Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley, and I am an archives librarian at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library. I am here for an oral history interview with Kevin Le. Kevin, we are just really glad you are here today and to share some of your story. I am wondering if you could begin by stating your name and telling us just a little bit about yourself.
Kevin Le: My name is Kevin Le. I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. I was born in 1995 and I grew up in Southeast Portland my whole life. I am twenty-six years old, about to turn twenty-seven this month. I currently work in the youth corrections, facilitating programs, doing breakdancing—that is one of my specialties that I do for teaching there—as well as painting and other things with the students there. But that is what I am currently involved in for work right now.
DK: Awesome. So you mentioned having lived in Oregon your whole life and growing up in Southeast. What are some of the specific neighborhoods within Southeast that you lived in?
KL: When I was first born, my family lived in the Foster-Powell neighborhood in Southeast. Later on, my dad had bought a house in Southeast Portland on Southeast Duke street. At the time, I think they called it Bellamy Flats out there because I think it was kind of more of a rough-sided neighborhood in Southeast. I pretty much stayed in that part of Southeast between Foster-Powell and later on my parents had a house on Southeast 72nd and Duke. I mostly grew up there. As an adult there, I have lived in Northeast Portland on Northeast Alberta and currently I live in Southeast in the Brooklyn neighborhood. So still that home.
DK: Tell us a little bit about your childhood. What was it like? What were some of your experiences?
KL: I would say my childhood in Portland was really good. Growing up in Southeast, my brother and I would go to Portland parks and they would have a lunch program during the summer. Even though my family was relatively low income, there were lunches at the park, I feel like we had a really strong connection to our neighborhood. That is something that is very telling about Portland—the neighborhood community connection that everybody has. So we would ride bikes to our neighbors and we would all go to the park and get lunch or whatever, things like that. Relatively, it was nice and at the time I do not think there were as many Vietnamese businesses as there are now. But you could already tell that there was a tight-knit community of Vietnamese American folks that lived in Southeast Portland, actually.
DK: What are some of the parks that you attended as a kid?
KL: Some of those parks would be Essex Park, Kern Park, which were between Foster and Powell where I had grown up. Later on, it was Mount Scott Park, Creston Park. I think that is one of the beautiful things about Portland is there was so many different parks that we kind of take for granted sometimes. But there was also the free lunch program, I will say again, because I think a lot of folks kind of relied on that in the summertime. It was kind of a place just to hang out and stuff like that.
DK: And it was through the parks district?
KL: Yeah, it was through Portland Parks and Rec. I think they currently still do that program to this day. I attended Portland Public Schools my whole life, up until I graduated from Franklin High School. I think I had the full Southeast experience.
DK: What are some of the other schools you attended besides Franklin?
KL: Lane Middle School, when I was doing middle school. Creston Elementary is where I started, and before that was the Headstart Preschool that was right next to Creston. From all those schools I kind of got to know a little bit more of Southeast, and even though we moved, we moved within Southeast, so a lot of my friends that I knew from elementary that I did not see in middle school, I would see in high school and later on. I think it was a good time to be in Southeast, I think.
DK: What was your experience like overall within Portland Public Schools?
KL: I think it was good. Actually, going to Franklin, before that, I actually went to Marshall High School. Marshall had actually—I forgot what the issue was, either it was a lack of funding or some political aspect—but they actually shut down and then we had to get moved to Franklin. A lot of it was good, but for some of it it felt like because we were in a poor neighborhood that they did not really prioritize as a school or as a group of students in this neighborhood. Later on, we ended up going to Franklin for my junior and senior year. So all the students that had lived in the neighborhood and had gone to Marshall all of the sudden had to go to this school and kind of become acclimated with this culture. Up until that time I felt like, "Okay, everything is going smooth," and then I felt for a little bit towards the end like, "Wow, this is really weird that things could get affected like this." I do not think it was a negative experience to how they responded to their new influx of students, but looking back, I kind of felt like it was—not like a pity party— but like we were kind of victims in a sense. Like we lost our school, we had to join this school, and walking in everybody was kind of clapping and welcoming us in. But it kind of felt a little off, looking back. But I kind of noticed politically things change when going to a new school a little bit, and just the overall experience of new staff that may not understand which neighborhood the students are coming from or what have you, and other [staff] that were great. I think that it was decent overall.
DK: Were there any teachers that made an especially large impact in your life?
