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One last store of consequence remains standing in El Portal, and it's all that's left of Frank Jao's dream. The San Pablo supermarket is a ratty piece of work, but its lack of artifice conveys a certain threadbare charm. Pigeons roost in the lip of its concrete awning and contemptuously perch upon the twin alabaster lions that guard the entrance. Two plate-glass windows serve as a community bulletin board, where strangers tape Laotian fliers offering rooms for rent, or Spanish posters announcing the arrival of Circo Hermanos Caballero, complete with shots of Dalmatians leaping through flaming hoops. Inside, cumbia music trills through speakers nestled among the Snow White and Powerpuff Girls piñatas that hang from the ceiling. Shoppers pick over Mexican papayas and lotus root before drifting over to the butcher section to browse the vacuum-sealed packs of Golden Medallion beef tendon meatballs. Above the seafood display, a sign warns "Food stamp not accepted for fry fish."
The San Pablo supermarket exemplifies one of the more curious institutions of immigrant California: the Asian-Latino hybrid grocery store. Nothing else quite signifies the geographical intimacy of these particular huddling masses, and few people could imagine a more incongruous pairing. Yet in barrios across Southern California and the Central Valley, the next generation is being fed by stores just like this one. But there remains one crucial difference between these two populations. Where Hispanic Californians have lived here for 350 years and enjoy a close connection to their home country, many Southeast Asians -- the Cambodians of Oakland's Elmhurst district, the Vietnamese of its San Antonio district, or the Hmong of Fresno -- struggle with exile, isolation, and the enduring emotional residue of civil war.
In San Pablo, Laotians have comprised the bulk of the city's approximately five thousand Asian residents ever since they fled here as refugees in the late 1970s. For the last four weeks, they have been afflicted with a terrible sense of loss.
On the night of October 14, a fifteen-year-old girl named Chan Boonkeut heard a knock at her front door. She went to answer it, but before she could reach the doorknob, about fifteen bullets split the wood and spread inward, snuffing out her life. For the roughly ten thousand Laotians who live on either side of the Richmond-San Pablo line, three things were clear: The young men who did this were Laotian; the shooting was gang-related; and Chan wasn't even their target. The bullets were meant for her brother, who wasn't even home.
While San Pablo's overall crime rate has plummeted from its heyday in the early 1980s, a quiet plague of gang violence grips the city's Laotian population, and this latest murder brought the seemingly intractable problem into sharp relief. Because of this community's cultural impulse to keep its problems private, the public quality of this crime brought its own special kind of lost face. According to Terrence Cheung, who works for Contra Costa County's Southeast Asian Youth Task Force, many families from the community's Mien ethnicity were too embarrassed to attend the girl's funeral, because the two boys arrested in connection with the murder were Mien.
This exaggerated sense of discretion underscores a more general attribute of these immigrants. Laotian residents may live in the city, but in many ways they're still not part of it. Stranded in a strange, high-octane land of industry, advertising, and popular culture, many first-generation Laotians have reacted by turning inward and relying primarily upon one another. If white San Pablo is the past, and Hispanic San Pablo is the future, Laotian San Pablo isn't quite either, and remains trapped in the amber of its own exile. The rest of San Pablo typically passes it by.
Just as greater San Pablo is in the midst of a generational transition, its Laotians are locked in a generational conflict of their own. The parents view the world through the prism of their rural upbringing, and their children view the world through MTV. It has fallen to two young women, Phaeng Toommaly and Maly Siriboungthong, to bridge this divide. They are part of the "half generation," children who arrived here old enough to be grounded in traditional Laotian culture, but not so old that they couldn't learn new ways. They have a certain cultural bilingualism, which Toommaly and Siriboungthong hope to use to persuade their elders that the time has come to confront gang violence and the social conditions that allow it to flourish. "Even though we have a tough time trying to get the elders to understand, we still know how to approach them," Toommaly says. "It's a cultural literacy that the younger generation doesn't have."
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