As with any port town, immigration is Mobile’s lifeblood. First came the French, then the Spanish and British. Americans infected with “Alabama Fever” and visions of frontier fortunes flocked southward. Caribbean Islanders, Africans, Greeks, Lebanese, Italians, Jews and others added their respective flavors to the local community’s gumbo.
A relatively recent and impactful influx has landed at 301 Conti St. in downtown Mobile’s Alabama Contemporary Art Center (ACAC) as the new phase of its Raise 251 project examining county health. Through March 30, the focus has shifted south to land’s end.
Starting in the 1970s, waves of Southeast Asians moved into southern Mobile County, driven by widespread tumult and terror at home. These Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian and Laotian refugees adapted to a new land, yet sustained elements of native culture in their memories. The experiences of those latter two nationalities are featured in ACAC’s exhibit.
“One of my closest Cambodian colleagues arrived here with his pants, shirt, shoes and a paper saying he could be here. That was all,” Denise C. Lewis, Ph.D., said. “The stories are quite moving. The resiliency, compassion and sharing is phenomenal.”
Lewis is a University of Georgia associate professor who spent decades getting to know the transplants and subsequently facilitated the ACAC show. Buddhist monks in the Irvington area were an access point for the anthropologist/gerontologist.
“I learned things like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in their language, in Khmer, and it opened doors. They learned they could trust me,” Lewis said.
Trust was returned through Photovoice, a method wherein Lewis handed out 74 cameras to the residents and asked them to document sources of pride in their community and heritage. She has hundreds of photos as a result.
“Eventually we’re going to take the strengths of the community and see if we can apply them to the vulnerabilities,” Lewis said. “I’m only about 25 percent through interviewing all the people who took the photos.”
During Lewis’ first six months there, a council of elders taught her such cultural elements as cuisine, herbal medicine and dance. They also detailed the brutal regime left behind.
“The Khmer Rouge was anti-education along with any kind of Westernization. So if they found you wearing eyeglasses, they assumed you were Westernizing to read and you would be marked for execution. These people always had to hide who they were,” Lewis said.
It affected all classes, agrarian as well as those in emergent democratic governments, or higher. In refugee camps, sometimes for years, they subsisted on scarce rations, dried beans, rice and fish paste. The adaptation and perseverance prepared them for later life in a strange land.
Ethnic friction emerged in the U.S. Some locals saw these newcomers arrive with federal assistance for relocation and felt resentful.
“People didn’t understand even though the U.S. helped with their travel into the country, they gave them a bill and the refugees repaid the U.S. in the first few months,” Lewis explained.
Naturally, the immigrants were insular as suspicions and distrust grew between them and existing inhabitants. In some Gulf Coast communities, it manifested in violence.
Time eased tensions thanks to observable diligence.
“Bayou La Batre was and still is a seafarer’s settlement so that same kind of hardy, do-what-you-have-to-do, get-your-hands-dirty work ethic is not any different, from the original settlers or the African-Americans who came or the Southeast Asian people,” Lewis said.
Slowly, daily life bred familiarity. Animosity ebbed.
“We’re afraid of those we don’t know. Once we know them, we realize their whole story and then they’re fathers, mothers, daughters, sons just like us,” Lewis said.
Like centuries of previous immigrants, subsequent generations assimilated through immersion and exposure.
“You find the older ones only speaking native, middle-aged and young adults are bilingual and young children maybe bilingual maybe not, maybe only English,” Lewis said.
The new world reshaped cultural practices. Holidays that occupied a week in Asia are reduced to long weekends to stick with the American workweek. Their adherence to filial piety — a virtuous respect for parents, elders and ancestors — is reworked, too.
“Rather than grandchildren bringing fruit or incense or gifts like that to an older person, they might instead drive them to the grocery store. There are shifts in how the levels of respect are shown and how, in the day-to-day, lives are structured,” Lewis noted.
Empirically, the depth of the Athens, Georgia-based academician’s commitment can be measured with an odometer.
“I bought a new a car and I’ve got almost 35,000 miles on it in a year and half,” Lewis laughed.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).