KL: Yeah! I think I had a lot of really great teachers along the way that really made the experience positive and encouraged a lot of students to express themselves and take on new ideas. One of those teachers would be Jennifer Harvey. She was a dance teacher at Lane Middle School and she taught salsa as well as hip hop styles. Another teacher, Mr. Wright, over at Lane Middle School, was a great example of a good teacher. He would show us a little bit of slack-lining and tightrope walking and kind of opening up our minds to different hobbies and different ways to receive fitness. In high school, Julana Torres, she was another dance teacher in high school. Dance is kind of the theme of my life, I guess. She was one of the teachers at Franklin that made a lot of those Marshall kids that came in feel welcomed and feel like the teacher understood where we were coming from and understood how to connect with us in a way that made us feel comfortable. I think a lot of great teachers—Ms. Elena Barry from Marshall—she was a Spanish teacher and I think some years there would be Black Friday sales and one year she was at the mall and she saw some students and I think they were trying to buy a new video game or buy a computer, and she actually gave them some money to fill in the expense so they could buy a new laptop or something. She actually helped students buy laptops and things like that during Black Friday so I think that was a teacher that was really positive and understood the type of environment a lot of students were coming up in. I recently heard she passed away actually too, which is very sad, but for a while she had a huge impact at Marshall and later on going into Franklin as well, so I think that memory always stays with me, as somebody that would buy these kids from her school laptops.
DK: That is pretty huge. You mentioned how important dance was to you. How did you get into dancing?
KL: How I got into dancing... I think as a kid I was kind of figuring out how to be American, because I was like, my parents are from Vietnam, I was born here, but I do not necessarily know how to do this, they do not necessarily know how to do this, be American. So I would kind of see it through music and dance and I think that is something that my older brother Michael—he is a year and a half older than me—but I saw him breakdancing and then I would see other Vietnamese and Asian American people in my town do it. I think it was the first time I saw a Viet person like me doing something I thought was super cool. So I was probably in the sixth grade when I saw it and it kind of started from there. I learned that there was a huge community of breakdancers that were Vietnamese and for some reason, I guess I just was drawn to it. Like, "Wow, that is so captivating, the moves look so cool, they are doing it the music that sounds cool, they look cool." I think at first it was me imitating that and it led to me learning that. It led to me going to different practices in town. We called them sessions—and if somebody was a breakdance teacher and they had an after school class, it would be a session. You could go there and learn from other people or the teacher or just come with your friends and practice your own moves by yourself. There was one at Parkrose High School, there was a session at Portland State University at the Stotts Center before they remodeled it. There [were practices] all scattered throughout town and we would take the bus to go practice there and I think this is how we connected with other folks that did what we did and learned more about other Vietnamese people who did what we did. There were competitions here, which are called battles or jams, so folks would go compete. There would be judges that would pick the winner or whoever makes it to the next round, all the way to the winner. I think growing up, going to these jams and seeing people at practice and seeing people compete and do what they love, it was a really positive outlet that was very alluring to me at first, and then I kind of just became a part of it and never stopped being a part of it since then.
DK: That is awesome, thank you so much for all the detail about some of the places you went and all of the options for different places to go and practice and learn. It sounds like it was really impactful.
KL: Yeah, it was.
DK: Would you be willing to share some more about your family and what your home was like—either immediate family or extended family—whatever you are willing to share.
KL: My parents basically were refugees when they came into the country. A lot of their story I did not really hear until I was old enough to kind of absorb all of it. I think when I was younger they did not really tell me. They kind of told us what happened but as a kid you are like, "What, you had to run away, jump on a boat, and what was going on in the country?" We did not know. We were watching cartoons over here so for me it was like they kind of told us their whole story later. But at the time, my dad, when he first immigrated to the country, he lived on the East Coast, in Boston. My mom, when she came to the country with her family, she ended up in Portland. Apparently, one of my dad's friends had moved over here to Portland and had told him, "Hey, if you move here, you can work doing landscaping. Over here there are a lot of trees. This is a type of work that people do over here. You can come here, work with me, make some money, and I'll show you how to do it." He was working as a butcher in Boston before that, so he was like, "I'm ready to get out of here." I cannot even imagine being born someplace near the Equator to living in Boston, working as a butcher in a freezer. I can only imagine what that experience was like. But anyways, he moved to Portland and met my mom here—that is how they met, through the Our Lady of Lavang Parish, the Catholic church here. They are both Catholic, so that is convenient for them to both meet at the church. How they really met was one day—my mom, she comes from a big family, they both do—but she has nine brothers and sisters and they were all waiting for the TriMet bus with her parents. And I think my dad had a truck, so he ended up taking a bunch of them home, doing a couple of trips—however he had helped them. But that is how he met my mom.
