due to their history – and how this made the destruction of Katrina old hat to them. I got this picture in my head of a Vietnamese family sitting down to dinner in a house filling up with floodwater after the levies broke and the old grandmother saying: “This is nothing, when I was your age on the Mekong Delta, we learned to breathe underwater!”
The Vietnamese American population of New Orleans East was also the subject of a working research paper published by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University. The paper, authored by Emily Chamlee-Wight and Virgil Henry Storr, hits on the same ideas as Dateline and talks about the concept of a “cultural toolkit” – or how “this community was able to make use of an array of cultural tools that aided their swift return.” I suggest reading the whole paper because it’s fascinating, but I can give a few highlights here – like the amazing reality of the return rate of this community:
On October 9th, 2005, just five weeks after the storm, Father Vien Nguyen of MQVN held Mass for 300 parishoners, most of whom were residents of the MQVN neighborhood. Given the ghost-town feel of most New Orleans neighborhoods at this stage, this was an outstanding turnout. The following Sunday, 500 residents had returned for services. On October 23rd more than 2,000 members of the Vietnamese community attended Mass at MQVN. By April of 2006, 1,200 or the 4,000 residents who lived within a one-mile radius of the church has returned. By the summer of 2007, approximately 90 percent of the residents were back and 70 of the 75 Vietnamese-owned businesses in the neighborhood were up and running.
But the main argument of this paper is that “the stories that are told and retold in this community have served as effective tools – for both individuals and the community as a whole – in the rebuilding process.” The paper also argues that for as fucked up the Model Minority Myth is, that’s what the community believes brought them back and made their rebuilding so successful. The authors of the paper argue that they did this research because the Vietnamese American community “is often left out of the discussion of race and ethnicity in relation to Katrina.”
I felt an underlying sense in both the Dateline piece and the paper that this success story was being compared to the African American communities in New Orleans and what they went through. I was left wondering how much cross-cultural work was being done over the past two years. There were a few examples in the Dateline piece of other minorities looking to th Vietnamese community as leaders, but not really of coalition-building. Any Katrina experts want to weigh in on this?
Posted by neela at August 28, 20
October 29, 2006
New America Media, News Feature, Sara Catania, Oct 16, 2006
Editor’s Note: After Hurricane Katrina, the Latino population in New Orleans grew as other ethnic populations shrank in size. Remaining members of a close-knit Vietnamese community are learning to navigate cultural and linguistic differences with their new Latino neighbors — even if it means stocking tortillas next to rice paper in local markets.
NEW ORLEANS–Taqueria Mexico used to be a thriving Vietnamese restaurant called Bien Tinh, or Ocean Love. Now under new ownership, its waitresses serve salsa in the floral faux-china bowls that once held fish sauce.
“A lot is different now,” says Hai Pham, who sold Bien Tinh to a Mexican-American family from Houston. Pham’s was one of dozens of Vietnamese restaurants that after Hurricane Katrina were struggling to survive with far fewer customers. Now, whenever Pham stops by Taqueria Mexico, the place is bustling, the customers nearly all Latino. “They are the first restaurant around here to serve Mexican food and they do a good business,” Pham says. “I am happy for them.”
Vietnamese-Americans recovering from Katrina are grappling with a double challenge: the absence of friends and family who moved away after the storm and the appearance of a record number of Latinos in their previously autonomous community.
A state survey released this month counts nearly 7,000 Asians in New Orleans post-Katrina, compared with close to 12,000 in 2004. Latinos are the only ethnic group in the city whose numbers have grown, from about 14,000 to more than 16,000, according to the survey, conducted in February by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and the Louisiana Recovery Authority. “We have seen Hispanics in areas of the city where we have never seen them before,” says Martin O. Gutierrez, director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities in the city. “This is a very new phenomenon in New Orleans.”
The change is particularly noticeable in the neighborhood that Taqueria Mexico now calls home. Though most locals call the area Village de L’est, for its location in the eastern part of the city, some still refer to it as Versailles, after the government-subsidized housing complex that was home to many Vietnamese refugees when they first arrived in New Orleans in the 1970s and ’80s. Back then, the refugees were the newcomers in the largely African-American community. In subsequent decades the Vietnamese-American population in the Gulf Coast area grew to between 25,000 and 40,000 residents.
