The first waves of Vietnamese refugees came to a county that was hardly prepared to greet them with open arms.
Yes, both the South Vietnamese and Orange County were ardently anti-communist. But the county was overwhelmingly white in the 1970s, its time as the seat of the John Birch Society not far back in its history. Residents openly complained that the refugees were taking scarce housing and quietly hissed outrageous accusations that the newcomers were stealing dogs to eat them.
It wouldn’t take long for much of the county to change its mind, as the Vietnamese moved into a rundown area in Garden Grove and Westminster that no one else wanted and turned a disintegrating collection of ugly strip malls into thriving Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam. Their children soon took top honors at local high schools.
Among that first wave, and typical of it, was a 10-year-old boy, Van Tran, who three decades later became the nation’s first Vietnamese American to win state office (though a Texan remains in a close heat for a legislative seat there).
But as much as Tran’s election to the Assembly exemplifies the quick success of the Vietnamese community, it also reflects the transformative winds that swept Orange County.
In the 1970s, when the first Vietnamese arrived, the county was more than 85% white. Two months ago, its white population officially became a minority. Its most ethnically homogeneous school district, Santa Ana, is more than 90% Latino. In Irvine, some public schools make classrooms available at lunchtime for their sizable numbers of Muslim students to pray.
The county even has some Democratic elected officials.
The John Birchers have gone, and “communist threat” is, to most county residents, a phrase from history books. Not to Republican Tran.
For most Vietnamese refugees, the sting of communism isn’t a distant memory. They take a dim view of normalized relations with Vietnam, insist that the flag of their old country be flown at official gatherings and virulently oppose anyone who suggests otherwise. Saying that he had received threats after his election, Tran told the Orange County Register, “It’s the Commies.”
For all that he represents in a new Orange County, Tran’s comment was an echo of an Orange County long gone.