The missing link: Cubans and Vietnamese in the US
In the 1960s, U.S. foreign policy was dominated by its interactions with Vietnam and Cuba. Since then, immigrants from both of these countries have formed some of the most dynamic and fastest-growing immigrant communities in America. Visiting Professor Nina Ha sees strikingly similar features in these communities and addressed them at her lecture on Monday.
In her research, Ha has discovered that the same political and rhetorical strategies are utilized in the U.S. media and in academia to discuss these communities.
In her lecture, Ha concentrated on the Elian Gonzalez case and the “Little Saigon” incident, which both occurred in 1999, as well as two novels, Memory Mambo and Monkey Bridge, to highlight the “positioning and repositioning of these groups in the mainstream media and in literary genres.”
These two communities have persisted in the U.S mainly based on the formation, according to Ha, of “exilic refugee communities” and “ethnic enclaves.”
Ha discussed what she called the “media frenzy” that surrounded Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who attempted to flee the island on a rubber tube and was fished out of the water in Miami, and the incident in Little Saigon in which a Vietnamese store owner in Orange County, CA hung up a flag of the Communist Party, sparking protests outside his shop.
For Ha, the mass media “ignored the complexities” of these two communities. “It formed a binary that can’t be crossed, an either/or approach leaving little room to explore the intricacies of the community members.
“The incident in the Vietnamese community was summarized with regard to what stance was taken,” said Ha. The media depicted the store owner supporters as communists and the protestors as youth upholding Vietnamese-American rights.
For the Cuban community, members felt that either Elian Gonzalez should stay with his father in Cuba or with is extended family in the U.S and enjoy the“freedom” of capitalism.
According to Ha, the media have “extremist undertones” when focusing on these issues rather than “illuminating a heterogeneous group of people.”
The next part of Ha’s speech focused on the two novels Memory Mambo by Achy Obejas and Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao, which highlight the Vietnamese and Cuban communities by allowing “recognition of themselves in a social and historical framework.”
These books detail protagonists’ experiences of being refugees and permit “a more complicated reading of history than the U.S. media or U.S. history can provide,” said Ha.
These novels, according to Ha, make it “somehow okay to tell the story” because it is fictional and can “mediate the tension” between these communities and their relationship with the U.S.
In academia, the importance of ethnic studies is clear to Professor Ha, “We must transcend these problematic depictions, but also adopt the U.S. and recognize this is our home,” she said.
Ethnic studies classes are taken mainly today so that students can learn their backgrounds and form familial ties.
These classes provide a way for students to “learn about the past and
connect with others like themselves” while also “claiming a place in
the U.S. and the motherland,” said Ha.