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They mix, not match

Times Staff Writer

Parishioners quietly stream into Our Lady of La Vang in Santa Ana, smile politely and head their separate ways.

Latinos take the chairs on the right, Vietnamese go left.

Father Joseph Nguyen quietly watches from the altar before moving to the pulpit, where he preaches five minutes in Spanish, then Vietnamese, then Spanish, alternating until the service ends. Prayers, songs and responses are done in both languages.

The scene at the Roman Catholic church is repeated each morning, five days a week.

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Everyone is cordial, everyone takes turns. Yet the two communities sit apart, often attend separate Sunday school classes and socialize primarily with their own group. Certain religious customs, such as the intense Latino veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, are not shared by the others. By the same measure, many Latinos are ambivalent about the reverence for Our Lady of La Vang, a vision of the Virgin Mary cherished by Vietnamese.

Ascension Landeras, 44, accepts the differences with a shrug.

“They are in their world, we are in our world, but there are no problems,” she said.

The church offers a glimpse into what is occurring throughout central Orange County as growing Vietnamese and Latino communities find themselves living in ever closer quarters, sharing neighborhoods, schools and churches. While some foresee conflict, others see the new face of Orange County.

Father Nguyen knew when Our Lady of La Vang absorbed the smaller, overwhelmingly Latino Our Lady of Lourdes in 2000 that he would have a cultural chasm to bridge.

“The first thing I learned was my own limitations. Sometimes I have to let people’s cultures take over,” he said. Nguyen takes heart in the fact that the two communities worship together despite their differences.

The long-established Latinos still dominate the region, especially in cities such as Santa Ana, but Vietnamese numbers have steadily risen in Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Westminster and Anaheim.

In Garden Grove, for example, Asians, mostly of Vietnamese descent, now represent 33.7% of the population while Latinos make up 40.2%, according to 2005 U.S. census figures.

Latinos were 30.8% of Orange County’s population in 2000, and Asians were 13.6%. In 2005, Latinos increased to 32.7%, while Asians rose to 16.1%. Some 157,012 of them were Vietnamese. The next-highest Asian group was Koreans, at 74,999.

As their population grows, Vietnamese have gained confidence and political clout. A Vietnamese American serves on Orange County’s Board of Supervisors, and others chair school boards and serve on city councils. One, Van Tran (R-Garden Grove) serves in the Assembly.

In high schools, where they used to be content to keep quiet and study, they now play on the football team, play in the school band and run for class president.

That wasn’t so when Lan Nguyen attended school in the 1980s.

“The Vietnamese formed their own clubs and did their own activities,” said Nguyen, now president of the Garden Grove school board. “They were not as assimilated as they are now. I’m impressed and proud when I see what has happened. I think what you are seeing now is the future of Orange County.”

But it’s an uncertain future, one laden with potential conflict.

That was apparent during the last congressional election, when Republican candidate Tan Nguyen’s campaign mailed letters to Latino homes in central Orange County warning -- falsely -- that immigrants could go to jail if they voted.

The resulting uproar caused a rift between Vietnamese Americans, who tend to be more conservative on illegal immigration, and Latinos, who generally view it more tolerantly. Nguyen, who denied involvement in sending the letters, lost to incumbent Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove). Last month, the state attorney general cleared Nguyen of any wrongdoing in the case.

“We Vietnamese and Latinos don’t have the same interests,” said Do Dzung, a reporter and editor at Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese newspaper in Orange County. “The Vietnamese are against illegal immigration. They believe they came over here legally and so should everyone else.”

Many Vietnamese came here as refugees and remain fiercely proud that they fought alongside American soldiers in the Vietnam War. A statue depicting two soldiers -- an American and a South Vietnamese -- has become a centerpiece of the civic center in Westminster. Most of the older generation remains staunchly anti-communist and tends to vote Republican.

Dzung says the two groups have vastly different outlooks on life. Many Vietnamese, he said, don’t believe Latinos respect education and hard work.

“They would never say that out loud,” he said. “But I honestly can’t see any issue that Vietnamese and Latinos share. I see conflict in the future.”

