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They mix, not match

As Vietnamese and Latino communities grow, some predict strife, others peace.

June 24, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Parishioners quietly stream into Our Lady of La Vang in Santa Ana, smile politely and head their separate ways.

Latinos take the chairs on the right, Vietnamese go left.

Father Joseph Nguyen quietly watches from the altar before moving to the pulpit, where he preaches five minutes in Spanish, then Vietnamese, then Spanish, alternating until the service ends. Prayers, songs and responses are done in both languages.

The scene at the Roman Catholic church is repeated each morning, five days a week.

Everyone is cordial, everyone takes turns. Yet the two communities sit apart, often attend separate Sunday school classes and socialize primarily with their own group. Certain religious customs, such as the intense Latino veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, are not shared by the others. By the same measure, many Latinos are ambivalent about the reverence for Our Lady of La Vang, a vision of the Virgin Mary cherished by Vietnamese.

Ascension Landeras, 44, accepts the differences with a shrug.

"They are in their world, we are in our world, but there are no problems," she said.

The church offers a glimpse into what is occurring throughout central Orange County as growing Vietnamese and Latino communities find themselves living in ever closer quarters, sharing neighborhoods, schools and churches. While some foresee conflict, others see the new face of Orange County.

Father Nguyen knew when Our Lady of La Vang absorbed the smaller, overwhelmingly Latino Our Lady of Lourdes in 2000 that he would have a cultural chasm to bridge.

"The first thing I learned was my own limitations. Sometimes I have to let people's cultures take over," he said. Nguyen takes heart in the fact that the two communities worship together despite their differences.

The long-established Latinos still dominate the region, especially in cities such as Santa Ana, but Vietnamese numbers have steadily risen in Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Westminster and Anaheim.

In Garden Grove, for example, Asians, mostly of Vietnamese descent, now represent 33.7% of the population while Latinos make up 40.2%, according to 2005 U.S. census figures.

Latinos were 30.8% of Orange County's population in 2000, and Asians were 13.6%. In 2005, Latinos increased to 32.7%, while Asians rose to 16.1%. Some 157,012 of them were Vietnamese. The next-highest Asian group was Koreans, at 74,999.

As their population grows, Vietnamese have gained confidence and political clout. A Vietnamese American serves on Orange County's Board of Supervisors, and others chair school boards and serve on city councils. One, Van Tran (R-Garden Grove) serves in the Assembly.

In high schools, where they used to be content to keep quiet and study, they now play on the football team, play in the school band and run for class president.

That wasn't so when Lan Nguyen attended school in the 1980s.

"The Vietnamese formed their own clubs and did their own activities," said Nguyen, now president of the Garden Grove school board. "They were not as assimilated as they are now. I'm impressed and proud when I see what has happened. I think what you are seeing now is the future of Orange County."

But it's an uncertain future, one laden with potential conflict.

That was apparent during the last congressional election, when Republican candidate Tan Nguyen's campaign mailed letters to Latino homes in central Orange County warning -- falsely -- that immigrants could go to jail if they voted.

The resulting uproar caused a rift between Vietnamese Americans, who tend to be more conservative on illegal immigration, and Latinos, who generally view it more tolerantly. Nguyen, who denied involvement in sending the letters, lost to incumbent Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove). Last month, the state attorney general cleared Nguyen of any wrongdoing in the case.

"We Vietnamese and Latinos don't have the same interests," said Do Dzung, a reporter and editor at Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese newspaper in Orange County. "The Vietnamese are against illegal immigration. They believe they came over here legally and so should everyone else."

Many Vietnamese came here as refugees and remain fiercely proud that they fought alongside American soldiers in the Vietnam War. A statue depicting two soldiers -- an American and a South Vietnamese -- has become a centerpiece of the civic center in Westminster. Most of the older generation remains staunchly anti-communist and tends to vote Republican.

Dzung says the two groups have vastly different outlooks on life. Many Vietnamese, he said, don't believe Latinos respect education and hard work.

"They would never say that out loud," he said. "But I honestly can't see any issue that Vietnamese and Latinos share. I see conflict in the future."

After the Tan Nguyen debacle, Assemblyman Tran cosponsored legislation with Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio of Anaheim targeting those trying to intimidate voters. He said he preferred to look for similarities, not differences between the groups.

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