Luminaries light up Mile Square Park in memory of COVID-19, anti-Asian hate crime victims
A single light flickered in the pitch-black of Thursday morning.
The two traversing the wet grass of Mile Square Park said later that lighting the first luminary made them feel as if they were standing on the precipice of something big. Tam Nguyen said he thought of his parents. Johnny Ngo thought of his. Both of their families came to the U.S. from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
It was 3:47 a.m. in Fountain Valley when that first luminary was placed. They watched until it was time for them to leave, then extinguished it. It was the first of many that would be lit there later the same day.
A lighthouse in a sea of grassy green, it was timed to be placed 53,000 seconds before the park would glow anew at 6:30 p.m. with hundreds more to memorialize the more than 53,000 people in California who had died after suffering with COVID-19. It would also be a call for an end to the surge of anti-Asian rhetoric and hate crimes nationwide.
In Orange County, deaths by COVID-19 have now passed 4,000. The Orange County Health Care Agency reported Thursday that 757 of those deaths are of individuals identified as being of Asian descent.
The lighting of the luminaries is not only a memorial, but also a message that the Asian American community will not stay silent to injustice, said Tam Nguyen. Nguyen is president of Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove and co-founder of Nailing It for America, a group that rallied at the start of the pandemic to donate personal protective equipment to healthcare workers.
They later also spearheaded a campaign in Little Saigon to provide meals to medical centers, grocery store workers, senior facilities, shelters and others. Organizers encouraged other Vietnamese American communities nationwide to donate too.
Now, they’ve come together again to speak out against anti-Asian sentiments uttered by people who blame Asians for the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China.
And, they mourn with Californians as the state passes the one-year anniversary of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s declaration of a pandemic emergency.
Planning for the event began in earnest around three days ago, according to Ted Nguyen, no relation to Tam, who served as an organizer for both “Nailing It” campaigns. They decided on using luminaries — paper bags, each filled with sand and a candle, because they considered them to be ecofriendly and because of the symbolism associated with the stark white of their coloration.
The color white in Asian cultures is a color of mourning.
“It’s been a mad rush,” Ted Nguyen said. “It’s something that just needs to be taken care of. It needs to be addressed and we don’t want to wait around for other people to step up when we can help mobilize the community to take a stand.”
Tam Nguyen agreed, adding that the organizing team decided to work around the clock to make sure that the event happened.
“Each of us were raised and taught, ‘Keep your head down. Persevere. Work hard. Don’t be the nail that pops up because you’ll be popped back down,’” Tam Nguyen said. “This issue is bigger than any one family. It’s bigger than any one business. It’s bigger than even Little Saigon. It’s social justice. It’s too easy to be invisible in a black and white world. When are we going to speak up?
“When are we going to lead? Our parents weren’t in a position to speak up. Our parents were just trying to get food on the table for us, so we have the luxury of advocating, of organizing and it’s important to us that we are demonstrating,” he said.
Alison Edwards, the chief executive officer of OC Human Relations, said preliminary data received by the organization show there have been 40 reports of hate incidents targeting the Asian American Pacific Islander community in the last year. This compares to only four reports of such incidents targeting the AAPI community in 2019.
Starting at around 3:45 p.m. Thursday, hundreds of volunteers went out to deploy the luminaries for the evening event.
Christie Nguyen, whose family owns the Studio 18 Nail Bar in Tustin, was one such volunteer.
She said she felt the rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic — such as referring to it as a “Wuhan virus” — led people to engage in hateful behavior against the Asian American community. She hoped the event would spread awareness of the situation.
She added that her parents had sacrificed a great deal for her and her family to come here. None of them knew English and arrived in the Southland with nothing, she said. They persevered and, she said, were the good parents that she needed them to be when she was growing up. In turn, she felt she should do whatever she could to create a better life for all.
“It’s [about] protecting our elders and protecting our kids’ future,” she said.
The day grew darker and soon it was time: 53,000 seconds had passed since the first luminary had been lit, then extinguished during the early morning hours. As 6:30 p.m. arrived, hundreds of paper lanterns cast their glow across Mile Square Park.
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