So growing up, my dad was doing landscaping. By the time I was born, he had gotten his own truck, my mother and him were both doing that. They were putting out flyers, doing maintenance on people's yards, doing weeding, you name it, they were doing it. Later on, as I got a little older, first it was my brother Michael that was born in 1992, and then I was born in January of 1995. So by that time, I got a little older, I was around five, my brother was around seven or eight, my mom went to school to learn hair and nails. Later on, they opened up a hair and nail salon. They did not really enjoy that work, so my dad ended up going back to landscaping and my mom would also help but she would also be helping out at the house and being a homemaker and what have you. So most of my life, my dad basically worked to the point where he could get a double garage so he could fit all his tools and do the landscaping thing. That is pretty much where I started breaking [break dancing], in the garage. That is what they did for work.
We always went to church on Sundays. We always would go to Sunday School—one day out of the week on Sundays we would go to La Vang and half of the day was a Vietnamese curriculum and the other half was Bible study, basically. We did that from basically K through twelve, until we decided "Hey, we are not really going to do this anymore" or whatever. I think through that my brothers and sisters and I learned a lot of Vietnamese and a little bit more about Catholicism and the Bible. After I was born, in 2001 my little brother Jimmy was born and then later on after that in 2006 my sister Kayla was born. So there are four of us and we lived together up until recently. My parents decided to move to Texas because Houston has a huge Vietnamese population and my dad has a lot of relatives out there, so both of my parents, my brother Jimmy, he is in college and my little sister is in high school, and they are living in Houston right now. My brother Michael and I both live up here, he lives in Clackamas and I still live in Southeast. That has pretty much been my journey or my family growing up here in Portland.
DK: Would you be able to say a little more about your experience with Our Lady of Lavang and also with Vietnamese school and what that was like, since you were doing that for so many years?
KL: Yeah, oh yeah. I think our Lady of Lavang was kind of where I noticed how many Viet people were in town. And it took me a little bit to realize even, Yo, this is not everybody. This is only the people that identify as Catholic, or whatever. It started to make me realize how many other people there were here. When I was going there, I started learning that because I was like, "These kids are not from my neighborhood, some of these kids are from Lake Oswego, some of these kids are from Beaverton, some of these kids are from Northeast, some of these other students here live in different places and we all go here because our parents signed us up and made us go." The first half of the day, I would say, would be Vietnamese curriculum. We would go really early in the morning on Sundays because in the basement, at the church cafeteria, they have all kinds of Viet food from [unclear], they had banh mi sandwiches, they even had pho that you could get. So we could go there and eat a little bit of breakfast and then we would go straight to class and my parents would go to church. We would go to class—I think it would be Vietnamese curriculum, reading, writing. At lunch time we would have lunch—oh sorry, the first two hours was writing, reading, speaking, the next two hours was like a religion-based Bible study class. There was lunch and after lunchtime, we had church, and then we could go home. So church was to end the whole day.
During that time, lunchtime at La Vang was pretty awesome too because there were all Viet kids and there were Pokemon cards, you could buy food there or you could walk across the street to Jack in the Box, which you were not allowed to do but people did it anyways. And there was a lot of things going on there. I think I learned a lot about my language. If I was not practicing—I mean, I would speak to my parents all day—but just having a little bit of it drilled in there really helped. I would not say I necessarily identify as Catholic to this day but I learned a lot about the Bible and views of people. Later on, I think a lot of students that took the class with me that became my friends would have conversations as we grew up about, "I don't necessarily agree with this, or I feel this way about it," and I think a lot of us kind of found ourselves growing into our own ideas and ideals and how we feel about what is right and wrong, compared to what the church represents and things like that. I think it led to healthy conversations with other Vietnamese American people that were kind of in this situation. Yeah, it felt like a really long time, which it was, but even to this day I will run into people all over town that I basically went to school with, even if we did not go to the same elementary or high school or anything.
DK: Sounds like it really gave you a lot of space to develop and find yourself through that participation.
KL: Definitely, I think so.
DK: My next question relates very directly to what you were just talking about; in addition to your experience with Our Lady of Lavang and with your Vietnamese school, were you encouraged in other way by your family or by other peers and mentors in your life to learn about Vietnamese language, culture, or tradition? And if so, how so?
