Second Homeland

January 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

(cross-posted)

A new PBS documentary will examine New Orleans’ Vietnamese immigrant community, a group that faced a battle over a toxic landfill after Hurricane Katrina.

Hai Au Huynh (left) and US Congressman-to-be Anh “Joseph” Cao (right) protestingoutside of City Hall in New Orleans, 2006. (James Dien Bui)

When people think of New Orleans, they typically don’t think of Versailles—the small but resilient Vietnamese neighborhood in East New Orleans. After years of silence and ostracization, it was the category five Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its aftermath that moved the Vietnamese community in the city to take action. The vibrant immigrant population is now the subject of a new documentary, A Village Called Versailles. The film, which is set to air on PBS in May, tells the story of how one community turned the tragedy and political fallout from the hurricane into a catalyst for social change.

Versailles refers to the Versailles Arms Apartment, a public housing project built in 1975 which is home to Vietnamese immigrants. Movie viewers are treated to different perspectives out of Versailles, from elders, youth, religious leadership and the local government. Collectively, they tell a story of how their community was able to rebuild after Katrina, and then successfully defend their home from the threat of a toxic landfill.

“When we hear stories about Asian Americans, they tend to be about class struggles, struggles against poverty, and immigration issues,” says S. Leo Chiang, the film’s director in an interview. “There have been few stories about an entire Asian American community, stepping up, and coming out from their shell to get engaged—to get their political voices heard.”

The fact that New Orleans is home to the densest population of ethnic Vietnamese outside of Vietnam is no fluke in American history. It is American history. In the film, the audience is transported back to Versailles during the 1970s, near the end of the Vietnam War, as the community was first established by political refugees from South Vietnam. Prior to resettlement in the United States, they had fled their homes once before in 1957 from North to South Vietnam to escape persecution from the communist party. The U.S. government granted the Vietnamese Catholics amnesty and relocated them to New Orleans.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” Chiang says, “This documentary, in many ways, tells a quintessential American story.” But the American immigrant experience has never been a cakewalk due to systemic inequality and poverty.

Phillip Hannan, then the archbishop of New Orleans, spearheaded efforts to help the refugees find jobs and affordable homes when they arrived in New Orleans in the 1970s. But as the Versailles community grew, it became more fractured, with no clear identity or sense of future direction. Many found financial stability in working as farmers, fisherman, and market sellers. But rather than assimilating, the community remained estranged from the rest of New Orleans.

Fissures also emerged within the community itself. The youth and elders struggled to understand one another. “There was mutual disrespect,” said Chiang, who noted that elders were suspicious of their American-born, hip-hop-loving, grandchildren who did not speak Vietnamese. The youth, in turn, felt that their grandparents were out of touch with the rest of American society.

Then Hurricane Katrina—in what the Versailles community commonly describes as a turning point in village relations—devastated New Orleans. At first, residents found tenuous sanctuary in lying low. “We were always quiet, never protested, never raised our voices. We basically stayed below the radar,” said Father Vien Nguyen, who was among the first Vietnamese settlers in Versailles and serves as the community’s Catholic priest.

For the elders in Versailles, this was the third time that they were forced to leave their homes, but this time they had the hope of returning. Six weeks after the flood, the city allowed residents to return to “look and leave.” Many in the Versailles community decided to stay and rebuild. By January 2006, more than half of the Versailles population had returned, while much of New Orleans was still recovering from the shock of the flood.

But after community members took it upon themselves to rebuild their homes and resettle, they were dealt another disaster. This time it was a political one. On February 2006, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin used his emergency power to order Chef Menteur Landfill to open in April, less than two miles away from Versailles. Without a routine environmental impact study and without protective lining on the bottom of the dump, Versailles residents neighboring the trash heap feared they would be poisoned by toxic debris from the hurricane. The community realized if they were not going to fight for themselves, no one else would.

“Why put it in the Vietnamese-American community, where people don’t speak the language?” says Mimi Nguyen, noting that the dump wasn’t constructed next to more affluent areas like Uptown or the French Quarter. “So, you don’t think the people can protest; you don’t think they know the law, or their rights?” Nguyen, initially a FEMA volunteer, emerged as a community organizer for Versailles during their political battle against the landfill.

Versailles residents requested that the city test the landfill for toxic contaminants, and that a synthetic liner be placed on the ground to prevent chemical leaking. After their requests were denied, they moved to fight the landfill every step of the way. The community formed partnerships with environmental groups, religious charities, and leaders from neighboring communities. They waged legal battles through state and federal courts, while publicizing their cause through the media. They demonstrated en masse outside of City Hall. But after trying all the available legal avenues, the city continued to dump in the landfill.

On August 15, 2006, about 200 members from the Versailles community staged a protest at the site of the landfill, blocking waste trucks from entering and exiting. Following the protest, Nagin agreed to close the landfill. The film shows footage from the demonstration, including images of both young and old standing together and chanting in a mix of English and Vietnamese. Viewers are shown a portrait of Versailles post-Katrina—a united community with purpose, and a political voice.

“We have a sense of who we are, and who we could be,” said Father Nguyen, “We feel that we can now control our destiny, and it has not always been that way.”

The film offers a potent commentary on our nation’s identity, and challenges historically misguided views of what it means to be American. This nation not only lends its making and ingenuity to its ordinary Joes and Janes, but also to its Nguyens, Trans and Vos.

“After so many decades of living here, we are all emotionally connected—fathers, sons, mothers daughters, neighbors, “ said Ngo Minh Khang, a respected community elder. “I consider it my second homeland. I tell my kids that I will live and die here. I am here to stay.”

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