New Cultures, New Tongues, New Vitality for County

I was watching "Dances With Wolves" and thinking about Orange County.

The old Indian chief Kicking Bird was sitting silently, knowing that the influx of White Eyes from the East was inevitable and that the numbers would overwhelm his people and that his way of life would not survive the onslaught. You read his mind and imagined him recalling a simpler time--before the white man and the presence of his strange culture. It was a moment that for the aging chief was both poignant and terrifying.

Judging from phone calls I get at the office, many people in Orange County are feeling like Kicking Bird.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it doesn't have to be that way.

These people remember an Orange County that was mostly white and culturally united. Most people spoke the same language and everyone could read the signs on all the storefronts. But in the last generation, they've seen all that go poof.

And with the 1990 census reporting the numerical transmutation in black and white--or should we say brown and white--these people know that the changes once feared are upon them at full throttle.

The telephone calls I'm referring to haven't come from people who were spewing white supremacist talk. They're not talking about wanting a lily-white society; in fact, they went out of their way to make that clear. Rather, the callers sounded as if they were lamenting a society they see disappearing--a disappearing act perhaps in its early stages but under way nonetheless.

Little things trigger it, such as the issue of pushcart food vendors in Santa Ana. While some framed the issue as a public health concern, most others saw it in cultural terms--a way of life distinctly Latino that was encroaching on U.S. turf.

"When in Rome. . . ," one man said. He didn't say it malevolently. To him, it made perfect sense. He simply didn't want Mexico re-created in Santa Ana, any more than he would want Mission Viejo re-created in Tijuana.

Although it shouldn't have come as much surprise, the 1990 census figures for Santa Ana probably jolted some people. The city is now 65% Latino, with that population group increasing 111% in the city since 1980.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez also has his ear to the ground. In a talk last week, he said: "One out of every four people in Orange County is Hispanic. Some say that's great, others say, 'My God, they are taking over.' "

He didn't mention that another 10% of county residents are of Asian extraction or that the Latino and Asian populations increased 97% and 117%, respectively, in the last decade in Orange County.

Change made Kicking Bird melancholy; it need not have the same effect on Orange County's majority population.

As Object Lesson 1: Take a trip to Little Saigon in Westminster. On its face, it represents everything that lovers of the status quo fear. As its name implies, Saigon and Southeast Asia have almost literally been re-created along Bolsa Avenue. Everything from bridal shops to pharmacies to food-to-go outlets line the streets, with signs in Vietnamese.

This is a culture that has already left its imprint on Orange County. But rather than sully the easel, the Asian culture has greatly decorated it.

Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith said the city has embraced the change brought by the Vietnamese. While noting that a small minority probably resent the Asian immigrants that first began arriving in the mid-1970s, "most people are very accepting and are readily adaptable to having them here," Smith said. "I think the general consensus is very positive. The (longstanding) residents don't view them as a threat."

Inasmuch as the Vietnamese merchants developed their businesses in what were bean fields and run-down shopping strips and have bolstered Westminster's tax base, there should be more than a little gratitude toward these first-generation American retailers.

Smith talks about the charm of Little Saigon and how the community has attracted Barbara Bush, Dan Quayle and other political figures. In short, it is a community that has retained its culture while immersing itself in U.S. society.

Luu Trankiem, who provided business consulting for many of the early Little Saigon merchants, said: "I try to preach to everybody that I know in the business community that we should cater to the community at large. I think we have brought to the county part of our heritage, our culture, and I think we have made some contributions to this area, in such things as music and art."

So, to those of you who fear the inevitable, take a trip to Little Saigon. You'll see people trying to make a living just like you are. You might sense people who appear a bit insulated, probably because they're more comfortable around people familiar with their culture. But you won't find a group of people out to rend the social fabric of America.

To really ease your mind, stop at the Asian Garden Mall--one of the more striking replicas of Southeast Asian life. If you do, it'll be impossible for you to miss the huge American flag draped across the front entrance.

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