Seven days before Saigon fell, Jennifer Nguyen fled. On April 23, 1975, she gathered her four children, boarded a plane with 82 other South Vietnamese military wives and children, and headed to her new life. With little English and even less money, she eventually landed in California, then Arizona, and then, 10 years later, she moved to Garland. There she found a community grappling with its new neighbors and unwilling to budge.
“When I tried to mingle and do something at the city level, I always received very cold treatment, rejection,” Nguyen says, “like we did not belong here. But that gave me more power, more dreams, more high hopes. I’m not going to let you push me away. I’m going to keep trying and make you understand I’m your friend.”
So she gathered the growing Vietnamese community and gave them a sense of purpose. She brought seniors to parks, to watch how American families interacted. She hosted parties at her house for young Vietnamese families and encouraged women to take English classes at night. In 1999, she turned a former Taylor Equipment Rental (which had no floor or air conditioning) into Garland’s Vietnamese-American Activities Center.
In 1970, there were so few Southeast Asians in North Texas that the Census Bureau lumped all 1,587 of them into a group designated as “Other Asia,” which apparently included everywhere in Asia but China, Japan, and “Southwest Asia.” As of 2012, nearly 58,000 Vietnamese live here.
Now Nguyen—the Texas PR director for VIETV, a Vietnamese television network—spends her spare time working with other Asian communities in Frisco, Arlington, and Grand Prairie, helping them develop relationships with their cities. And she heads Garland’s Community Multicultural Commission, possibly the furthest thought from her mind when she stepped into the city in 1985.
“I’m very hard-headed and always have big dreams,” she says. “Without dreams, I wouldn’t be here today. You’ve got to dream big.”