The Vietnamese community of San José struggles with its political voice
In a city with the country’s largest Vietnamese population, Americans of Vietnamese descent still struggle to make their voices heard in politics.
The lack – and loss – of Vietnamese representation in San José politics is the result of a number of factors, community leaders say, including an inherited distrust of politics and a generational and ideological divide in the community.
“It’s a long-standing problem,” said David Duong, president of the Vietnam American Business Association in San José. “It’s so divisive within the community, when we have to stand together.”
San José, the most populous city in the Bay Area, has seen a dramatic increase in Vietnamese population over the past four decades, becoming one of the Vietnamese enclaves in California. The wave started in 1980 when some of the thousands of refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon saw opportunities in the hot weather and high-tech jobs of Silicon Valley.
San José is home to more than 180,000 Vietnamese residents, or more than 10% of the city’s population. Grand Century Mall, the largest Vietnamese mall in the region that sits at the entrance to Little Saigon, is home to over 100 small businesses.
Yet the history of Vietnamese representation in San José is short. The city elected its first Vietnamese-born American council member, Madison Nguyen, in 2005. Since then, San José has had only four Vietnamese-born council members.
Three of them served only one term at town hall, the most recent being Lan Diep, who lost his election in District 4 last year to the member of the board of directors of the Berryessa Union School District, David Cohen.
After a tumultuous year in which the nation faced a racial calculation, experienced a pandemic that disproportionately injured communities of color and saw Vietnamese flags fly from the United States Capitol in a riot on January 6, some residents see this moment as a tipping point for the Vietnamese community of San José.
“After Trump, the way (of the community) of engaging in politics changed, and they certainly had more conversations about what was going on,” said Christina Johnson, secretary of the Vietnamese American Roundtable who grew up in East San Jose. “Especially once we saw our flags on January 6, it was a pivotal moment in our community.”
“Stay away from politics”
Philip Nguyen, a professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University and a local community organizer, said he grew up with his parents telling him to stay away from politics.
“My parents were refugees… and because we came from this story of division, family division, country division, etc., they strayed from what politics really meant,” Nguyen said. “There is this fear of the word ‘chính trị’, of being involved in political processes and of defending your interests and those of your communities.
The Vietnam War has pushed nearly a million Vietnamese abroad and killed millions more, and Nguyen said the conflict still haunts the minds of the refugee diaspora, who may not have space in the United States to deal with the trauma they suffered. He added that the sentiment is then passed on to the younger generation here, dissuading them from civic engagement.
“Their understanding of Vietnamese political identity as it was shaped by their parents is that when you play with politics you end up dead or you get lost at sea, or you never get there,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen, who is also president of the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of North America and program director of the Vietnamese American Roundtable, is working to change that.
“It is a question of destigmatizing this term ‘political'”, he declared. “We need to understand ‘politics’ of how we see ourselves within the community and how we see a collective purpose for each other. “
The community is divided
While the young Vietnamese residents of San José, such as Johnson and Nguyen, have strong progressive values, many older residents still hold anti-Communist sentiments. Being called a communist is like having “a scarlet letter with you,” Johnson said.
After Madison Nguyen made history as the first American of Vietnamese descent to hold political office in the city, the former “golden child” of the Vietnamese community of San José was accused of being a traitor and a Communist sympathizer because of a controversy over not naming a mall “Little Saigon.” “
Duong said he also faced backlash in San José for investing his company in Vietnam.
Political tensions have eased under the Obama administration because “he helped unite a lot of people,” Johnson said. But the division widened as anti-Communist sentiment rekindled during the tenure of former President Donald Trump, she added.
While Trump is no longer in power, “those beliefs and ideals are still there, and they simmer in the background,” Johnson said, adding that the test for the next few years is whether the Vietnamese community is ready. to unwrap and challenge those beliefs.
A generational divide is also apparent in the Vietnamese community of San José. Johnson said when her mother arrived in California, like many other refugees, she “kept her head down, focused on her job and tried to deliver the best she could.”
“Talking about the wider Vietnamese American community and understanding what we need to do for the community is a generational change from just being Vietnamese living in one place,” said Philip Nguyen. “There was a time when not all skins were parents, when some felt betrayed by their compatriots, by their brothers, sisters, families.”
Despite the divisions, community leaders say representation still matters.
“The only way to get equity is (when) we have a seat at the table,” Johnson said.
But representation can ring hollow if representatives do not understand the needs of the community. Duong said he called the city and spoke with a Vietnamese official during the pandemic to ask for help from Vietnamese small businesses.
“He couldn’t answer a question I had,” Duong said. “I’m looking for leaders who would take care of the whole community and contact us. “
The Vietnamese American Roundtable is working to involve more local Vietnamese youth in the community and civically.
“We are trying to build a leadership pipeline,” Johnson said. “It’s our way of making sure our community is represented and that the next generation of leaders are ready and thinking about these things critically. “
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.