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From Fish Sauce to Salsa: New Orleans Vietnamese Adapt to Influx of Latinos

Taqueria Mexico used to be a thriving Vietnamese restaurant called Bien Tinh, or Ocean Love. Now under new ownership, its waitresses serve salsa in the floral faux-china bowls that once held fish sauce.

"A lot is different now," says Hai Pham, who sold Bien Tinh to a Mexican-American family from Houston. Pham's was one of dozens of Vietnamese restaurants that after Hurricane Katrina were struggling to survive with far fewer customers. Now, whenever Pham stops by Taqueria Mexico, the place is bustling, the customers nearly all Latino. "They are the first restaurant around here to serve Mexican food and they do a good business," Pham says. "I am happy for them."

Vietnamese-Americans recovering from Katrina are grappling with a double challenge: the absence of friends and family who moved away after the storm and the appearance of a record number of Latinos in their previously autonomous community.

A state survey released this month counts nearly 7,000 Asians in New Orleans post-Katrina, compared with close to 12,000 in 2004. Latinos are the only ethnic group in the city whose numbers have grown, from about 14,000 to more than 16,000, according to the survey, conducted in February by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and the Louisiana Recovery Authority. "We have seen Hispanics in areas of the city where we have never seen them before," says Martin O. Gutierrez, director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities in the city. "This is a very new phenomenon in New Orleans."

The change is particularly noticeable in the neighborhood that Taqueria Mexico now calls home. Though most locals call the area Village de L'est, for its location in the eastern part of the city, some still refer to it as Versailles, after the government-subsidized housing complex that was home to many Vietnamese refugees when they first arrived in New Orleans in the 1970s and '80s. Back then, the refugees were the newcomers in the largely African-American community. In subsequent decades the Vietnamese-American population in the Gulf Coast area grew to between 25,000 and 40,000 residents.

Those who remained in Village de L'est created what is widely regarded as the region's Vietnamese-American hub, opening more than 50 businesses and building Mary Queen of Vietnam, the first Catholic Church in the nation to offer mass in Vietnamese.

After Katrina, the Vietnamese-American residents of Village de L'est were among the first to return to New Orleans and begin gutting and rebuilding their homes. Construction workers from across the United States and Latin America descended upon the community, and the local businesses lining Chef Menteur Highway and Alcee Fortier Boulevard quickly began to adapt their products and services.

At the Mi-Viet market, rice papers now share shelf space with tortillas, tall bottles of Fresca line the cold case next to bubble tea, and plastic-wrapped pork chops are identified both as "bo-chuk tender" and "chuleta de cerdo." A separate counter handles wire remittances to Latin America. Across the street at the Tien Pharmacy, owner John Nguyen recently added a payment service for cell phone bills. "It brings in new customers," Nguyen says.

Martin Osorio saw opportunity as well. His family owns Taco Texas, a catering company in Houston that operates several loncheras, or lunch trucks. The trucks soon became a fixture in Village de L'est. Then one afternoon, as Osorio's father was having lunch at Bien Tinh, Pham approached him and offered to sell him the restaurant.

"We thought he was kidding," Martin Osorio recalled. But Pham was dead serious. Since the hurricane his wife had been running the restaurant alone while he'd been focusing on their downtown convenience store. "I felt it was not safe for her to be there by herself for so many hours," Pham says. "We couldn't find anybody to work there with her."

The Osorios imported the taqueria's nine-member Spanish-speaking work force from Houston. Even with a sizeable staff, Osorio works nonstop, rising at 4 a.m. and closing the doors at 8 p.m. Every two weeks he takes a quick trip back to Houston to see his wife, 3-year-old daughter and 2-month-old son.

Osorio says for the most part he has feels welcome in Village de L'est. In two months he's had only one difficult encounter, when he sat down at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant for lunch and waited nearly an hour without being acknowledged. Finally he got up to leave and asked the proprietor for the key to the restroom. She refused, telling him the bathroom was out of order. He bristled. "I'd seen people going in and out of there the whole time," he says. "I told her I have a right to use the bathroom and if you refuse to let me, I can sue you." The woman relented and gave him the key.

May Thi Nguyen, business development director for the community development corporation created after the hurricane, is hoping to transform the commercial stretches of Village de L'est into an ethno-centric tourist destination. She has spent hours talking with the small business owners, many of them older Vietnamese-Americans who are struggling to adjust to their new neighbors. "It's a huge shock here," Nguyen says. "Everyone's kind of taken aback. A lot of Vietnamese-Americans in this community have never left the area. It is very much a Vietnamese-American community."

Nguyen, who has lived and worked in Argentina and Vietnam and is fluent in Vietnamese, English and Spanish, says she is unsure how Latinos would fit into the commercial development goals for the area. "We're talking about a marketing scheme where we're going to set up three flags out in the median: an American flag, a flag of the old Republic of Vietnam and a Louisiana flag," Nguyen says. "I don't know where the Mexican flag fits into that."

Martin Gutierrez of Catholic Charities says increased diversity will only enrich the area. "It's going to create great opportunities. There will be some friction, but at the same time we all believe diversity is a strength."

Nguyen acknowledged that Latinos have invigorated Village de L'est, both economically and culturally. She has witnessed this dynamic in a market owned by her aunt. "My aunt is learning Spanish," Nguyen says. "She's learning how to say hello, how to tell customers how much something costs. It's wild. I love it. It's exciting."

After talking with some of the Latino workers, Nguyen is taking a wait-and-see approach. "A lot of these changes are happening in response to the construction workers," she says. "Some will leave. Will enough stay to make these changes permanent? Who knows?"

A study released in June by U.C. Berkeley and Tulane University found that about half the Latinos who moved to the region for work plan to stay, and there are indicators in Village de L'est that some are beginning to settle in. Word has spread quickly about Nguyen's tri-lingualism, and the neighborhood's new Spanish-speaking residents have begun seeking her out for advice. "They've been asking me where to send their kids to school and things like that," she says. "They've pretty much ID'd me as that Asian girl in the community who can talk to them."

At Mary Queen of Vietnam, Spanish-speaking workers have begun showing up for Sunday mass, even though services are conducted entirely in Vietnamese. "They know exactly what is going on," says Fr. Vien The Nguyen, pastor of the church. "It was the same for us when we came here from Vietnam. Mass was in English, but it was still a Catholic mass and we understood. That's the nature of a parish church. It's always open. Anyone can come in."

On a recent weekday afternoon at Taqueria Mexico, six small video monitors and one large-screen television competed with the stereo mariachis for the attention of diners in paint-splattered boots and baseball caps. Daniel Jeronimo, who arrived in New Orleans from Veracruz by way of Chicago six months ago, had just finished his first morning's work in Village de L'est and was looking forward to lunch. "I saw this place and I came right over," he said. "I can look at the menu here and everything is familiar to me."

That is exactly what Martin Osorio likes to hear. The Taqueria has been so successful he's considering expanding. "Right now we're thinking about desserts and candies," he says. Eventually he'd like to open a pool hall nearby.

If he does, he may find his customer base exceeding his target audience. "I would get so bored if all I did was hang out at the Vietnamese bars," May Thi Nguyen says. "Hanging out at the Taqueria is a lot more exciting."

Originally published on October 16, 2006 by New America Media, a project of Pacific News Service. Copyright © 2006 Pacific News Service. Reprinted with permission.


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