Those who remained in Village de L’est created what is widely regarded as the region’s Vietnamese-American hub, opening more than 50 businesses and building Mary Queen of Vietnam, the first Catholic Church in the nation to offer mass in Vietnamese.
After Katrina, the Vietnamese-American residents of Village de L’est were among the first return to New Orleans and begin gutting and rebuilding their homes. Construction workers from across the United States and Latin America descended upon the community, and the local businesses lining Chef Menteur Highway and Alcee Fortier Boulevard quickly began to adapt their products and services.
At the Mi-Viet market, rice papers now share shelf space with tortillas, tall bottles of Fresca line the cold case next to bubble tea, and plastic-wrapped pork chops are identified both as “bo-chuk tender” and “chuleta de cerdo.” A separate counter handles wire remittances to Latin America. Across the street at the Tien Pharmacy, owner John Nguyen recently added a payment service for cell phone bills. “It brings in new customers,” Nguyen says.
Martin Osorio saw opportunity as well. His family owns Taco Texas, a catering company in Houston that operates several loncheras, or lunch trucks. The trucks soon became a fixture in Village de L’est. Then one afternoon, as Osorio’s father was having lunch at Bien Tinh, Pham approached him and offered to sell him the restaurant.
“We thought he was kidding,” Martin Osorio recalled. But Pham was dead serious. Since the hurricane his wife had been running the restaurant alone while he’d been focusing on their downtown convenience store. “I felt it was not safe for her to be there by herself for so many hours,” Pham says. “We couldn’t find anybody to work there with her.”
The Osorios imported the taqueria’s nine-member Spanish-speaking work force from Houston. Even with a sizeable staff, Osorio works nonstop, rising at 4 a.m. and closing the doors at 8 p.m. Every two weeks he takes a quick trip back to Houston to see his wife, 3-year-old daughter and 2-month-old son.
Osorio says for the most part he has feels welcome in Village de L’est. In two months he’s had only one difficult encounter, when he sat down at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant for lunch and waited nearly an hour without being acknowledged. Finally he got up to leave and asked the proprietor for the key to the restroom. She refused, telling him the bathroom was out of order. He bristled. “I’d seen people going in and out of there the whole time,” he says. “I told her I have a right to use the bathroom and if you refuse to let me, I can sue you.” The woman relented and gave him the key.
May Thi Nguyen, business development director for the community development corporation created after the hurricane, is hoping to transform the commercial stretches of Village de L’est into an ethno-centric tourist destination. She has spent hours talking with the small business owners, many of them older Vietnamese- Americans who are struggling to adjust to their new neighbors. “It’s a huge shock here,” Nguyen says. “Everyone’s kind of taken aback. A lot of Vietnamese-Americans in this community have never left the area. It is very much a Vietnamese-American community.”
Nguyen, who has lived and worked in Argentina and Vietnam and is fluent in Vietnamese, English and Spanish, says she is unsure how Latinos would fit into the commercial development goals for the area. “We’re talking about a marketing scheme where we’re going to set up three flags out in the median: an American flag, a flag of the old Republic of Vietnam and a Louisiana flag,” Nguyen says. “I don’t know where the Mexican flag fits into that.”
Martin Gutierrez of Catholic Charities says increased diversity will only enrich the area. “It’s going to create great opportunities. There will be some friction, but at the same time we all believe diversity is a strength.”
Nguyen acknowledged that Latinos have invigorated Village de L’est, both economically and culturally. She has witnessed this dynamic in a market owned by her aunt. “My aunt is learning Spanish,” Nguyen says. “She’s learning how to say hello, how to tell customers how much something costs. It’s wild. I love it. It’s exciting.”
After talking with some of the Latino workers, Nguyen is taking a wait-and-see approach. “A lot of these changes are happening in response to the construction workers,” she says. “Some will leave. Will enough stay to make these changes permanent? Who knows?”
A study released in June by U.C. Berkeley and Tulane University found that about half the Latinos who moved to the region for work plan to stay, and there are indicators in Village de L’est that some are beginning to settle in. Word has spread quickly about Nguyen’s tri-lingualism, and the neighborhood’s new Spanish-speaking residents have begun seeking her out for advice. “They’ve been asking me where to send their kids to school and things like that,” she says. “They’ve pretty much ID’d me as that Asian girl in the community who can talk to them.”
