Cambodia Town Is Mapping Its Political Future In Long Beach

Lara Som, who directs the MAYE Center in Long Beach, points to a map of a proposed redrawn City Council district that would encompass Cambodia Town and its surrounding neighborhoods. (Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

No Cambodian-American serves as an elected official in Long Beach.

Residents and activists for the Cambodian community there — the largest in the nation — want to change that. They're pushing the city to draw up new council districts that could effectively give them their own representative.

It all began with a simple question.

Vy Sron, 70, was sitting in a civic engagement class last fall at the MAYE Center, a community center in Long Beach's Cambodia Town neighborhood where genocide survivors gather for healing activities that include exercise and classes.

As many as 50,000 Cambodians and Cambodian-Americans live the city. They settled there after fleeing genocide at home during the brutal Khmer Rogue years that left millions dead.

As the class instructor discussed how local government works, it struck Sron, who moved to the U.S. five years ago, that there was no one who looked like her or spoke her language on the Long Beach City Council.

She raised her hand in class.

"How come we don't have a local representative?" she asked.

Cambodians, she noted, have lived in Long Beach for 30 to 40 years. So why not?

A question asked by Vy Sron spurred an effort in Long Beach to redraw council districts to put all of Cambodia Town under the same representative. (Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

Part of the answer stems from the City Council's redistricting after the 2010 Census. It split the neighborhood in which a majority of the Long Beach Cambodian population lives in four districts.

That realization led to a push to consolidate Cambodia Town into a single council district.

"That gives us a chance, a chance to have a voice together, a larger voice to say this is what we need for our community," Lara Som said. She grew up in Cambodia Town and runs the MAYE Center, a nonprofit whose acronym stands for meditation, agriculture, yoga and education.

The desire for a larger voice is what's driven similar efforts by communities of color in recent years.

In cities like Anaheim and Fullerton, Latino and Asian residents sued to change council at-large districts to single district elections, saying the old system diluted their voting power.

Long Beach already has council districts. So the goal of the organizers in Cambodia Town is to redraw the boundaries in a way that better serve the community, which they say has long felt disenfranchised.

Sron and others gathered signatures on a petition. The organizers met with civic engagement experts, including the group Common Cause, which has worked on redistricting in other California cities. Together they drew up proposed boundaries for a new district.

They've tied their effort to a local ballot measure that seeks to establish a citizen-led redistricting commission. The district lines are now drawn by the City Council. The measure is one in a series of proposed Long Beach charter amendments that voters will see on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

TRANSFORMING TRAUMA INTO POLITICAL ACTIVISM

Walking along busy Anaheim Street one recent morning, Som pointed out the businesses owned by Cambodian immigrants — restaurants, mom and pop salons, tailor shops, and stores displaying traditional Cambodian clothing in richly colored fabrics.

"This is the heart of Cambodia town," Som said. "Everything happens around here."

Some of the businesses have been around for decades. They were founded by Cambodian immigrants and their families and contribute to the city's economy. But Som said the community has little political influence.

Charles Song, a longtime local activist, thinks he knows why.

Charles Song is a longtime community activist in Cambodia Town. He says local Cambodians have organized around other efforts, but not local politics.(Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

"Trauma," he said one recent afternoon during a visit to the MAYE Center. "That word alone. It is difficult for a community that has gone through so much."

Many Cambodians arrived in the United States deeply scarred from living in fear under the Khmer Rouge. Many, including Song, lost family members. The emotional toll, he said, has carried over, along with a deep-seated mistrust of government and a reluctance to speak out.

The community has organized around other efforts: it won an official designation for Cambodia Town in 2007 and plans an annual Cambodian New Year celebration. Challenging the political status quo is another matter.

"With the Khmer Rouge survivors, you face many obstacles integrating them into American society," said Long Beach civil rights attorney Marc Coleman. He teaches the civic engagement class and government class at the MAYE Center and has been advising the Cambodia Town redistricting organizers.

Sron and others believe the community lacks services found in other parts of town, because it doesn't have representation.

"With a future representative, they would be able to understand our culture, and the barriers we are experiencing," Sron said, speaking through a translator. More importantly, she said, a redistricting would "pave a path of equality for our younger generation."

The Cambodia Town organizers have backed the city's redistricting measure and, in turn, city officials like Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia have been receptive.

"I think when we redraw the lines, that is going to be obviously an opportunity to ensure that is in place for that community," Garcia said by phone. "But of course, whether it is successful or not, I think the goal is still the same, which would be that I would always support and continue to support uniting that community."

The city's redistricting measure isn't guaranteed approval. It has drawn critics like Carlos Ovalle, who is part of a group opposed to the proposed city charter amendments. The group has argued that city officials would have too much control over city commissions, including the proposed redistricting commission.

Ovalle, an architect who came as an immigrant with his family many years ago from Guatemala, said he sympathizes with the Cambodians.

"I know what it is like to come here under duress, and to want to have a sense of power over your destiny," he said. However, "I still feel that if this happens, there is an opportunity for them to get betrayed."

The Cambodian organizers disagree, saying the proposed plan beats the way the district boundaries are now drawn by council members.

Som says if the ballot measure fails in November, the Cambodians' efforts won't have gone to waste.

The organizers have spent six months gathering more than 3,000 signatures on a petition asking the city to redraw the district boundaries around Cambodia Town anyway, so that the greater Cambodian community lies in one district.

"Right now, we don't have that," Som said. "We are all divided. Our voice doesn't matter." But she hopes that before too long, it will.

This story has been updated.


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