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A Full Circle Moment For Cambodian Graduates in LA

Ariya Tok, a young Cambodian woman with dark wavy hair, stands still while her mother fastens a pink sash around her blue tunic from the side. Her mother wears a blue apron and a red long-sleeved shirt. They are standing in a brightly lit hair salon.
Ariya Tok gets help from her mother Dannaly as she puts on traditional Cambodian attire to attend her graduation ceremony at California State University Long Beach
(Ashley Balderrama
for LAist)
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As someone who still has the heart of a teacher, few things make me happier than seeing graduates in their cap and gowns gathering for photos. For Cambodian American graduates, this time of year marks more than just a milestone, more than a celebration; that moment of getting one’s degree is a tie back to their families — and what was lost.

More Than A Celebration

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My colleague Adolfo Guzman-Lopez spoke with 21 year-old Ariya Tok, who graduated from California State University, Long Beach. She and her family spoke with him about what this moment means for them, nearly 50 years after genocide forced thousands of Cambodians to resettle in the U.S. For Tok and so many other Cambodians, graduating is like a “rebirth” after the Khmer Rouge murdered three million people — many of them for being educated. Cambodians found refuge particularly in Long Beach, which now has the largest population outside of the country itself.

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Tok’s mother lost 80% of her family in the Cambodian Genocide and, today, relatives still carry the weight of their relatives who were killed for trying to get an education in their homeland. For those like Ariya Tok, going to school, getting an education and a degree is a specific kind of freedom.

For more on the history of Cambodian genocide and the journey of so many refugees to Southern California, read Adolfo’s article. You’ll also learn more about the special meaning a college graduation holds for some many Cambodian Americans here.

Stay safe out there, L.A. There’s more news below — just keep reading.

We’re here to help curious Angelenos connect with others, discover the new, navigate the confusing, and even drive some change along the way.

More News

(After you stop hitting snooze)

  • Less than a week after the Dodgers uninvited the L.A. chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to Pride Night, officials reversed the decision and issued an apology. They will still receive the Community Hero Award on June 16. The Dodgers faced a heap of criticism for their disinvitation from government officials, the L.A. LGBT Center and numerous other organizations. 
  • On June 16, the metro regional connector rail line will open. It will connect Azusa to Long Beach and Santa Monica to East Los Angeles. My colleague Libby Rainey has more details on the much anticipated rail line (including when there will be free rides!). 
  • For today’s Writers Guild of America strike update, my colleague John Horn wrote about how David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery got booed as he received his honorary degree during Boston University’s graduation ceremony. 
  • ICYMI Huntington Beach residents just had their first Pride event on Sunday, but it wasn’t sanctioned by city officials. Why? This event came out of protests after the mostly conservative City Council restricted flying the Pride flag on city property. 
  • Arizona, California and Nevada state officials have agreed to a deal to conserve large amounts of water from the shrinking, drought-stricken Colorado River. That means that there will likely be consequential water restrictions for farmers and residents who live in Southwestern states in the U.S.
  •  California public transit agencies are requesting $5.15 billion for the next five years from the state. If the agencies don’t get the funds they said they need, it could impact commuters and the state’s overall climate goals. 
  • Infections due to a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa have been traced back to recalled eyedrops. Eighty one people across 18 states, including California, have been affected; four people have died. 
  • Just like so many Angelenos, Erick Galindo, the co-host of WILD podcast, has fond memories growing up listening to the legendary DJ Art Laboe on the radio. In honor of Laboe’s special show where listeners could dedicate a song to someone they loved, Erick shared four of his favorite classic oldies he devoted to his loved ones. 
  • Nirvana’s founder and lead vocalist Kurt Cobain was known for smashing and destroying several guitars throughout his short career. The late rock star’s black autographed Fender Stratocaster was sold at Julien’s Auctions for nearly $600,000 on Saturday.
  • *At LAist we will always bring you the news freely, but occasionally we do include links to other publications that may be behind a paywall. Thank you for understanding! 

Wait... One More Thing

An Underground Drag Club Ahead Of Its Time Returns

A diptych of Paul and Mr. Dan, two people with light skin tones. On the left is an old photo of them in drag. Paul is wearing white sunglasses, a black wig and a sequence top. Mr. Dan is wearing a dark wig with a red headband, galsses and a florial dress. The right photo is the pair at the reunion this year. Paul is wearing a blonde wig, a floral dress with a thick-beaded necklace and has makeup on with his beard. Mr. Dan has cateye galsses, a black short wig and a black sequence top on.
Paul Vitagliano and Mr. Dan through the years.
(Courtesy of Paul Vitagliano)
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Normally, when people think of drag, they think of all of the over-the-top glitz and glam you might see on RuPaul’s Drag Race, or even locally at Hamburger Mary’s.

But between 1993 and 2013, an underground, edgy, alternative drag club called Dragstrip 66 defied stereotypical gay norms: the people who attended represented more than just glamour, they were about punk rock, grunge and mosh pits, too. It became a safe space for LGBTQ+ communities to fully express themselves — singing, dancing and performing — in all kinds of drag. Recently, for just one night, Dragstrip 66 came back. The event sold five hundred tickets.

For the Queer LA series, my colleague Caitlin Hernández wrote about the LGBTQ+ club’s 30th anniversary event at Los Globos in Hollywood and spoke with people who were affected by the club’s presence and influence on LGBTQ+ culture in L.A.

Paul “DJ Paul V.” Vitagliano, the co-creator of Dragstrip 66, said there was a time when some kinds of drag weren't welcomed inside of the more glamorous bars. He and his best friend Mr. Dan created Dragstrip 66 for people to indulge in all kinds of expression. It was a hit.

Throughout the decades, people could feel free to express themselves and their identities, including the “trashiness”.

“It’s called booger drag,” Vitagliano said. “You're really just a mess. You don't shave your facial hair or any body hair. When you came to Dragstrip, everybody was on equal footing.”

Dig deeper: watch the documentary about the history of Dragstrip 66 here.

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