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November 14, 2005

Alumna Madison Nguyen becomes first Vietnamese American elected to San Jose City Council

By Jennifer McNulty

During her recent run for City Council in San Jose, candidate Madison Nguyen was puzzled by the way her campaign signs were disappearing from signposts.

Photo: Madison Nguyen
Madison Nguyen is a 1997 history graduate of UCSC.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty

Confusion turned to pride when she learned why: Young children of Vietnamese descent were removing the signs and taking them to school, boasting, 'Look, it's my last name!'

Nguyen ("Nwin") went on Vietnamese radio to beg residents of District 7 to leave the signs up until after the September election, and she proceeded to win the seat handily, becoming the first Vietnamese American public official in San Jose, home to more Vietnamese residents than any city outside of Vietnam.

For Nguyen, 30, the City Council is a long way from the farm fields of the Central Valley, where she harvested crops as a girl. Born in Vietnam, Nguyen was a young child when her parents fled Vietnam by boat in 1979. The family was at sea for more than a week before being rescued by a Philippine freighter and spent time in a refugee camp before relocating to Arizona under the sponsorship of the Lutheran Church. The Nguyens eventually settled in Modesto, where they were one of four Vietnamese families laboring among Latino farm workers in the agricultural fields of the Central Valley.

"Working in the fields, we were looked down on. We didn't speak much English," recalled Nguyen. "We were working like dogs, and I didn't like the fact that we were looked down on. I didn't want to live my life like that. I decided at a young age that whatever I do in life, I wanted to change that."

Nguyen says she has always been outspoken. "I saw so many things I just did not like, and no one else would speak up," Nguyen said of the injustice she saw around her as a child. Laughing, she acknowledged the benefits of having eight siblings: "My parents were supportive, but with nine kids, if I strayed, basically, that was okay."

Nguyen learned early about government services--and bureaucracy--because her parents volunteered her to translate for newly arrived immigrants. When she turned 18, she became a U.S. citizen and maintained the family tradition of changing her first name. She admits she was inspired to choose Madison by the Daryl Hannah movie Splash, which she watched over and over on video as a child--though her father prefers the association of founding father James Madison.

Nguyen's parents encouraged their children to pursue higher education--eight went on to graduate from college--and Nguyen said UCSC was the perfect school for her.

"I'd heard it was one of the most liberal campuses in California, and that students could voice their opinions without discrimination or being looked down upon," said Nguyen. "It was the right environment for me."

Although UCSC had fewer students of color than some other UC campuses, Nguyen said diversity is about more than numbers. "More important than a diverse student body is an atmosphere where you can say what you want to," she said. "In most of my classes, I was the only Vietnamese American, and maybe there were one or two other Asian Americans, but it was an opportunity to educate the students in our class about our backgrounds and experiences."

She pursued grassroots community activism, marching with farm workers during the drive to unionize strawberry workers, and she enjoyed working with faculty historians Gail Hershatter and Alice Yang Murray and sociology professor Helen Shapiro. "They were pretty amazing women, immersed in the academy but with a realistic approach," said Nguyen.

"I wanted to earn my doctorate and teach at the university level," said Nguyen. "I thought that was my calling until I got into this political scene."

Nguyen organized a "Rock and Vote" concert in San Jose that drew a crowd of nearly 17,000 and registered almost 5,000 new voters. Community leaders encouraged her to run for a vacancy on the Franklin-McKinley School Board. She did, and won. Her visibility increased after she was an outspoken critic of the way the San Jose Police Department handled the 2003 accidental shooting by an officer of a distraught Vietnamese American woman. Last January, when a vacancy opened up on the City Council after a member resigned, Nguyen had the experience and credibility to make a successful run.

"As a professor, you do influence people, but it's a very small circle," said Nguyen. "What I do now, I get to influence people from all walks of life, regardless of class, race, gender."

Forty-five percent of the residents of Nguyen's district are Latino, 35 percent are Vietnamese, and many are recent immigrants who work more than one job to make ends meet. "I don't see race--I see a reflection of myself growing up in Modesto," Nguyen said of her constituents. "I see the struggle and the desire to move forward."

Their needs have been overlooked for years, said Nguyen, who personally knocked on each door in her precinct twice during her grassroots campaign--three or four times, if you count the primary and runoff races.

"People who'd lived there 20 years said they'd never met a candidate before," marveled Nguyen. Asked if she feels she is inspiring a generation of Vietnamese American girls, Nguyen said, "Not just Vietnamese--minorities in general." Children as young as eight years old joined her on the campaign trail after school, and students in high school and college volunteered every day.

Because Nguyen was elected partway through the term, she will begin campaigning again in March. For now, she is concentrating on a "community agenda," with a focus on public safety, renovation of dilapidated community centers, building partnerships with neighborhood associations to improve blighted areas, and getting stalled plans for the first Vietnamese American Cultural Garden off the ground.

"I feel we can do so much good by 2006, and if I'm not re-elected, that's okay," said Nguyen. "I've read a lot of Gandhi, and my favorite quote is, 'You must be the change you want to see in the world.' That's what I want to do. I want to have a positive impact."


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