Vietnamese are political force post-Katrina |

Vietnamese are political force post-Katrina

Michael Kunzelman
Associated Press
Vail, CO Coloraod

NEW ORLEANS ” The view from Kinh Nguyen’s front door these days is nothing like the “abandoned cemetery” she saw upon returning to her New Orleans neighborhood two months after Hurricane Katrina.

Gone are the blue tarps and plywood boards that covered storm-damaged homes in Village de l’Est, a mostly Vietnamese-American neighborhood. Nguyen’s lawn, which turned dark brown after briny floodwaters killed her grass, is now a lush green. Streets once littered with storm debris are as clean and pothole-free as any in the city.

“They’re all back,” Nguyen, a 45-year-old mother of four, said of her neighbors. “Every home looks nicer, newer.”

Village de l’Est’s rebound has been a remarkable success story in this misery-stricken city. At the same time, for better or worse, the hurricane has brought profound political and cultural change to the community.

Language and cultural barriers long kept Vietnamese-Americans on the sidelines of the city’s civic scene after they began flocking to New Orleans upon the fall of Saigon in 1975. Since Katrina, however, they have been emerging as a force in a city where politics is customarily viewed in black-and-white terms.

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“In a short period of time, they’ve had a major impact in the community,” said Jefferson Parish Councilman John Young, who represents a New Orleans suburb with a significant Vietnamese population.

The resilience of the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans is a bright spot for a city still missing roughly one-third of the 455,000 residents who lived here before the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.

An estimated 90 percent of the 25,000 Vietnamese-Americans who lived in southeastern Louisiana before Katrina had returned within two years of Katrina’s onslaught, according to community leaders. They were among the first to start rebuilding their homes and reopening their businesses, and their community is recovering much more rapidly than some other parts of New Orleans.

Like many of her neighbors, Kinh Nguyen didn’t wait for the government’s help to repair her home, a modest, ranch-style house. She moved her family back in in March 2006, about 18 months before she received a federal housing grant.

To save money, she gutted the house and removed the mold herself, using directions she found on the Internet. Friends and relatives helped with some of the most grueling labor. Even the Catholic priests from her nearby church, Mary Queen of Vietnam, pitched in and helped her fix her kitchen.

“Hand in hand, we support each other,” she said.

Adversity is nothing new to New Orleans’ Vietnamese. Many families lost everything before they fled their homeland three decades ago.

“Katrina itself is almost like a bug bite for us,” said Anh “Joseph” Cao, a lawyer who ran for state representative this year in a district that includes part of eastern New Orleans. “It’s sort of bothersome. It itches. But it’s not something we’re terrified of.”

Cao is a prime example of the community’s newfound political activism. Knocking on voters’ doors one recent evening, he introduced himself as the first Vietnamese-American to run for office in the city. Cao, one of six candidates on the Oct. 20 primary ballot, finished in fifth place in a tight race.

“After the hurricane, the Vietnamese people, especially of this community, became a lot more visible to the city at large,” Cao said before the election. “We felt that this is an opportune time for a Vietnamese to run and maybe have a chance to win.”

One issue that fueled his campaign is a landfill that opened near Village de l’Est after Katrina. The landfill closed last year, but neighbors are still pressuring officials to remove potentially hazardous storm debris from the site.

At a recent City Hall hearing on the issue, dozens of elderly Vietnamese people donned earphones and listened to a translation of the proceedings. That scene repeated itself several weeks later at a forum for City Council candidates held in eastern New Orleans.

Jennifer Vu, a leader of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp., said the community didn’t have a political rallying point before Katrina.

“There was no illegal landfill. There was nothing to contaminate the water, the soil, anything to be hazardous to our lifestyle,” she said. “Now that we’re being attacked with these things, we just have to respond in this way.”

The Vietnamese-Americans are not immune to problems that plague the rest of the city: Many lost jobs and had to learn new trades. Ambitious development plans are stymied by red tape and a lack of affordable insurance. The nearest emergency room is downtown, a dozen miles away. Rising crime has unnerved many.

Katrina has brought other changes to the Vietnamese community.

In Village de l’Est, where many Vietnamese own small businesses such as nail salons, grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants, some are catering to the many Hispanic workers who have moved into eastern New Orleans since the storm.

Supermarket Los Paisanos replaced a hair salon. A taco restaurant opened next to a Vietnamese restaurant. At Viet My Supermarket, the shelves are stocked with Spanish plums, jalapeno peppers, refried beans and salsa along with Vietnamese fare like jasmine rice and salted jellyfish. The Vietnamese owner of a pharmacy keeps an English-to-Spanish dictionary on hand so he can converse with Hispanic customers.

Phuong Tran, owner of Phuoc Loc Supermarket, estimated that 60 percent of his customers were Vietnamese and 40 percent were black before Katrina. Now, he said, his black customers have been replaced by Hispanic ones.

“Without them, it would be pretty bad,” Tran said.

Residents of Village de l’Est aren’t content just to rebuild what Katrina destroyed. Some see an opportunity to turn the neighborhood into a destination for tourists looking for an alternative to the French Quarter’s excesses.

The neighborhood development agency, which was created after Katrina, is printing up “Viet Village” banners that will hang in the commercial district.

Even if those ambitious plans fall flat, the Vietnamese community already has enjoyed considerable success over the past two years.

Shortly before Katrina’s second anniversary, a producer from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” called Mary Tran, the community development agency’s executive director, for help in locating a Vietnamese family still rebuilding.

Tran couldn’t find one.

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