Sunday, January 23, 2011

City Heights Human Rights Fest Draws 500

Sparked by Viet Namese-Americans Concerned About Abuses


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Viet Nam Reform Party members at their City Heights Human Rights Festival booth, Anthony Nguyen, Kim Truong Nang, Ivan Chong

The first annual City Heights Human Rights Festival drew over 500 people to the streets of San Diego’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood Saturday, December 11 for a march down El Cajon Boulevard and a fair in the parking lot of Hoover High School at El Cajon and 44th Street. Besides speeches by local elected officials who represent the area, including City Councilmember Todd Gloria and his former employer, Congressmember Susan Davis, the event also included musical performers, readings and a showing of a short film by the Media Arts Center, I Want My Parents … Back, dealing with immigrant rights and how border enforcement is breaking up families.

“We are really a microcosm of the whole world in one Zip code,” said Gloria. “Right in 92105 we have over 35 different languages spoken. We have people from all over the world — from the Horn of Africa, from Latin America, Southeast Asia, the [Indian] subcontinent, all around the world, all calling City Heights home. And so on a day when we want to come together and acknowledge the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it makes sense to do it here in a community where people from all around the world have found a home and, hopefully, have found their piece of human rights.”

The event was organized not only to commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948, but to call attention to rights abuses all over the world and especially in Viet Nam. The impetus for organizing the event came from local representatives of the Viet Nam Reform Party, which exists clandestinely in Viet Nam and openly among Viet Namese immigrants in countries like ours that guarantee political freedoms. Among their demands is an end to one-party Communist rule in Viet Nam and an end to its ban on independent media.

A stark painting, displayed on a banner at the festival, dramatically depicted the rights — or lack of same — Viet Namese citizens have today. It showed two people in green military uniforms standing on either side of a man in civilian dress who is grabbing another person’s head and holding him by the mouth. The painting had a caption which read, “Viet Nam Today — Freedom of Speech?” The controversial war the U.S. fought in Viet Nam in the 1960’s and 1970’s was supposed to preserve the freedom of at least some Viet Namese, but more recently the U.S. has normalized relations with the Communist government that defeated them and isn’t pressuring the Viet Namese authorities to allow their people political freedom.

Congressmember Davis told the crowd that she is working to change that. She’s pushing the House of Representatives to pass a resolution adding Viet Nam to the U.S. government’s official list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC), maintained by the U.S. Secretary of State to denote nations that deny their citizens freedom of religion. As of 2009 the list included Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

In her speech, Congressmember Davis acknowledged that many of the foreign-born residents of City Heights came to the U.S. as political refugees fleeing abuses in their homelands. “Many, many people of our community have really seen the dark side in fighting for the cause of freedom,” she said. “I’ve listened to your stories, and I know that many of you have lived with and seen, and yet survived, through tremendous abuses. … We want to celebrate you for your courage, for your resiliency, and for teaching children how important it is to have those freedoms.”

Among the people Davis particularly cited as refugees from abusive governments were the child soldiers from Uganda and citizens of southern Sudan. “As a member of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, I want you to know that we have many members who are working with you and want to use Congress’s leverage to bring about change in repressive regimes around the globe,” she said. “So please join me in celebrating the people — all of you — who come together in a common cause; who believe that freedom is bittersweet when others are stripped of their rights; and who refuse to be silent as others are silenced.”

Kim Truong Nang, vice president of the Viet Namese Committee of San Diego, spoke briefly from the floor of the parking lot rather than the raised stage, since she was using crutches and couldn’t make it up the stairs to the platform. “Everywhere that human rights are not practiced, we need to speak up and share our concern,” she said. “In Viet Nam we don’t have any human rights at this time. So we need your support. Please help us to raise our voice and concern.”

The event was MC’d by another Viet Namese-American, Anthony Nguyen, and featured a multi-cultural greeting in four languages (English, Spanish, Viet Namese and Arabic) based on a quote from the current Dalai Lama: “Human beings, in fact all sentient beings, have the right to pursue happiness and to live in peace and freedom.” Singer/songwriter Ivan Chong, who’s performed in the past for the Little Saigon Foundation’s Lantern Festival, sang five songs, and Naylene Nguyen followed him with two songs she sang to recorded accompaniment: “Let’s Love One Another” in Viet Namese and Whitney Houston’s 1980’s hit “The Greatest Love of All” in English.

Naylene Nguyen and another woman, Tracy Lum Wy, also read a passage from the book The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Thi Diem Thúy Lê, recounting her own teen years as a Viet Namese immigrant growing up in San Diego. A break-dancing group’s spectacularly acrobatic performance to a hip-hop recording was one of the highlights of the afternoon. Councilmember Gloria used the occasion to announce the city’s formation of a “Little Saigon District” in the neighborhood, administered by the local Viet Namese community, to help support the many Viet Namese-owned businesses in the area.