GARDEN GROVE — Sugar cane flourishes in one back yard; in others, fragrant Vietnamese spice plants bloom. On any afternoon, visitors to the Rose Garden Apartments might hear mariachi music coming from one corner of the complex while Vietnamese heartbreak songs waft from another. In the air, the spicy smell of menudo, a saucy stew made of tripe and hominy, sometimes combines with the rich aroma of pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup.
These sights, sounds and scents of diversity reflect the people of the sprawling Garden Grove complex. Latino families, most of them of Mexican descent, live in 83 of its 144 units; Vietnamese, many of them newcomers, live in 54.
In an area where billboards advertise McDonald's in Spanish and espouse anti-smoking messages in Vietnamese, where some homeless people carry "Will Work for Food" signs in three languages, the bustling Rose Garden offers a glimpse into the lives of some of Orange County's newest immigrants, and perhaps the future of the Southland.
With the Asian and Latino populations the fastest growing in the county, the Rose Garden is a living laboratory of interracial relations. Residents, landlords and police agree that the Latino and Vietnamese residents here, for the most part, get along well.
Newcomers always find it difficult to fit into the population, and it is harder when they are competing with other ethnic groups for jobs and services.
"The relationship between Hispanic groups and Vietnamese has varied over time," said John Liu, a professor of cross-cultural studies at UC Irvine. "When the Vietnamese first came (in the mid-1970s), they encountered some hostility from Hispanic groups. . . . There was a belief that the refugees were taking benefits from other American minorities."
But immigrants also tend to understand and empathize with each other, Liu said.
Though the residents came from nations thousands of miles apart and share little in the way of culture or language, they do have at least these things in common: They are immigrants, they have little money and they speak little or no English.
Many of the immigrants come to melting pot places like the Rose Garden, where tenants can crowd into one apartment--sometimes two families in one unit--and pool their resources to pay the rent. A two-bedroom apartment here goes for $700, a three-bedroom, $850.
Some tenants are on welfare, some are working minimum-wage jobs, such as in restaurants.
Do Van Nghi's family came to the Rose Garden in April from Vietnam. Nghi had been a soldier for South Vietnam and was sent to political prison for almost seven years after the Communist takeover of his country. After his release, the 54-year-old veteran farmed before he, his wife and four children left for the United States.
His family shares a three-bedroom apartment with another family of five, also recently from Vietnam. Nghi does not venture far from the apartment, just to a supermarket in nearby Little Saigon. "I'm afraid of getting lost," he said.
The Vietnamese call the United States \o7 Hiep Chung Quoc\f7 , a nation of many races, and he quickly learned why: He met a Latino for the first time at the Rose Garden.
He gets along with his Latino neighbors, he said, but it is a cordial relationship restricted by language. He smiles and nods his head in greeting when he sees them. "But our languages are not compatible," he said. "So we don't interact, communicate with them."
A neighbor, Marciar Orduno, agreed.
"I have a few Asian friends who live here," said the 23-year-old native of Mexico. "We communicate by using our hands and pointing at things. There is never fighting here between Vietnamese and Mexicans. . . . There are problems here in the apartments, but not with Asians."
Apartment manager Rafaela Cervantes said: "I don't understand how they can understand each other. But they talk. And they laugh."
Cervantes, who emigrated from Mexico in 1985, is learning Vietnamese. She keeps a list of Vietnamese vocabulary in her office, with words such as \o7 house\f7 , \o7 door\f7 , and \o7 father\f7 .
She is not alone.
"I know a few words in Vietnamese," said Rudolfo Gavilan, who sells groceries from a truck in the parking lot. "I use a lot of signs to speak with them. Many are my friends. They come here to my mini-market to buy things. A few of them always come and we try to speak to each other. One taught me a few Vietnamese words, and I taught him some Spanish words."
Sometimes, language is not needed. Kindness is understood universally.
When Nguyen Quyet Hoa's family came to the Rose Garden in March from Vietnam with only the clothes on their backs, her Mexican neighbor gave them blankets and sheets.
The two families quickly forged a friendship, albeit a nonverbal one.