KL: I think as a kid growing up, there is definitely a sense of pride in being Viet and understanding and just knowing the traditions, since I grew up in a Viet household and my parents, that is all they knew, there are actually really fun traditions in the Vietnamese culture that made me more attached to it or want to participate in it. Like Tet and Lunar New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival, things like that, that really made me want to participate a little more and get to know more of my culture. Of course, I thought the food was always better than anything else I could find, so that made me kind of want to continually participate. I think at the time growing up I did not have many examples to look at to see, "This is an Asian American person, this person was not necessarily born in Vietnam but they are Vietnamese, they speak English and they speak Vietnamese." I do not think we had a lot of examples of people like that so I think when I would see breakdancing or something, I am like, "Man, these kids are kind of like me," and they are doing something, I can relate to them. It made me just kind of relate to what they were doing. My parents spoke to me in Vietnamese––my grandparents on my mom's side would help out when my parents went to work a lot, to watch my brother and I so I would speak to them in Vietnamese––so I think having that as a basis really helped me to always speak Vietnamese. I do not think that to this day I am very fluent in Vietnamese, but I think I am better off that I spoke all those years with my relatives and did the Vietnamese schooling that I did not like but still learned a lot from. Later on, I kind of decided, I need to have myself become that kind of example or symbol of somebody that I did not get to see. And that is okay, because a lot of times there were examples of Viet people but they were not showcased or their stories were not told or they were not in my community doing the type of work that was needed. I think recently it has become more of a movement to highlight these things and the more we see representation of Vietnamese people in other fields, that typically we do not correlate it with, it helps to break outside that box and hopefully the next generation feels like, Hey I can be accepted, even though I do not necessarily fit into one or two categories, it is okay.
DK: You mentioned some of various festivals for the Vietnamese American community in Portland. I am wondering if you have any specific stories from any of those festivals that stand out to you?
KL: I think Tet, during the Lunar New Year, is really exciting because you get red envelopes full of money. What's not to love about that, I can go buy Yu-Gi-Oh! cards or do whatever, like how cool that that is a tradition? Celebrating it here, all my family would come over, or I would go to one of my relative's house, there is food everywhere, I was hanging out with my cousins, the parents are having a good time and singing karaoke, so I think that kind of community tradition was really impactful in a positive way. My church always did a Harvest Moon Festival where we would get candy and get lanterns, put a candle in the lantern, walk around and do a lion dance. Cool traditions that were made possible here so we can at least relate to our Viet culture a little bit. You know, from time to time there is something that goes on at the Convention Center for New Year's or little events like that. I think that is about it.
DK: After you graduated from Franklin, did you attend college?
KL: I attended PCC (Portland Community College) for two years. I think at that time, I was really trying to figure out what my direction was after that, just like a lot of students out of high school. I ended up being really drawn to doing more community work so that is what led me into grant writing, which is what I started doing while working with Morpheus Youth Project, which is the organization I currently still work for. Carlos Chavez, who works there, was one of the people that really encouraged me to—saw what I was doing with breakdancing, saw how we would organize sessions, later on we were kind of like the leaders of the sessions and we would end up doing events and things like that. And he was like, "Hey, you know there is funding out here for the things you guys are doing, that you guys are specializing in, bringing equity to a Southeast neighborhood and bringing in different resources for workshops." We met all these criteria for diversity for so many things and that is what led me to grant writing, facilitating programs and workshops, and doing things like that. After high school doing some of that work, I realized I could kind of put forth what I want to do, something that I am passionate about as well as something I want to do to make change and it really led me to more of that type of work.
DK: Moving on a little bit to some of the macro-level questions about Portland's Vietnamese American community as a whole, I am wondering, what role does being Vietnamese American play in your life?
KL: I think I still have a great pride in being Viet. Now more than ever, my role has been more so being that role model for the students and the kids—even just a model—just someone to look at and be able to recognize somebody a little different and the variety of people that identify as Vietnamese. I think my role has gone more to advocacy and voicing my perspective and our perspective as a whole, as well as connecting with other Vietnamese Americans, I think that has become a big part of my life recently, is connecting to these folks that relate to me so that we can build this dialogue and continue what we are doing so that when we do an event and collaborate with a Vietnamese food cart and Vietnamese graphic designers making our poster and a Vietnamese DJ is spinning the jam. It starts to really come into the picture, like, "Hey, we are pretty powerful when we can come together." Honestly, it was kind of shocking to hear that the Vietnamese population here is two-percent, because sometimes I am in Southeast and you can drive for miles on 82nd and all you see are Vietnamese shops, but that just goes to show you how vast Oregon is and how little the population is actually existing here, that was shocking to me.
