NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana. On the far eastern edge of New Orleans, a community of 10,000 Vietnamese-Americans already had weathered disasters of biblical proportions—war, hate crimes, Hurricane Katrina and a mountain of toxic waste—when, this summer, BP oil hit their commercial fishing boats. Anyone’s faith in God and America might have been crippled by that Job-like toll.
But these thousands of devout Catholics confidently are surviving it all with an undimmed faith and patriotism.
“As a community, we have depended for a century on fishing for our livelihood, so the oil is disastrous for us, yes. It’s true that the oil is in these waters and on our boats, and the price of seafood down here on the docks has collapsed. Yes, all that’s true. But this is America, we have each other in this community and we have systems in America that can help us survive if we work hard,” said Giupseppe Tony Tran, assistant to the pastors at the huge local Vietnamese-Catholic church, Mary Queen of Vietnam.
In our journey of 9,000 miles around the U.S., we’ve met countless people worried about their future, so we were stunned by Tran’s matter-of-fact confidence. At the moment, he’s also working with local shrimp fishermen on strategies to increase seafood sales. This is a tightly knit community and everyone gets involved in a crisis.
When the 2005 Hurricane Katrina destroyed the heart of their community—their church—local Catholics scrambled to adapt. They evacuated with everyone else, but very quickly they were back canoeing to their partially submerged homes. Their church was all but gone, but they were able to canoe to a big outdoor platform in the church parking lot high enough that it remained dry. The first parishioners gathered there. Then, as their parking lot eventually dried out, they cleared mud and debris, gathered scrap steel and aluminum, plus their welding and metal-working tools and built a huge barn for Mass. Finally, they rebuilt their church.
This was one of the first areas in the entire city to jump back from the storm.
“You have to remember, we survived the Vietnam War. We survived Katrina. Nothing stops us if we keep our faith and work hard,” Tran said.
Those three words “faith” and “work hard” form a mantra one hears throughout this industrious ethnic community. In fact, visiting the Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans is like stepping back a century to visit classic immigrant communities such as Poletown in Detroit, German communities in the Great Plains or Scandinavians in the upper Midwest.
Today, those communities largely have been reduced to a nostalgic vision of small-town resourcefulness, but those bootstrap values are alive and strong as a pile driver in eastern New Orleans.
Here’s the essential background on this community: For many generations, two Vietnamese fishing villages near Hanoi had been predominantly Catholic. In 1954, the populations of these villages fled from “North Vietnam” and resettled south of Saigon. They refer to that traumatic journey as “our first Exodus.” Then, after Americans left the country in 1975, residents of these two villages fled through many harrowing pathways out of the now harshly Communist country—a second Exodus. The Catholic church helped to relocate some refugees from these villages in eastern New Orleans. The geography of their new hometown reminded them of Vietnam and soon families were planting banana trees from seed and saving money from minimum-wage jobs to buy fishing boats and to send their children to universities.
“As we arrived, we spoke no English and there were no good English-language programs here for Vietnamese,” Tran said. “This was difficult. Some of our sponsors gave us names like Clint Eastwood and Marilyn Monroe to identify us. I was sponsored by an Italian family and they thought Giuseppe Tony was a good American name for me.”
The key to survival, Tran said, is that “whether we were working sweeping out a grocery store or mowing lawns in our first jobs, we would take every $2 we earned and save $1.25 for the future. We’d live on the 75 cents that was left.”
The original apartment blocks in which the Catholic church helped to settle the first refugees are government-owned property on the edge of their current community of neat brick bungalows. While the Vietnamese-American homes now are beautifully maintained, often with gardens, banana trees and large Catholic statues, those older government-owned apartments still are empty hulks five years after Katrina. “I wish the government would just let us repair them,” Tran said. “We’d take care of these old buildings in a hurry.”
The Vietnamese-Americans haven’t always been welcome here, however.
“Back when some of us first began buying shrimp boats, there was a big conflict all along the Gulf coast from other fishermen who saw us as a threat. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross, one of our fishermen was killed. Things got very bad for a while.” The 1985 Ed Harris movie “Alamo Bay” is a drama based on that conflict, set in a fictional community along the Texas shore.
Toughened through a century of conflict, New Orleans Vietnamese-American leaders, including Tran, survived the hate crimes. In 2005, they were among the first residents back in the city after Katrina. “There were so many police, armed men and even helicopters flying overhead when we came back here that I had memories of the Vietnam War flash in my mind again,” Tran said, “but we had to secure our homes from looters and had to rebuild as soon as possible.”
The community’s next crisis was highlighted in a feature-length documentary on the PBS-TV network last year. Through mistakes in urban planning maps, New Orleans city officials claim they were unaware of this burgeoning community when they decided to dump the city’s vast loads of toxic hurricane debris in property next to these homes and a stone’s throw from the Catholic church. Vietnamese-American leaders were cold-shouldered by city officials until the church led a prayerful march including children and grandparents. Several generations linked hands and blocked the giant convoys of debris. Eventually, the dump was closed.
“We thought we had survived everything when the dumping ended in 2006,” Tran said, “but 60 percent of our community is involved in the fishing industry, shrimping and tuna fishing mainly. Now, we’re facing balls of oil, oil stains across the surface of the water and oil lines on the sides of our boats.
“As of last week, they let some of our fishermen back out, and one man pulled in a load of big shrimp, but when he got back to the dock, he couldn’t find a buyer” even at half of his usual wholesale rate for such a load. “People think our seafood isn’t good, which isn’t true. My main work now is in trying to do what we can to increase interest in seafood from the Gulf again.”
But that’s far from the extent of the problem.
“We all learned English and this community has produced doctors and lawyers among our young people,” Tran said, “but many of the fishermen themselves aren’t expert in the complicated legal issues of how to sign up for some of the cleanup and relief programs. People who don’t live along the Gulf may think it’s easy to sign up to have your boat help in the cleanup or to get assistance funds, but these actually are very complicated matters. Right now, there is a great frustration about the oil and the fall in seafood prices.”
Asked if we should characterize the mood with words like “angry” or “worried,” Tran looked surprised. “Big frustration, but no, not worried or angry.” he said. “No, we believe in America, our country’s systems for solving problems, in our own hard work and in our faith. Remember, we survived all the regimes that tried to dominate us in Vietnam. We chose this country as our home and our faith Is strong. In Vietnam, our villages were built around a courtyard with the church in the center of the courtyard. That’s how our lives are built here, too.”
Several community leaders had recommended Tran as their spokesman. But, to test Tran’s viewpoint, we spent a day eating in local restaurants, visiting local shops, attending Saturday afternoon Mass and everywhere we went Tran’s confidence was obvious. The man behind the counter at a local bakery beamed and boasted that he’d just won first place in one category of a New Orleans cooking contest. The largest local restaurant was jammed. The church parking lot was full for Mass. A long section of median along the main highway displayed a multi-level landscape design using dozens of species of tropical plants—a design the community plans to use in restoring miles of median gardens over the next couple of years.
At historic Jackson Square in New Orleans, we talked with a longtime merchant about the Vietnamese-Americans and his verdict was: “very impressive.”
Hughes Drumm, who was born in New Orleans and owns a Tabasco-themed gift shop on the square, told us: “They’re very self-reliant after all they’ve been through. They’re very much about family and everyone helps in that community with their blood, sweat and tears. Yeah, around here, we all know about what they’ve done. They’ve rebuilt despite everything thrown at them. I’d say there’s a lot all Americans can learn from those folks.”
(Today’s photos and story by readthespirit.com Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)
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