February 19, 2018  

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Center for Oral History Documents Impact of 2010 Oil Spill on Gulf

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Biloxi shrimper Tuan Tran poses aboard his fishing boat. Since the oil spill Tran says there is “no shrimp” and worries about his family’s future more than ever. (Submitted photo)

Two years after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, The University of Southern Mississippi Center for Oral History continues its work capturing the stories of those whose livelihood depends on the Gulf Coast’s seafood industry, which was threatened by the ecological disaster.

With the support of a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Center has talked with crabbers, shrimpers and oyster harvesters across the Gulf of Mexico about the challenges the disaster has presented to their way of life and the foodways of the region. Interviews have been conducted in Alabama, including in Grand Bay and the Bayou La Batre area, and in St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans East, and Houma, La.  

“The purpose of this effort is to learn how the oil spill and other events like Hurricane Katrina have affected the conditions of the Gulf environment,” said Louis Kyriakoudes, director of the Center and an associate professor of history. “The perspectives of these marine harvesters will be used by researchers to learn how resilient they are in the face of these disasters, and what they have done that has helped them overcome these challenges. Their stories can also help us understand how other fishing populations might be affected by such disasters in the future.”

Many of the interviews have been with Vietnamese Americans from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Houma and New Orleans, La. as part of a special project conducted by Linda Van Zandt, managing editor for the center. The Vietnamese Americans of the Gulf Coast Oral History Projectstarted after Hurricane Katrina through funding from the Mississippi Humanities Council and continued with funds from the marine fisheries grant.

The experiences and untold stories in this project are of Vietnamese “boat people,” survivors who began fleeing Vietnam in 1975 after the war. Several thousand of these survivors chose to live on the Gulf Coast for the similar climate and fishing life they enjoyed in their “sweet motherland.”

Coping and reinventing one’s life in response to tragedy and disaster is something the Vietnamese interviewees have experienced time after time, said Van Zandt. Silenced by Communism after war, barred from education, stripped of their property, livelihoods, and country, they chose to risk imprisonment and life by escaping on boats into the unknown. From there they navigated a new culture and language in America, losing homes and boats to Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, losing livelihoods to the oil spill. 

When asked what dates have defined their lives, Van Zandt said a group of out-of-work “fisherfolk” answered 1975 (fall of South Vietnam), 2005 (Hurricane Katrina), and 2010 (BP oil spill). Many still struggle to recover from the displacement by Hurricane Katrina, and now the loss of livelihood in the wake of the oil disaster.

“Members of the Gulf Coast Vietnamese community have shown an astounding resiliency and positive attitude attributed to strong faith and repeated experience,” she said. “Collecting these stories are not only important in providing first-hand accounts from those who were on the frontline of the oil disaster, but they serve as a resource to teach us all a great deal more about where much of the food we eat comes from and how it is harvested. And of course, these stories highlight the ways in which people cope, recover and renew after disaster hits home and community.”

One interviewee, Biloxi shrimper Tuan Tran, talked of his father’s death on the battlefield during the Vietnam War. Tran was forced to quit school to begin fishing to help feed his family.  After years of suffering under Communist rule due to his father’s “friend of the enemy” status, he made the difficult decision to leave his family in hopes of finding a better future for them, and he escaped Vietnam by boat, feeding the crew by fishing while lost at sea for 15 days. 

Eventually making it to Biloxi to fish, the only work he could pursue immediately without knowing English, he has supported his wife and two children, who still live in Vietnam, through the shrimp he catches and sells off Biloxi’s Back Bay dock.  Since Katrina, Tran has been living on his small boat to save money for his family in Vietnam so that they can attend school and “have a better life.” 

Since the oil spill he now says there is “no shrimp, no shrimp” and worries about his family’s future more than ever. “Most fisherfolk interviewed say the oil spill impact is worse than Katrina’s, where at least they could pick up a hammer and begin rebuilding,” Van Zandt said.

Recently Van Zandt visited Tran on his boat, where he shared the news that he had signed up to take English classes. The classes are offered by Asian Americans for Change (AAC), founded by the daughters of another Biloxi shrimper in response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastating blow to the Vietnamese community.

Angel Truong, co-founder of AAC, invited Van Zandt to bring her oral history/photographic exhibit to a dinner event last December at the Eden Center, the “Little Saigon” of the Washington D.C. area where she had recently moved to from Biloxi.  During her oil spill advocacy work on Capitol Hill, Truong was inspired to invite Van Zandt to bring the stories of out-of-work Mississippi fisherfolk to a much larger audience and Vietnamese community there. 

Van Zandt said that through providing language interpretation for her during some of the interviews conducted last fall, Angel began to better understand her ownheritage, and family and community history.  

“The most poignant moment for me during the cultural exchange at the Eden Center was when our host, a successful restaurant owner raised in New York, held my hand, looked into my eyes, and tearily confessed he never spoke about the summers he spent helping his father shrimp the Gulf,” Van Zandt said. “He thanked me after the exhibit presentation and said he could have pride in his history now and better understand his father.”

Van Zandt said that as a child who grew up seeing the horrific images from the Vietnam War on the nightly news, her goal for the project has been to give voice and honor to this community of survivors and to make sure their stories and language, and a history erased after the Communist takeover, will live on through generations to come. Her trip to Vietnam with Southern Miss’ study abroad program in 2003 inspired her to continue the cultural exchange closer to home. 

“I hope public engagement through the exhibit will help instill pride in their accomplishments and their contributions to the Gulf South’s economy and culture, and work to break through the barriers of language and culture to highlight our shared experiences,” she said.

About the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage
Through the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, Southern Miss has been collecting and preserving the stories of Mississippians since 1971. This collection contains nearly 4,000 interviews, the largest in the state and one of the largest in the South. The collection is available to researchers in the Mississippian Room of the McCain Library and Archives and in the Center’s offices on the Hattiesburg campus. 

The Center also provides access to an increasing number of its oral histories online. Its collection has a recognized strength in the history of the civil rights movement and veterans' histories, yet the Center has collected broadly, with topics encompassing the breadth of the state’s history. For more information, visit www.usm.edu/oralhistory.