Hue-Chan Karels was 9 years old when she and her family fled Vietnam carrying $500, personal documents and negatives of family photos. One week later, on April 30, 1975, North Vietnam forces captured Saigon, marking the end of the war in Vietnam. For Karels, the events delineated the inception of a new life in an unfamiliar country, as well as a personal journey that would lead her to find ways to fill the chasm between the home she left behind and the re-imagined existence she and her family would build.
Karels shared her story on Feb. 13—her birthday—with a SITE Santa Fe audience attending the museum's Digest This series, a monthly event that pairs local scholars with culinary artists for short-form multi-media talks and tastings.
The most recent event prefigured next month's exhibition, DISPLACED: Contemporary Artists Confront the Global Refugee Crisis, which will feature 12 international artists working across mediums to explore issues of migration and displacement, as well as myriad complementary events. In May, SITE, the School for Advanced Research and the Center for Contemporary Arts will collaborate on a series of exhibitions and events titled Beyond Borders, launching with Hostile Terrain 94, a participatory event in which public volunteers hand-write 3,200 toe tags that represent migrants who died between the mid 1990s and 2019 trying to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.
Digest This programming—held the second Thursday of the month starting in April through September—will continue to highlight the exhibition's themes of migration and displacement. In April, Santa Fe Dreamers Executive Director Allegra Love will discuss US immigration policy and Chef Ray Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo, Odawa, Crow) will talk about and serve the pueblo crop amaranth. May's program will pair Alesandra Zsiba, founding artist and director of The Identity Project and Paper Dosa Chef Paulraj Karuppasamy, a native of South Indian state Tamil Nadu.
Karels spoke with computational sociologist Tamara van der Does, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, who discussed what she characterized as the emergence of "pan-ethnic" identities. For example, the terms "Hispanic," "Latino" and "Latinx," she says, "might seem like they've been around forever," but are a much more recent development; just 50 years ago, people were more likely to identify as Mexican, Cuban or Puerto Rican.
Pan-ethnic identities, "which group people "from multiple national origins together," allowing people to "organize and unify," developed in response to both migration patterns and US policies, van der Does said. In the case of Latino and Hispanic identity, the movement coalesced in the 1960s and '70s as activists from different geographic regions joined together to fight against the shared discrimination all had experienced.
Similarly, Asian Americans—from China, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam—despite coming from countries with different languages and religions, were segregated and discriminated against as a group by "the white majority…people in power." In response, van der Does said, "Asian American activists decided…to ban together and take this imposed label and reshape it so it is for a positive purpose." Thus, in the 1970s, "there was a huge rise and protest of Asian American groups fighting police brutality, anti-war and any mistreatment of Asian Americans."
For Karels, a child in the 1970s, her reclamation of her homeland began in the 1990s as Vietnam began emerging from post-war isolation. In 1994, former President Bill Clinton lifted the nearly 20-year-old US trade embargo, and Karels set up the first of two companies that helped facilitate both trade missions and infrastructure re-building. Returning to Vietnam, she said, helped her recognize "what was lost can be found, but it's never what it was." Refugees such as herself helped rebuild their lost country, she noted, but also shaped the new country that had become home in myriad ways. Food was one of them.
At the SITE event, Karels served the audience bánh cuốn, Vietnamese steamed rice crêpes—the last meal she and her family ate prior to fleeing the country. Part of building their new life in the US meant finding substitutes for traditional ingredients to make their native cuisine. “We did what we could to remind us and have a little sanity and comfort as we [found] our way in our new home,” she said. Ten years ago, Karels started Open Kitchen in Washington, DC (https://openkitchenevents.com), a culinary-event business she transplanted to Santa Fe, where she and her family moved almost six years ago. Open Kitchen will be collaborating with Chefs Naranjo and Brian Yazzie for a three-day food event in May on Native American cuisine.
Concluding her talk, Karels said, "The Vietnamese, the future of Vietnam and its people [are] being reimagined every day through our resilience and creativity and our participation in the areas we live in."