The Long Haul

Immigrant shrimpers survived Vietnam and the wrath of Texas rednecks. Can they do the same with new fishing restrictions?

The entry of the refugees into the fishing business enraged long-established Anglo shrimpers. A race war erupted around Seadrift to the south, where one clash resulted in the killing of a white shrimper. The Ku Klux Klan arrived in Palacios and attempted to burn a Vietnamese-American shrimp boat. But the KKK never got a foothold of terror in Big Tu's town. Thuy says no one ever said anything racist to her. Almost everyone in Palacios was friendly and helpful; they still are.

Thuy attributes the continuing calm to the contributions made by Vietnamese-Americans to the community. "There's probably a few out there who still hate us, but the majority, we don't have a problem," she says. Three of the 12 board members on the Vietnamese American Shrimpers Association are non-Asian shrimpers from Palacios, she points out.

Yet even today immigrants and white shrimpers operate under dual systems. That much is evident in Thuy's speech. When she says American, she means white, as if they were the only Americans. On the water, Vietnamese immigrants communicate to each other on a CB channel in their native language. Anglo shrimpers use a VHF channel. The Vus acquired a fish dock and ice-and-fuel house to gain more control over their product and serve the Vietnamese community, she says. They never know when a scary situation like the one in Seadrift might occur. The 40 gulf boats and 17 bay trawlers that dock at Captain Tom's are owned by Vietnamese-Americans. The fishermen sell their shrimp to Captain Tom's, which then sells it to processing plants owned by whites and Asian-Americans.

In an industry traditionally dominated by males, Thuy leads the shrimpers in the fight against more regulations.
Deron Neblett
In an industry traditionally dominated by males, Thuy leads the shrimpers in the fight against more regulations.
Vernon Bates Sr. with son Vernon Jr. (left) believes special-interest groups  such as sport fishermen - are driving the proposed regulations.
Deron Neblett
Vernon Bates Sr. with son Vernon Jr. (left) believes special-interest groups such as sport fishermen - are driving the proposed regulations.

Today about 150 Vietnamese families, most of them Roman Catholic, have settled in Palacios, operating five fish houses, 60 gulf trawlers and 45 bay boats, roughly 60 percent of the shrimping vessels in the area. Living on the north side along streets named Vietnam and St. Mary, they attend church services in Vietnamese. The ethnic enclave once consisted entirely of trailers, but over the past six years brick-and-mortar houses have replaced most of them.

One street over from the enclave, the Vus built three palatial houses on a gravel road so new that it lacks a street sign. Big Tu bought the land several years back and recently split it among himself, Thuy and Tom. In the move Thuy instantly tripled her living space to 3,800 square feet. Until August, she, her husband, Khanh, and their two children lived in a double-wide trailer.

The telephone rang. The fax machine at Captain Tom's clicked on, and the ivory paper slowly appeared. But instead of a routine business message, the correspondence triggered immediate alarm among the Vu family.

Shrimping colleagues down the coast were spreading the word -- sounding a call to arms -- about a series of proposals freshly announced in April by Parks and Wildlife that would sharply curtail harvests.

"It was a like a slap in the face," Thuy says. She hurried the first dispatch, a petition opposing the state's plans, to Father Joe Phamductrinh at the church to distribute to the shrimpers. The Vietnamese-American community had avoided past disputes with Parks and Wildlife, letting white shrimpers carry the ball. Now they had to voice their opinions, Thuy told them. After all, they constituted the majority of the community's shrimpers.

"It's getting to the point where their livelihoods are on the line, so the Vietnamese people say, 'We have to get involved,' " she says.

Thuy put in an urgent call to Terry Mosier, friend and Palacios City Councilmember. She called Port Lavaca shrimper Joe Nguyen, head of the Vietnamese American Shrimpers Association. She called Vernon Bates Jr., a third-generation Palacios shrimper. She talked on the telephone constantly, notifying everyone she knew along the coast -- and some people she didn't know, such as state representatives.

Thuy, it seems, is a natural-born field commander for this fight. The eldest child in her family -- and an outgoing, talkative one -- she has become a spokesperson of sorts for her family, translating for her parents and handling their financial affairs.

Raised in Palacios, she says, "you're either a shrimper or you marry a shrimper." Her speech is two-thirds Vietnamese accent and one-third Texas twang, a blend that puts everyone at ease. Thuy married a shrimper when she graduated from high school in 1985. The couple and their first child moved to Dallas in 1989 but returned home after a year to help her father set up Captain Tom's Seafood.

When other families heard how Thuy had negotiated her father's financing for the seafood house, they asked her to translate for them as well in their quest for loans. In 1997 City State bank, the same one that granted her father his first loan, asked her to become an adviser. Now Thuy serves on the bank's board of directors. She volunteers on the city's EMS ambulance board. Even kids know who that round-faced, thin-browed woman is; Thuy is also a substitute teacher.

She relied on that varied experience in April, mustering Vietnamese-American shrimpers by the busload to protest the proposals in Austin. At the time, Parks and Wildlife's Shrimp Advisory Board was contemplating the planned restrictions. It rejected them, although the panel has the authority only to make recommendations to the state agency.

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