After the Tan Nguyen debacle, Assemblyman Tran cosponsored legislation with Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio of Anaheim targeting those trying to intimidate voters. He said he preferred to look for similarities, not differences between the groups.

“Hispanic families are very conservative on issues of family values. We share the same religion -- Catholicism in many cases. Issues such as education are very important to both communities,” Tran said. “The trials and difficulties of assimilating and language-gap issues are the same.”

He opposes illegal immigration but does so in a way that he says avoids “emotionalism and divisiveness.”

“You can articulate your view without offending people,” he said.

Tran, a former Garden Grove councilman, was one of the first Vietnamese Americans elected to a state legislature and has become a powerful political figure in the immigrant community.

“The county is becoming more Hispanic and more Asian, and I am conscious of the growing pains it is going through,” he said. “It’s no big mystery how I get people to support me. I address issues that all communities care about.”

At Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove, where 52% of students are of Vietnamese descent and 37% are Latino, administrators watch for any signs of trouble.

“When I see the mixing of cultures, it’s very reassuring,” said John Flaws, the Garden Grove police officer assigned to Bolsa. “The kids here tend to group according to common interest, not race. In Garden Grove in general, we haven’t had a problem between the two groups. The tolerance level here is unbelievable.”

Bolsa was one of the first to be affected by the waves of Vietnamese refugees arriving in Orange County in the early 1980s. Back then, tensions were higher and it was considered a rough school, said Principal Denise Jay.

“When you start dealing with these issues, it’s very tough in the beginning,” she said. “But we did it before anyone else. Now I think one of the traits of this school is mutual respect.”

Members of the two communities attend class together, play sports together and sometimes date one another. Pictures of the racially mixed teams of athletes and musicians adorn the walls. In some cases, one group seems to dominate. There are more Vietnamese Americans in the orchestra, while Latinos are more represented in football and cheerleading.

“There are no barriers between the two cultures,” said student Alex Lee, 17. “If there is a fight between people, it’s just because they don’t like each other, not because of their race.”

Ivan Hernandez, 17, said there is little racial tension but often not much interaction either.

“People tend to stay with their own culture,” he said. “I really don’t know many Vietnamese because I don’t hang out with them.”

The district organizes regular meetings with Latino and Vietnamese parents, who are often new immigrants, to help them understand the education system.

Vietnamese parents dwell on grades and academic performance, said Terry Rocco, a teacher who helps run the parent outreach program. Latino parents care about academics as well, she said, but that’s often not the perception.

“They get tired of hearing that they don’t care about education like the Vietnamese,” Rocco said. “I went to a Latino youth conference last May. At the end they asked what are the myths about you, and they said, ‘That we don’t value education, that Asian kids are smarter, that we are all gang-bangers.’ ”

Back at Our Lady of La Vang, parents and children waited in the courtyard for Sunday school classes to begin. Because of language barriers, the kids often attend classes taught in their own tongue. The Latino children dressed neatly but casually. Some of the Vietnamese wore crisp blue uniforms.

Off to one side was Guadalupe Lopez, 66, of Santa Ana. She has watched her neighborhood go from mostly white to mostly Latino and now increasingly Vietnamese.

“I don’t think we interact much,” she said. “In my neighborhood we have more Vietnamese neighbors. They are good neighbors, but they keep to themselves. They are not as open.”

Daisy Mota, 17, said she’s tried to connect. “But we are so different that sometimes it’s awkward,” she said. “Still, I think we have a lot in common. I believe what is happening here will happen in other places.”

Father Nguyen knows he can’t force people together. “The goal is to see how people work together, not mix together,” he said. “So far that approach has yielded fruit.” He could be right.

Maria Lopez, 48, is learning Vietnamese.

“Very few Hispanics speak Vietnamese,” she said. “The Vietnamese are a very spiritual people with a lot of martyrs. We too have suffered. Father Nguyen said this church is like heaven, and in heaven all the cultures are very much together.”

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Demographics

Asians made up 16.1% of Orange County’s residents in 2005 and Latinos 32.7%.

2000

Latinos: 30.8%

Asians: 13.6%

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2005

Latinos: 32.7%

Asians: 16.1%

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Sources: U.S. Census


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