At Mary Queen of Vietnam, Spanish-speaking workers have begun showing up for Sunday mass, even though services are conducted entirely in Vietnamese. “They know exactly what is going on,” says Fr. Vien The Nguyen, pastor of the church. “It was the same for us when we came here from Vietnam. Mass was in English, but it was still a Catholic mass and we understood. That’s the nature of a parish church. It’s always open. Anyone can come in.”
On a recent weekday afternoon at Taqueria Mexico, six small video monitors and one large-screen television competed with the stereo mariachis for the attention of diners in paint-splattered boots and baseball caps. Daniel Jeronimo, who arrived in New Orleans from Veracruz by way of Chicago six months ago, had just finished his first morning’s work in Village de L’est and was looking forward to lunch. “I saw this place and I came right over,” he said. “I can look at the menu here and everything is familiar to me.”
That is exactly what Martin Osorio likes to hear. The Taqueria has been so successful he’s considering expanding. “Right now we’re thinking about desserts and candies,” he says. Eventually he’d like to open a pool hall nearby.
If he does, he may find his customer base exceeding his target audience. “I would get so bored if all I did was hang out at the Vietnamese bars,” May Thi Nguyen says. “Hanging out at the Taqueria is a lot more exciting.”
News Features staff
Published: Jun 21, 2006
“Drowning New Orleans,” a documentary examining what happened in the city during the first 48 hours after Hurricane Katrina, will debut at 8 p.m. today on National Geographic Channel, only available on digital cable.
Baton Rouge native Lawrence Cumbo was the producer, director and cinematographer on the project, which brought him home to “a dying city,” as he described New Orleans in a blog on the National Geographic Channel Web site.
“Personally, this is a place where I’ve celebrated births, weddings and even funerals — and standing at dusk near Claiborne and Tulane Avenue — it all seemed unreal, so massive, it was overwhelming,” Cumbo wrote.
Cumbo and his crew made their way through the city in a four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle, and got a chilling overview of the city in a Coast Guard chopper.
They spent several days there, and in between filmings, delivered food, diesel, water, inhalers and pets, and checked on many homes and businesses at the request of friends, family and strangers.
National Geographic Channel is on digital cable Channel 108. The show will re-air at 11 p.m. tonight, 6 p.m. Saturday, and 4 p.m. June 28.
Story originally published in The Advocate
June 13, 2006
June 12, 2006
EVACUEES COPE, MISS HOME
By Connie Skipitares and HongDao Nguyen
Half a continent from his home in Buras, La., Nam Nguyen is struggling to start over. He misses his old friends and the afternoons spent after they hauled in the day's fishing catch — a life taken from him by Hurricane Katrina.
Today he sits in a sparsely furnished apartment amid a neighborhood of Vietnamese emigres in San Jose, with very little but the chatter from a small portable radio to keep him company.
“There are some Vietnamese people in my apartment building,'' the quiet 56-year-old disabled man said through an interpreter recently, “but they're all busy with work. You meet people and doors slam shut. No one looks at anyone.''
The isolation Nguyen feels and the culture shock he suffers are common among the 3,000 evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi who settled in the Bay Area. Today, the 400 or so who remain in Santa Clara County are having mixed success finding their way.
Some, such as Charles Emery of San Jose and Lindell Slater of East Palo Alto, embrace the change and hope to stay.
Many, however, are like Nguyen — grappling with loneliness, trying to find jobs and cope with the region's sky-high cost of living.
Those daunting factors contributed to the exodus of some 8,000 people — Bay Area hurricane evacuees who returned to the Gulf Coast or scattered to other states or to California's less-expensive Central Valley.
“Most of them had never left their parish, let alone New Orleans or Louisiana,'' said Tim Quigley, who heads the Volunteer Center of Silicon Valley and chairs a broad committee assisting evacuees. “To be beamed into Oz was a trauma upon a trauma.''
About 60 percent of the evacuees, say county officials, are African-American. Thirty-two percent are Vietnamese-American.
Although many feel like they're living on another planet, some are managing well and forging new and productive lives.
Slater, a 25-year-old former bottled-water salesman from New Orleans, hopes to make the Bay Area his permanent home. He doesn't want to think about going back, now that he has settled in East Palo Alto with his wife, Amber, and 2-year-old daughter Liniah.
