When Immigrants Attack

How can the county stop Vietnamese and Latinos from duking it out?

Photo by Tenaya HillsOn the morning of July 2, María Alba walked out of Crawfords Supermarket in Santa Ana pushing two shopping carts. One got away and rolled into the van of a Vietnamese woman who demanded in broken English that Alba turn over her driver's license; Alba tried to apologize in her broken English, but since neither woman understood the other—both wore pink, however—a black comedy of Do the Right Thing proportions ensued.

Soon, a crowd of Latinos gathered around the two and watched in anger as the Vietnamese woman started pummeling Alba. It took a Middle Eastern bystander—who also spoke limited English—to pull them apart. By the time Alba's daughter Adriana arrived, three police officers were citing the Vietnamese woman for assault.

It didn't end there. The police struggled to pacify the crowd—though Mexican American, none of the coppers spoke Spanish and none of the Crawfords shoppers spoke English. Onlookers were incensed, according to Adriana, because the Vietnamese woman reportedly told the store manager in broken English that María was "a dirty Mexican" who wouldn't reveal her driver's license because she "was probably illegal and would get deported."

The crowd apparently understood at least that much English.

"The minute the Vietnamese woman started yelling 'dirty Mexicans,' the entire store got hostile," Adriana said. "And when she started beating up my mom, all the Latinos started screaming, 'Don't let that china [Chinese woman] get away with it! They're exploitative! She probably owns a sweatshop around here and exploits Mexicans!'

"The racial hatred was bad."

Relations between ethnic groups in OC can get edgy, but Thien Cao remembers a time when they were worse. "Back in the 1980s, many Vietnamese refugees began moving into areas populated predominantly by Latinos," remembers Cao, who works with the Garden Grove Police Department's Vietnamese outreach program. "There would be a lot of adult-to-adult fights in apartment complexes between Vietnamese and Latinos for reasons like loud music, because no one could understand each other. No one spoke good English."

Relations between Latinos and Vietnamese have since improved—it's now shopping carts that make the two groups brawl with the ferocity of a gang fight in 19th-century lower Manhattan.

As the battle-ax fight suggests, tensions between Vietnamese and Latinos remain raw despite the nearly 20 years the groups have lived next to each other. The most prominent spat between Orange County's largest minority groups occurred in 2001, when Latino parishioners opposed naming a new Santa Ana Catholic church Our Lady of La Vang (the patron saint of Vietnamese Catholics) and insisted it be called Our Lady of Guadalupe after Mexico's patron saint. Relationships between Vietnamese and Latino high school students, meanwhile, are so antagonistic that the Orange County Human Relations Commission frequently sponsors in-school workshops between the two groups.

Cao is skeptical that top-down efforts produce anything of real value, however. "About three years ago, the Garden Grove Police Department and the Orange County Human Relations Commission sponsored a series of living-room chats between Vietnamese and Latinos where people could exchange experiences," says Cao. "But that didn't work at all. Vietnamese and Latinos who don't speak English—the ones who have problems with each other—didn't attend."

"Lots of Vietnamese and Latino immigrants just resent being next to each other," says 25-year-old Adriana, who lives in Costa Mesa but grew up in west Santa Ana and attended Santiago High School in Garden Grove, areas with high concentrations of recent Vietnamese and Latino immigrants. "When I was in high school, the Latinos didn't like the Vietnamese because they were in student government. The Vietnamese didn't associate with us, either. It's a classic case of self-segregation.

"We're the two most significant minority groups in this county," Adriana adds. "What happened with my mom was rare, but the feelings the Latinos and that Vietnamese woman had toward each other aren't. Having to live together and build a state together is a part of our future, whether we like it or not. If we don't make it work, things will be shitty."