DK: Yeah, it is so much perspective-based, and I would argue that that is still a rather large segment of the city's population and still really important. That does not get often noticed enough, that it is two-percent and just really critical. What differences do you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans?
KL: I think a big one would be, I guess in a way, we all kind of share the same trauma, but the generation of my parents and before them really went through a lot to get to this country and I think that it is still something—it is not like we did not experience it, because I think in a way we did and in a way we continue to deal with it—but I think their experience was so much more intense than ours. I think our generation is being more open to ways of dealing with that. Counseling, therapy, and things like that. I think for a lot of Vietnamese folks, they are very prideful. Later on, hearing the stories of what really went on as an adult, I realize how nonchalant my parents and their generation treated this whole thing, when really they went through traumatic events to even end up in a strange country that they had to learn how to survive in. I think that is really telling of the strength of that generation.
For our generation, it is that shared trauma, but more so us kind of coping with it as Vietnamese Americans now. Regardless of how hard we have it, there is a little bit of—not really much like guilt, but similar because we feel almost like our lives our so easy—like I did not have to worry about bombs. I cannot even fathom what their experience was but I think our experience is a lot nicer now. We actually have representation, we are starting to, I would say that. For them, it seems like they had such a hard hand dealt and they took it with grace. I do not know if it was not for that, if we would even be here to be as resilient to continue doing the things we are doing because a lot of those stories are just starting to be heard now by people like myself who are children of refugees. A lot of it you do not tell your kid about that type of stuff that happens. Perspective is changing too, because a lot of times they come to this country and find out a certain way to be an American. As our generation is growing up, we are starting to learn more about ways to differ from that in ways that are more inclusive, in a way that is more tolerant and in a way that is more... from the scope of our time.
DK: I am curious, when have you felt most at home in Portland? What do you like most about your city and your community?
KL: The most at home I feel here... I really enjoy going to the Vietnamese [grocery] store here. I go to Hong Phat on 82nd and I think Burnside or Stark. But whenever I go into a store where there are mostly Vietnamese people and there is all this produce and ingredients made to cook for all of our food, I start to feel like we really carved out something here and it makes me feel really at home to know we have places for us and by us that people now celebrate. I honestly do not think a lot of my white peers liked fish sauce back in the day, but now it is a thing. And especially in a city where it is so easy to be the only person of color in a cafe or in a restaurant, when you go somewhere where there is just a huge abundance of people from your own culture, from your own language, running into my aunties and uncles, I think I feel most at home when I realize, Hey, we have some spots now. And other people want to shop here. It is not just that we are supporting us, but other people are supporting us, so I think that is where I truly feel the most at home in Portland.
DK: Thanks, Kevin. Conversely, I am wondering if you have encountered any racism or discrimination in Portland.
KL: I definitely think we all do. Portland is very progressive compared to Oregon, I think we all know that. When you step outside the lines, it starts getting really scary as a person of color of LGBTQ, however you would openly identify or whatever. I think it is subtle sometimes. I do not think it is as blatant as it is in other parts of the United States, but I think it is subtle, it is very passive aggressive. There is a certain tone that can be like that. I do not know if it is much of racism, but one thing that annoys me is when people ask where I am from. And usually, I am from here, and they are from somewhere else. But it seems like they are trying to vet me out to see like, "How did you end up here?" As a person of color, it can be kind of offensive. Because I kind of feel like, "Oh no, I was born and raised here." And a lot of times, it will be like five white people and they are all from somewhere else, and I was born here. So then it is kind of a funny little perspective to think like, “I am what a Portlandian looks like.” But for a lot of people, it is still pretty new, it is still relatively a white town.
It is getting better, the fact that there is even a Stop Asian Hate campaign, it is like, When did we start that? But it is here. The fact that we even have to do something like that is progressive, but also shocking. Why was this not a narrative when I was growing up, if it has been prevalent the whole time? But you know, that is one of my thoughts going through the day when I see things like that.
DK: I have come to the end of the questions I had planned for today, but I want to give you a chance to bring up anything else you would like to share, or is there anything else you had hoped we would discuss that we have not?
KL: No, I think I got a lot of it out there that I wanted to convey. Definitely I just want to say thanks for the work you guys have been doing. I definitely appreciate the dialogue and the questions and pushing the stories in the work you guys are doing. I definitely look forward to hearing more about the progress of things for the project.
DK: Thanks, Kevin. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley and Kevin Le, talking for the Vietnamese Portland Project. Today is Wednesday, January 19, 2022.