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More than 25,000 Vietnamese Americans are estimated to live in Santa Ana, according to U.S. Census numbers.

That’s quite a lot of people who City Hall may not be serving properly, says City Councilmember Thai Viet Phan. 

Phan, the first Vietnamese American woman elected to a council overseeing one of California’s busiest metropolitan areas, said there’s a real need to provide more in-language city programs and outreach for residents she represents.

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The absence of such services and much-needed community liaisons, she said, has partly fueled a trend where Vietnamese residents in the city often find community elsewhere. 

Specifically, they find it in the neighboring towns of Garden Grove and Westminster — cities with one of the largest combined concentrations of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam.

In an interview with Voice of OC last month, Phan said her family, despite living in Santa Ana, also gravitated elsewhere:

“Frankly, we just went to Westminster, or Garden Grove.”

Indigo Vu, one of Santa Ana’s newest Arts and Culture commissioners who Phan appointed, had a similar story: 

“Growing up, we did all of our shopping and attended all these community events in  Westminster, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley,” Vu told Voice of OC on March 30. “My brother never liked to say he was from Santa Ana. He always liked to say he was from Fountain Valley.” 

“There was almost this shame in the idea Santa Ana didn’t accept Vietnamese folks.”

Vu is a Santa Ana Arts and Culture Commissioner, nominated to the panel by Phan. Credit: Courtesy of Indigo Vu

Vu said Santa Ana’s history, after all, isn’t the best marker of Asian American acceptance: 

“The burning down of Chinatown in Santa Ana in 1906 — that’s hardly ever acknowledged at all. It’s not the brightest moment in Santa Ana history, but it’s important to acknowledge that Asian folks have existed and wanted to become part of the community here.”

Going west of the Santa Ana river, Phan said, “you start seeing more Vietnamese businesses in Santa Ana, but it’s not anywhere near Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Westminster. And that’s sad, right? Because 25,000 Vietnamese people are a lot to not be servicing.”

“Let’s be clear here, the local Vietnamese community is focused in Little Saigon. Santa Ana is a part of it, but we choose to extricate ourselves from it by not providing those (language and outreach) services and by not embracing the culture or the atmosphere,” Phan added.

Phan said her city needs a Vietnamese community liaison, similar to those found in Garden Grove. 

Kristy Thai, Garden Grove’s community relations specialist, said people like her at City Hall help make Vietnamese-speaking residents more aware of city assistance programs and events because “a lot of Vietnamese residents here don’t speak English.” 

“They feel more comfortable speaking in their language,” Thai said in an April 1 interview.

Thai said her role as a “bridge between the city and community” manifests in ways like frequent appearances on local Vietnamese media, speaking on radio interviews and local talk shows — a unique, cultural medium in Little Saigon that Thai said is growing rapidly and consumed by many.

“The local Vietnamese media is growing and expanding — there’s like 12 different stations, now,” Thai said.

And other times, Thai said she helps residents get more information in their own language directly: “Sometimes i get calls from residents saying things like, ‘I just saw this program in the newspaper, how do I apply for this? How can I qualify for this or register for that program?’” 

Phan said that she, “like many immigrant children, had the experience of translating for my mom and my stepdad everywhere. I mean, I remember translating even in school, before they were legally required to have language interpreters for parent teacher conferences.”

She added that, often, “my mom relied on services in Westminster.”

“Those are the barriers that we all go through even today. When my mom gets a letter from the city, they don’t know that she’s Vietnamese-speaking. Those are some of the difficulties that we’re going to have to figure out as a city,” Phan said.

Vu also points to arts and culture in Santa Ana — something they now have a say on in an official city capacity — as another way to build community with Vietnamese residents: 

“Arts and culture are such an easy way to share experiences in ways that are respectful and open to each other — not in an appropriative sense but invitations to experience each other’s cultures, invitations to experience each others’ thinking and way of life.”

“That’s the way you build a cross-cultural community. Part of Councilmember Phan appointing me as an Arts and Culture commissioner, and investing in arts and culture events and artists who are Vietnamese, will help acknowledge that history,” Vu said.  

Tracy La, a Santa Ana resident and co-founder of Vietnamese American advocacy group VietRISE, also points to the way Santa Ana incorporates this community into its politics:

“During the 2018 election, we went door-door to Vietnamese neighborhoods in Santa Ana and that was, for many of them, they said, the first time campaigns went to their door to talk about elections,” La recalled. 

La pointed to the City Council’s move in 2018 to redraw its district boundaries, after a lawsuit by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) that said the previous district map split up and disenfranchised the west-end Vietnamese population. 

Phan, who represents that area, was elected to the council in the following election. 

La said her group’s experience, in talking with Vietnamese residents in Santa Ana, is that many of them believe the only way to achieve any real local change is by seeking it in other cities, particularly the city of Westminster — “Even if they live in Santa Ana.”

“Personally I think it’s because of the way the political culture is set up. The city council in Westminster is the loudest in vietnamese media and has a majority Vietnamese council. It’s also right in the center of Little Saigon so many people think that’s where governmental change will come from,” La said. 

In Westminster, highly political issues that are of interest to some Vietnamese residents took center stage in city politics over the last few years, on issues like recalls, a struggle for control over the Little Saigon Tet Parade, and frequent themes of communism and the Vietnamese government in political debates. 

But Phan is also looking at other, more concrete ways to make local government resonate with and empower her city’s Vietnamese residents and families — such as zoning changes that invite mixed-use development and housing that can accommodate what are often multigenerational Vietnamese families living together.

Phan said an actual Vietnamese community in Santa Ana, to her, looks like residents calling into council meetings in their own language — “All the nerdy stuff that I care about, but also showing up to events, new park openings, new restaurant openings, or just events in the city.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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