Though she grew up with her Vietnamese refugee grandmother in her parents’ household in Oceanside, California, it wasn’t until her own years as a college student that UCLA professor Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi, who is second-generation Vietnamese-Filipina, learned about the untold stories weaving through her family tree.
“My grandmother’s older brother, Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn, was in the South Vietnamese military; he refused to surrender at the end of the war and was publicly executed,” said Gandhi. “It wasn’t really talked about in my family, and his memory was silenced — both in Vietnam, because he fought on the losing side, and in U.S. history books that framed the conflict as an American struggle. But in the broader Vietnamese American community, he is widely remembered as a martyr.”
The story was a flashpoint for Gandhi, then a history and media studies undergraduate at Pomona College. Digging further, she explored her family’s story in her senior thesis and in a series of films. Today, Gandhi teaches a course on critical refugee studies that looks at how and why migrant and refugee memory is silenced — and how cultural memory can push back against that state-imposed forgetting. Her students contribute to a podcast series, “Distorted Footprints,” highlighting refugee voices that span countries and cultures.
“We focus on the refugee as a figure of agency by centering their life stories, rather than thinking about them as victims or as objects of humanitarian aid,” said Gandhi, who is tenured as an associate professor of Asian American studies as of July 1. “The podcast is something that folks who haven’t taken this class can find accessible and interesting, and hopefully then we’ll have this ripple effect of having them change how they think about refugee issues.”
Gandhi’s work took root in a relational approach against the backdrop of U.S. imperial influence, inspired both by family history and by her own experience growing up in the multiracial military town of Oceanside, home to Camp Pendleton, on Juaneño, Luiseño and Kumeyaay lands. Her first book, “Archipelago of Resettlement: Vietnamese Refugee Settlers and Decolonization across Guam and Israel-Palestine,” which stemmed from her graduate dissertation work at UC Berkeley, in part examines the 1975 resettlement effort known as Operation New Life, during which over 112,000 Vietnamese refugees were processed in Guam — including her mother and grandmother.
“With my family experience as a point of departure, I was interested in asking: What is the ethical accountability or relationship of refugees to Indigenous decolonization movements in the spaces of their resettlement?” said Gandhi. “What are the dynamics that come into play when they’re resettled not only in a nation-state, but in particular a settler state with a long history of displacing an Indigenous population?”
Gandhi made a conscious decision to publish the work open access to encourage its circulation outside the university space, which she sees as crucial to her field’s development. Building on the book’s explorations, she partnered with the nonprofit Guam Philharmonic last summer to create a public history exhibit, “Remembering Saigon: From Vietnam to Guam,” which highlighted artifacts and media telling the intertwining stories of CHamoru war veterans, Vietnamese refugees and Guamanian helpers who lived through this important moment in history.
The project honored all those she had interviewed, Gandhi says, and the Guam-based exhibit ultimately became a community effort. “We had an initial design for it, and then when folks saw it, they got really inspired,” she said. “They said, ‘Hey, I have things in my personal archive I’d love to share with you,’ and we put these on display. So it was a wonderful experience.”
Gandhi is now working to set up a Southern California iteration of the exhibit. Meanwhile, her next book project, tentatively titled “Revisiting the Southern Question: South Korea, South Vietnam and the U.S. South,” will juxtapose Asian American studies and Black studies by looking at two Cold War spaces of U.S. military intervention, South Korea and South Vietnam, in relation to the cultural history of the U.S. South.
Gandhi remains deeply influenced by her own family’s migration experiences, including those of her mother, a UC San Diego professor and pioneer in the field of critical refugee studies. She also finds great inspiration in her students at UCLA — including their own life stories, community organizing endeavors and capacity to lift up and amplify migrant and refugee voices, both within the field and in the world at large.
“For a lot of folks in ethnic studies and Asian American studies, there’s this sense that our stories have been left out of the public sphere and in higher education for so long,” said Gandhi. “Part of the joy of teaching is that while I myself cannot be the doctor and the policymaker, the lawyer and the artist, the gardener and the farmworker all at once, my hope is that I can inspire that next generation, whatever their career or community trajectory may be.”