O.C. Vietnamese American activists urge youth to speak up for their beliefs

Tracy La of VietRISE
Tracy La, executive director of VietRISE, stands in the organization’s Westminster office, which is lined with fliers related to the organization’s political work. VietRISE will host “We Celebrate Sanctuary Here: Vietnamese & Latinx Community Festival” in Garden Grove on Oct. 20.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

In July, the VietRISE activist group led a parade of marchers down All-American Way in Westminster, intently going from Freedom Park to Liberty Park for a “Bring Human Rights Home for Immigrants and Refugees” rally.

“At an intersection, we thought, ‘Let’s just stop traffic for a little bit and let people know we’re here,’“ says VietRISE co-founder and executive director Tracy La.

The demonstrators figured they’d get a few honks (and they did), but La remembers their excitement as some drivers got out of their cars and joined them. Others who lived nearby walked over after hearing the commotion and have since gotten involved in the activism.

In July 2019, Tracy La led VietRISE's "Bring Human Rights Home for Immigrants and Refugees" march and rally, which called upon local officials to defend and celebrate #SanctuaryForAll.
(Courtesy of VietRISE)

That was just one of 11 rallies (and one vigil, for the victims of this year’s El Paso, Texas, shooting) that VietRISE has organized in Little Saigon since the organization formed last year. It now has three full-time and one part-time staff members and about 25 active volunteers.

When members march, they wear “ICE out of Little Saigon” shirts and hold signs defending sanctuary status. They condemn the Trump administration’s attempt to repeal the U.S.-Vietnam repatriation agreement, which excludes Vietnamese refugees that arrived before July 12, 1995 from deportation — and call out politicians (especially their fellow Vietnamese American politicians) when they vote in ways they find harmful to their community.

They create bilingual hashtags — #ChoTatCa (#SanctuaryForAll), #ChongLạiSuGhet (#FightAgainstHate), #DongTraiTu (#CloseTheCamps) and #BaoVeGiaDinh (#ProtectFamilies) — and issue press releases in both English and Vietnamese.

They want to normalize speaking out in their community.

“My dad says to me, ‘I don’t want you to ever be afraid of saying what you believe in,’” La said.

She understands that many young Vietnamese Americans don’t have the same support from their parents, who may be nervous about their children getting involved in American politics.

“We’re not trying to do anything dangerous or protesting just because we want to make noise,” says La. “We want to do it strategically to highlight specific issues ... Young people have told us that they were scared to come out for a protest. We don’t want people to be afraid anymore.”

VietRISE's December 2018 "Defend Vietnamese Refugees March and Rally" in Westminster aimed to raise awareness about deportations in the Southeast Asian American community and the Trump administration's attempt to repeal the 1995 repatriation agreement that protects Vietnamese refugees who have been in America for decades.
VietRISE’s December 2018 “Defend Vietnamese Refugees March and Rally” in Westminster aimed to raise awareness about deportations in the Southeast Asian American community and the Trump administration’s attempt to repeal the 1995 repatriation agreement that protects Vietnamese refugees who have been in America for decades.
(Dannie Phan)

La, 24, grew up in San Diego, the daughter of Vietnamese American refugees. She was born five months after her parents and brother arrived in America after living for five years in a Thai refugee camp.

Their family lived in government-subsidized housing and moved around a lot, but as a kid La didn’t understand it was because they couldn’t afford the rent.

“A lot of my understanding of the [Vietnamese American] community came from my family discovering what it was like to be in a new country, but also the different experiences that my brother, who’s seven years older, experienced compared to me,” she says.

“The main difference was the way the system treated us,” she explains. “I was really nurtured by my teachers … [while] he didn’t know English when he came here, and he was always reprimanded, so that made him rebel. He ended up joining gangs and getting involved in stuff like that, while I ended up growing up on the other side.”

Allison Vo, VietRISE’s youth organizing coordinator, said she sometimes feels La is “the mouthpiece for my own personal story.”

Vo, 24, also grew up moving from city to city, but around Little Saigon.

“It’s because we share a lot of similar experiences, as ‘1.5’ and second generation Vietnamese Americans,” says La. (“1.5 generation” refers to people who arrived in the U.S. as youths, like her brother.) “Housing is a big issue, as is immigration.”

In high school, La was the president of the campus Asian cultural awareness club, and during the 2012 presidential election, she sought permission to organize a mock election because she wanted her fellow students to have a better understanding of the local and national issues at stake.

“It was the first time I felt that young people could have power,” she says, “because my principal agreed to it.”

