More than three decades ago, Vietnamese refugees began to settle in Versailles, a then-isolated community in eastern New Orleans. By the early 2000s, this working-class enclave was home to 8,000 residents. But although the community had accomplished material successes, it remained divided between older immigrants and American-born youth. Many Versailles residents felt like perpetual outsiders in greater New Orleans, ignored by the local government.
A VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES is the incredible story of this little-known, tight-knit community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When the storm devastated New Orleans in August 2005, Versailles residents rebuilt their neighborhood faster than most other damaged neighborhoods in the city, only to find themselves threatened by a new toxic landfill slated to open just two miles away. Forced out of Vietnam by the war 30 years ago, many residents felt their homes were being taken away from them once again.
By January 2006, more than half of the neighborhood has been rebuilt, financed by friends and family, with little help from the government. Community leaders put together an ambitious redevelopment plan for Versailles, including its own senior housing, a cultural center, and a community farm and market. But New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin exercised his emergency power to open the Chef Menteur landfill — mere miles from Versailles — to dump toxic debris disposal from Katrina without an environmental impact study.
Outraged, Versailles fought back. Residents protested at City Hall and crowded public hearings by the hundreds, making the Vietnamese community’s presence felt in New Orleans for the first time. Legal battles are waged at the state and federal level. Tired of being passed around, the community decided to go for broke, staging a protest at the landfill to shut it down. As elders and youth fought side by side — chanting in English and Vietnamese — Versailles finally found a political voice that could no longer be ignored. As neighborhood priest Father Vien Nguyen says in the film, “Now, no one would dare speak about rebuilding New Orleans without mentioning our community, because they know we are back. They know we are here.”
Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang provided an update in April 2010 on what some of the people featured in A VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES have been doing since filming ended:
Father Vien Nguyen remains the pastor for Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. The church now offers English and Spanish masses for the non-Vietnamese residents in New Orleans East.
Mimi Nguyen left New Orleans after nearly three years as a legislative aide for New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard Lewis. She now lives in Houston.
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