How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

RIP Le Van Ba, the Vietnamese sandwich king

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

The storefront of a Lee's Sandwiches in Westminster, August 2010

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

The storefront of a Lee's Sandwiches in Westminster, August 2010


If there is anything good that came out of French colonialism in Indochina, it's the bánh mì, otherwise known as the Vietnamese sandwich. And the man who helped popularize it in California was Le Van Ba.

Le, the founder of the widespread Lee's Sandwiches chain, died last week at 79. The headline of his obituary in the San Jose Mercury News, his hometown paper, called him "the Ray Kroc of Vietnamese sandwiches."

Which is appropriate. A successful sugar planter in his native Vietnam, Le began the sandwich business with his family after starting over as an immigrant in San Jose. According to the Mercury-News story, the business really took off in the last decade after Le took the advice of his U.S.-born grandson, who suggested he adopt American fast food-style business principles. The chain expanded to where there are now close to 40 of the sandwich shops in five states, most of them in California.

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Donated photo: A downtown DREAM Act rally

Photo by Adrian Gonzalez

Young DREAM Act supporters rally in downtown L.A., December 2, 2010

A student participating in a rally in downtown Los Angeles this morning to promote the DREAM Act sent in this photo. The rally was held in support of both the proposed federal legislation and of several demonstrators arrested during a rally a few months ago, who were in court today.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would grant conditional legal status to young people who attend college or enlist in the military and who meet certain criteria, including having arrived in the United States as a minor under 16. Earlier this week, Senate leadership introduced a tightened version of the measure, with a lowered age cutoff for applicants and a longer period of conditional legal status.

Both House and Senate leadership have indicated that a vote will occur soon. Meanwhile, college students and aspiring military enlistees, many of them undocumented, have been participating in demonstrations around the country to call attention to the measure.

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DREAM Act: Movement in the House

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A sign at a DREAM Act rally in Los Angeles last summer

Update: A pending House vote on the DREAM Act has been put off awaiting the results of a budget report. Frank Sharry of America's Voice, which is monitoring the bill, said this afternoon that a floor vote is now expected mid-week.

Meanwhile, Senate leadership has held off on filing cloture tonight as tentatively planned. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that House and Senate leadership are working together to set a vote agenda, and that a vote is expected next week.

While the Senate has yet to move on the DREAM Act, a proposed federal measure that would grant conditional legal status to undocumented youths who attend college or join the military, the House of Representatives could be voting on it as early as tomorrow.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington, D.C. immigration advocacy group America's Voice, which is closely following the bill, confirmed that House leadership is moving toward a possible Friday vote.

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In the news this morning: Immigrant workers shortchanged, Temecula gets a mosque, DREAM Act students, mob deportation, more

Stealing Immigrants' Wages in New York - Village Voice On how immigrant workers are regularly shortchanged on wages and overtime.


Temecula city planners clear the way for mosque - 89.3 KPCC After months of protests and opposition, Muslims in Temecula have received the go-ahead to build the first Islamic cultural center and mosque in the region.


Inland students reveal immigration status in push for DREAM Act - Riverside Press-Enterprise One is Ivan Rosales, a Cal State San Bernardino student and soon-to-be graduate who plans to go to medical school. He wants to start off as an Army medic, then become a doctor and cancer researcher.


Reputed Colombo wiseguy could be deported for concealing crimes on immigration application - New York Daily News Sebastiano Saracino, 43, could face deportation to Italy as a consequence of his guilty plea.

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Bao, empanadas, and the Pillsbury Doughboy

Photo by danaspencer/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Char siu bao, March 2009

Photo by danaspencer/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Char siu bao, March 2009


Over the weekend I saw a couple of amusing tweets from @jenny8lee, aka journalist Jennifer 8. Lee, the former New York Times reporter turned author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and a general food fan. The first, on Saturday:

Was my mom the only Chinese mom to use Pillsbury dough for the oustide of steamed bao buns?

The second, on Sunday:
My mom, who apparently reads my twitter feed, said she learned the pillsbury dough as bao outside trick from Chinese newspaper.

Aside from making me chuckle, the tweets provoked an immediate reaction of "Wow, so it's used for more than empanadas?"

The plump, doughy meat-filled buns, popular in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines, and the savory turnovers eaten throughout Latin America are probably just a few of the alternative uses that immigrant cooks, as pressed for time as anyone else, have devised for the ubiquitous refrigerated biscuit dough over the years.

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