VietRISE youth organizing coordinator Allison Vo lights candles at the organization's "Little Saigon Stands with El Paso: Vigil Against White Supremacy" in August 2019.
(Courtesy of VietRISE)

While she was studying at UC Irvine, La searched for specifically Vietnamese American spaces that did the activism and policy work she was interested in. While she says there were great pan-Asian American political groups, as well as Vietnamese-specific organizations focusing on arts, education or issues related to human rights in Vietnam, it wasn’t quite what she was looking for.

She wanted to work to change sociopolitical and economic conditions in Little Saigon, home of the largest Vietnamese diaspora.

Inspired by groups like Philadelphia’s Viet Lead, Orange County’s own VROC (Viet Rainbow of Orange County), as well as the history of Vietnamese American organizing for labor rights in the 1970s and ‘80s, as outlined in Kent Wong and An Le’s book, “Organizing on Separate Shores: Vietnamese and Vietnamese American Union Organizers,” she and a group of co-organizers created VietRISE.

Hieu Nguyen, founder of VROC, says there has been no progressive space for Vietnamese Americans here in Orange County.

“The need has always been there,” he says.

Linda Vo, a professor in the Asian American Studies department at UC Irvine, says groups like VietRISE give a voice to many who have been underrepresented.

As the organization’s youth organizing coordinator, Allison Vo works with mostly college-age students in the county, holding political training workshops to teach them how to engage with public officials, run activism campaigns and do their own organizing.

Allison Vo says that when she talks to younger Vietnamese Americans, they cite the inter-generational trauma in their families, but embrace the idea of resiliency. They want to figure out how to break cycles and move forward.

“We’re trying to build a curriculum that acknowledges history and contextualizes it, but also show that there are specific tools that we can utilize in order to build power for ourselves in the community,” Allison Vo says.

Still, challenges remain.

“Politics can be very contentious and divisive, and there are generational differences” in the Vietnamese American community, says Linda Vo. “This can scare away the younger generation” from participating.

VietRISE's "We Celebrate Sanctuary Here: A Vietnamese and Latinx Community Festival" is the activist group's 13th community event, and first concert, in Little Saigon since forming in February 2018.
VietRISE’s “We Celebrate Sanctuary Here: A Vietnamese and Latinx Community Festival” is the activist group’s 13th community event, and first concert, in Little Saigon since forming in February 2018.
(Courtesy of VietRISE)

Going into that future, activists like those in VietRISE strive to highlight the present.

So on Sunday, VietRiSE is collaborating with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network to host a Vietnamese and Latinx community festival at the Atlantis Play Center in Garden Grove. It will feature music by DJ Nina Ross, Anaheim’s Weapons of Mass Creation, Los Jornaleros del Norte and Son Del Centro, as well as poetry by Scott Keltic Knot and Đỗ Nguyên Mai.

“The theme of the festival is to celebrate how sanctuary laws have made our community safer but also to celebrate our immigrant and refugee legacies,” La says. “In a place like Little Saigon, we want to celebrate our Latinx and Central American counterparts who are our neighbors. “

There will be a community art project, collecting thumbprints on a wood panel that says “We Celebrate Sanctuary for Immigrants Here” in English, Vietnamese and Spanish, and the day before, they will host and live-stream an exchange with Vietnamese refugees and Central American refugees in the activists’ Garden Grove office.

The VietRISE logo is an homage to the Vietnamese folk tale Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ: The Legend of Ancient Vietnam, about a Dragon King and Fairy Queen and their 100 children who are separated when half of them go to the mountains and the other half go to the sea. “Our logo is the coming-together of the mountain and the sea, to honor our roots and origin and stories as Vietnamese people and our differences,“ says executive director Tracy La.
(Courtesy of VietRISE)

“Our community is very powerful,” says La, who credits the elected Vietnamese American politicians in Orange County.

La says some people understandably have reservations about the public criticism VietRISE lodges against leaders in its own community.

But according to Nguyen of VROC, some of the newer groups have a strategy that involves a very public presence.

He says parents sometimes ask him: “Why can’t you just do things and not have to post it online?”

But he believes that posting can help allow people to better access the groups, engaging a base that may not have found a space. Once they’re in that space he believes they will feel more compelled to act.

“It is more powerful when it comes from a Vietnamese person, for [politicians] to hear from someone who’s a refugee or a child of refugees, because then they can no longer be the sole carrier of the narrative of what Vietnamese people look like,” says La. “It’s not because it’s fun. It’s really difficult.”

The difficulties include feeling isolated.

“But because our team is very grounded in our work and our values, it’s a source of comfort and confidence,” says Allison Vo.

La adds she doesn’t think the local officials “know what to do with us yet. But I think the one thing they can’t take away is that it’s clear that we really care about our community.”

After meeting La, Westminster Councilman Tai Do says, “I had nothing but my utmost respect for Tracy for her leadership uniting young Vietnamese Americans and Latin Americans and for being vocal about local politics. These young men and women are the future leaders of our city.”

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