San Pablo Sunset 

No longer the home of "pistols and crystals, bikers and trailers," San Pablo completes its secession from the Bay Area to join the rest of the state.

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Unfortunately for Siriboungthong, Tatpaporn's openness didn't quite set the tone for the rest of the day. The next speaker, Thon Phutma, executive director of the Lao Senior Association, whose comments were translated by an interpreter, argued that only aggressive police action could solve the problem of his community's violent youth: "I see that the solution to stopping youth violence is to give police officers the power to make arrest when they see that youth are wandering around the street past the curfew." And toward the end of the meeting, tribal elder Chao Nokham walked to the microphone. As a representative of the royal Laotian dynasty, he said he knew why drugs and gangs plague Laotian children -- the communists are behind it. "There are today a lot of people who still working for the Lao communists in our country," Nokham insisted. "They want them to stay in power for long, long time; I don't know why. So we have to know that the drug come from our country. Laos is the number one distributor of drugs, you know? And then we have to know, who back them? Who backing them?" Siriboungthong eventually eased him away from the mike.

And so it went. The traditional, male elders argued for mass arrests and blamed the communists, while the social workers and younger parents pleaded for better communication with their children. Standing far in the back of the room, Terrence Cheung explained the meeting's dynamics. Many of the most respected members of the Laotian community fled Laos in middle age. Their frame of reference is rural life, tribal allegiance, totalitarian rule, and unquestioned respect for elders. The Western parenting models that Siriboungthong discreetly advocates are utterly foreign to them. These vast differences in cultural orientation have helped create a sense of alienation in their children. For many of these kids, Cheung suggests, gang affiliation becomes a surrogate family.

As the meeting wrapped up, Siriboungthong allowed herself to vent a little. "I'm just heartbroken that more parents didn't show up," she said. "There's definitely a culture conflict there. I don't know if it's denial, but they don't want to take responsibility. In Laos, the community raises the child. I'm sensing a hands-off attitude from parents. They operate from old parenting skills, as opposed to the younger generation, which has learned Western ways of parenting."

Siriboungthong herself still struggles to overcome a cultural suspicion of assertive, young women, as well as a profound mistrust of outsiders. She never uses her Chinese surname, which she took when she married her husband; if she did, she'd have another barrier to break through. The only hope for her and Tatpaporn, it seems, is that there will be more such meetings. Unlearning a lifetime of cultural mores takes more than ninety minutes at the Richmond Senior Center. With luck, it won't take another dead girl to spark the next discussion.

Most Laotians in San Pablo live in the flat, sad-sack southern part of the city known as "Old Town." Despite its bungalows and manicured lawns, this is one of the densest parts of the East Bay, a teeming mess of colliding immigrant cultures, where the lingua franca is Spanglish inflected with ghetto slang. While many poor urban neighborhoods have been recolonized by hipsters or gentrified by yuppies, San Pablo's Old Town has instead become the destination point for thousands of new immigrants. The substandard housing, proximity to the Chevron refinery, and trailer parks alongside the neighborhood's northern edge have kept down the property values.

Within this environment, a distinctly different type of transformation is occurring. You can cruise the length of 23rd Street from the Richmond BART station right up to the entrance of the El Portal shopping center without spotting a single bank. Instead, you'll find every outpost of the lumpen suburban economy: taco wagons, pager outlets, nail salons, and low-rider chop shops. And where San Pablo once prided itself on keeping the spirit of Richmond securely on the other side of the line, today the two cities are merging into one vast, immigrant metropolis.

Here is where San Pablo's Hispanic world begins. But even so, the Latino quality is nuanced by the remarkable stew of ethnic identities that distinguishes New San Pablo from what came before it. Consider the businesses on just one block near the Richmond border. A Yemeni family runs the Shop 'n Save Liquors; a white guy owns Ken's Antiques; Asians run T&N Auto Accessories, California Furniture, and the Lady Bug beauty salon; and Latinos run Ventura's Body Shop, Alicia's Flowers, and Casa Chicas, a small storefront salsa and guacamole factory.


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