“I always wanted to come to California. I thought it was the land of opportunity,'' he said. “It seemed like a great place to raise a family.''
Last fall, while staying in a shelter in Texas, Slater met a volunteer from Mountain View who drove him and two other evacuees back to California to start a new life. At first, he landed a job with the same water company he'd worked for in New Orleans and, with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, found a two-bedroom apartment in East Palo Alto.
Slater isn't sure he can last. “The rent is killing me,'' he said. “I'm giving myself 12 months to make it here.''
He recently lost his job, but he remains optimistic that something else will turn up, largely because he's young and sees California as a chance to start all over.
“I like the way of life here,'' he said. “The community is cleaner, you feel safer and you don't have five murders a day like you do in New Orleans.''
Nguyen's isolation is further complicated by vision problems and a bad leg — both injuries from the Vietnam War. The disabilities force him to stay close to home. He can't see well enough to cross the street to a big Vietnamese market and other nearby shops that he would like to visit. Back home, his friends helped him shop and run errands.
When he turns on his radio, he listens to a Vietnamese news station. “It eases the sadness,'' he said.
Last fall, Katrina, which killed 2,000 people and left most of the New Orleans area under water, tore apart Nguyen's modest trailer and destroyed all his belongings, leaving him nowhere to go. He took a bus to Michigan, but it was too cold. So he bought a one-way ticket and flew to San Jose to join a brother.
Now he's on his own, in a government-subsidized apartment near McLaughlin Avenue and Story Road. It is simply furnished with items donated by volunteer groups — a couch, bed and wooden dining chairs. Whether he's happy or not, this is home. Nguyen no long entertains thoughts of going back to Louisiana.
“There is no one there anymore,'' he said. “It's been destroyed and my friends have scattered. I'll live a few more years and die anyway, because where else am I going to go?''
Emery and his family from New Orleans came to San Jose because a relative lives here. The 39-year-old restaurant owner and caterer left behind his ravaged home and restaurant and a successful catering business and hopes to start over. Since he, his fiancee, their children and his niece arrived in September, he's taken on catering jobs, doing birthday parties, weddings and other special events. He hopes to build a catering business and some day open a Cajun-soul food restaurant here.
“I'm homesick, but it's hard to think of going back,'' said Emery, who lives with his fiancee and their children in a pleasant ranch-style home near McLaughlin Avenue.
Emery and his fiancee, Simone Barabino, 36, evacuated New Orleans before Katrina struck. A day later, they returned to find their home intact, but it soon was overtaken by floodwaters and they lost everything.
“I got out with just the clothes on my back — a shirt, shorts, rubber boots and a baseball cap,'' he said.
Using savings and a subsidy from the federal Section 8 program, the couple and their kids moved into a home on Albanese Circle in San Jose.
Emery's family is embracing the change. His children say they're a little homesick, but happy with their new school and friends. “I miss the things I lost, like my new bedroom set, but it's a better life here,'' said Tyronikia Barabino, 11. “I just wish they'd stopped asking me questions about it at school,'' she said, referring to the hurricane.
Emery misses hanging out on his front porch, stoking up the barbecue and visiting with his neighbors.
“It's hard not knowing people and being 2,500 miles away from family and friends,'' he said, though things are going well for him in the Bay Area. “Life will never be the same.''
Contact Connie Skipitares at email@example.com or (408) 920-5647.
May 24, 2006
Article published May 23, 2006
'We don't wait for things to happen' Vietnamese community wastes no time rebuilding their lives after Katrina
wenty days after Hurricane Katrina struck, Ken Pham started gutting, tiling and repairing the roof of his flood-damaged home in New Orleans East.With his family safely ensconced in an apartment in Baton Rouge, Pham slept in his sodden house on a leather sofa he salvaged from the street. Working most days and into the night – with help from friends – Pham has almost managed to restore the 1,800-square-foot, four-bedroom home where he has lived for 22 years. When his insurance money ran out, he used his savings.
His determination to rebuild is simple.
"I'm no longer in Vietnam. This is my home now," Pham said as he stood on the small porch and gestured inside.
When pressed on why he came back, the longtime shrimper began to cry. "There is a very close relationship in this community," he said. "That's why I returned."
