San Jose monument to honor Vietnam War soldiers makes slow headway
The imperial gate is among a few completed structures at the Viet Heritage Garden in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

A proposed monument to honor soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War will finally move forward after years of planning and delays—but what it will look like and when it might be finished is unknown.

The Vietnamese community in San Jose, one of the largest Vietnamese enclaves in the nation, has long advocated for the project. The monument, named “Thank you, America,” aims to highlight and honor American and South Vietnamese soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War that ended in 1975.

“There’s a strong desire in the community to have this monument,” said Vu Le, a San Jose resident of 40 years. “We see this as a symbol for our refugee community.”

The idea of the life-size statue of two armed soldiers, one American and one South Vietnamese, came to the city roughly 20 years ago, residents and city officials said. Community members, many of whom fought in the war, are frustrated with the lack of progress.

“We have the support from the community, we have the money,” Le told San José Spotlight. “And still, here we are waiting.”

A drawing of the “Thank you, America” monument to American and South Vietnamese soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. Image courtesy of San Jose.

In spring 2019, San Jose secured $210,000 from a Santa Clara County grant to fund the monument—but plans unraveled during the pandemic. In early 2020, city officials involved in the monument pivoted to respond to COVID needs, said Councilmember Maya Esparza, who represents the area where the monument will be located.

“(The COVID response) work has been critical, since District 7 in particular has been hit hard during COVID, both economically and with COVID cases and deaths,” Esparza told San José Spotlight. “At the end of the day, I’m proud this monument will be in District 7 after two decades of community organizing.”

As proposed, the monument will be constructed at the Viet Heritage Garden in Kelley Park. The heritage garden, which recently got several dozen new garden plots for residents to farm their vegetables, has sat empty for years due to the lack of funding.

The city held community meetings recently to solicit feedback on the design of the monument—the first step in a process for the city to move forward with a public art project. Esparza, who’s up for reelection, led the efforts.

City officials said roughly 100 residents participated in the design survey, the results of which will help the city figure out the next steps for the project, city spokesperson Elizabeth Castro said.

“The community feedback will determine the timeline of the project,” she said.

The city has also set aside $64,000 for the project, bringing the total budget for the monument to $274,000. But as the construction costs continue to rise each year, it’s unclear whether the approved budget will be able to cover the whole project, Castro said.

The city plans to finish tallying community feedback by next week, city spokesperson Daniel Lazo said. Officials will then finalize the monument’s design and determine its budget before construction can start.

Que Tran and her friend Vui Nguyen at the community garden ribbon cutting earlier this month. Tran thinks the Vietnam War monument would be a great addition to the Viet Heritage Garden. Photo by Tran Nguyen. 

A decades-long project

Que Tran, a Vietnamese senior who lives across from the Viet Heritage Garden, said she learned about the monument project a year ago.

“Every month, I’d come out to the flag raising ceremony at the Viet Heritage Garden,” Tran told San José Spotlight. “The monument would be a great addition to this place.”

State Sen. Dave Cortese, who served as a San Jose councilmember between 2001 and 2008, was the first city official to push for the project. He said Esparza promised him in 2019 to deliver the monument to the community, adding the slow progress is concerning.

“Sometimes bureaucracies move slowly, and we certainly have been limited by COVID for some other things, but there’s no reason for the city not to be moving forward with the project,” Cortese told San José Spotlight. “Given that it’s now 2022, and it’s still not under construction, I think people have a right to be impatient.”

As a councilmember, Cortese helped secure an initial location for the monument on Tully Road. Developments like Little Saigon and the Viet Heritage Garden weren’t considered because they hadn’t been built yet. The project was then passed on to Madison Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American elected to the San Jose City Council. But as Nguyen faced fierce backlash over the naming of Little Saigon in 2008, the project got shelved.

Some residents formed a committee and advocated for the monument to be placed at McEntee Plaza. The proposal died in 2015 following protest from others who said it’s not appropriate to have a war monument next to a plaza honoring Jim McEntee, a peace advocate. By then, the Viet Heritage Garden emerged as the ideal choice.

Cortese and Supervisor Cindy Chavez in 2019 pushed for a grant for the monument.

“The county doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the city’s heritage garden site, but we have money and we have a vision,” the senator said. “We left it in the hands of Councilmember Esparza.”

Esparza’s opponents in the 2022 election are skeptical of the timing of the project, saying she only began to work on the monument to win votes from Vietnamese residents.

“I think this is bait,” Bien Doan, a San Jose fire captain and District 7 candidate, told San José Spotlight. “Why now? All this time she could have done something and she’s doing it now six months before the election.”

Residents like Tran and Le, who fled the Vietnamese communist regime after the fall of Saigon, said the monument will memorialize the fight for democracy. But for the refugee population, many of them are now seniors, and don’t know if they’ll get to see the vision come true.

“This has been going on for years,” Le said. “We’d be more than happy to help, but nothing has happened yet.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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