Pham's passion is shared by most who live in this predominantly Vietnamese-American enclave, where rows of new roofs are interspersed with blue tarps, and neatly manicured lawns contrast with piles of trash and storm debris that litter the public median strips. In the post-Katrina world of uncertainty and inconsistent city services and utilities, Vietnamese-Americans here have become models of self-help and recovery. About 1,500 of the neighborhood's 2,500 members of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church have permanently returned, according to the Rev. Vien Nguyen, pastor of the church.
Nguyen estimates that 4,000 Vietnamese live within one mile of the church, and the majority of their homes have been gutted. Of the estimated 50 Vietnamese-owned businesses in the area, 45 are up and running, the pastor said. The steady rate of return has compelled Nguyen to add a third church service Sundays.
About 8,000 to 10,000 Vietnamese lived in New Orleans East before Katrina, Nguyen said, with 20,000 to 25,000 in the greater New Orleans area.
He said the community's relative success at rebuilding has been due to a combination of factors. This section of the city got 4 feet or less of flooding, compared with the 8 feet or more that swallowed other areas. Nguyen's church helped returnees find temporary shelter and provisions while they repaired their homes.
The community shares a history of starting over. Many residents here have roots in three villages in northern Vietnam, Nguyen said. Their relatives migrated south as a group in the early 1950s, and after the communists took over in the south in 1975, fled to America.
Thousands were resettled in New Orleans East with the help of the Catholic Church. The area is sometimes identified as Village de L'Est, the name of a housing subdivision in the neighborhood.
Pooling resources has enabled the Vietnamese to provide financial assistance to one another; such sharing became crucial after Katrina.
"We work together as a community, so when we come back and there are others who need help, we are willing to help," said Nguyen, adding that there was never a doubt that the people of the neighborhood would return. "The question was only, when?"
Nguyen said Vietnamese men are typically competent handymen and there are skilled laborers among them. Many have been able to gut their own homes, repair their own roofs and do electrical wiring.
Other community members who own small businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores have ensured that consumer goods and services are available as people return and rebuild.
On a recent tour of New Orleans East, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, commended the Vietnamese community's progress in rebuilding as "exemplary," but he said it was "unconscionable" that residents and business owners had to tackle so much themselves, without adequate government assistance.
Kerry said some of the Vietnamese business owners with whom he spoke told him their personal funds were running out. "They still need additional assistance," the senator said.
Phuong Thi Nguyen, 77, returned four months ago after her son finished gutting, painting and tiling the four-bedroom house where she has lived since 1984. The family didn't need a trailer. They lived in their makeshift kitchen until the pounding of hammers and buzz of chain saws fell silent.
As she stood in a back yard flush with watercress and mustard greens, she spoke of the joy of being home from her temporary refuge in Austin, Texas.
"In the place where I was, there wasn't any Vietnamese family. I couldn't go anywhere. I felt imprisoned," said Phuong Thi Nguyen as she clutched a traditional cone-shaped non la hat. "Now I can attend church at my leisure."
Two nearby commercial strips boast the resurgence of beauty salons, grocery stores, video rental shops and at least one pharmacy, belonging to Kinh Van Nguyen.
He estimated that when he reopened his store Dec. 5, he was the only pharmacist within a 30-mile radius. His business suffered little water damage, but looters stole about $75,000 worth of goods and the lack of air conditioning when the power went out destroyed much of his stock.
Thieves ravaged his mother-in-law's convenience store next door. So Nguyen knocked down the wall between the two establishments, turning the businesses into a joint venture selling medicines and pharmaceuticals along with rubber sandals, hats, blankets, kitchen supplies and fashion jewelry.
"I guess the Vietnamese community . . . we don't wait for things to happen. We make them happen," said Kinh Van Nguyen, 40.
But the situation is still far from perfect. Community leaders say they feel their efforts to bring people home are being stymied by the city's decision to place a landfill for Katrina debris about a mile from the subdivision of Village de L'Est.
Residents fear that the dump will pollute the air and contaminate waterways, alongside which they have planted vegetable gardens.
While acknowledging the concern, Rodney Mallett, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said, "The chances of health hazards are very, very slim."
—— End of article
By ANN M. SIMMONS
Los Angeles Times