In 1995, the Los Angeles Times wrote about a young activist working to help 72 Thai nationals who were being held against their will inside a garment factory in El Monte. The activist, the paper wrote, uses her “calm and clear voice [to] explain the shocking details of the workers’ plight to television, radio and newspaper reporters from throughout the world.”
The activist, Chanchanit Martorell, had just stumbled onto a case that would go on to define her work for the next two decades. Just a year before then, she’d founded the Thai Community Development Center after assessing the need for resources for a growing and low-income community, and two years before that begun a campaign to establish, in East Hollywood, the first Thai Town in America.
In 1999, Thai Town became a reality. In 2000, the center pushed for the passage of an act that grants T-Visas to trafficking victims. By the late ’90s, Thai CDC had become a nationally recognized advocate against human trafficking cases in the country. Martorell has led a push for affordable housing, and has developed more than 100 such units through the non-profit.
Now, she looks toward the Thai Marketplace, a project that has been 12 years in the making. Located next to the metro station at Hollywood Blvd. and Western Ave., the marketplace will act as a business incubator and bring increased economic self-sufficiency to Thai Town upon its opening this fall.
Martorell was born in Bangkok, and a toddler when she and her family immigrated to Los Angeles.
Her parents, both low-wage workers struggling with the newfound culture and with making ends meet, moved the family in and around Koreatown more than a dozen times in as many years in search of affordable housing. In all that time, Martorell said, community services were not an easily attainable resource for Thai families like hers to help find their footing.
In middle school, an integration program bused her to schools in San Fernando Valley, taking her out of the Pico-Union area for the first time. Surrounded by wealthy, majority-white peers, she felt alienated. But being there also exposed her to what social and economic class gaps looked like. Soon, taking action to narrow that gap became her life mission.
Martorell worked under elected officials, but didn’t like what she saw: principles being traded for expediency. She enrolled at UCLA to study urban planning instead, and learned how planning can be a social justice tool.
“If you are able to help people understand their environment and what’s around them, and understand how they’re being underserved compared to other communities, you can do something about that to change the neighborhood,” she said.
Before the center was launched, city officials had no idea a local Thai community even existed. Martorell, who was still in school, put together a team to conduct the first-ever needs assessment of the Thai community in Los Angeles. At the time, parts of East Hollywood, which was home to many Thai businesses, had undergone urban decay. It was further adversely affected by the 1992 riots. At the same time, displaced Thais from the Northridge earthquake arrived in the city to resettle. That was how Thai CDC came into being — the need was there.
Today, the center fights for equal access to the judicial system, housing, banking and economic opportunities for low-income communities across the city. Its central role in a number of human rights violations cases has also led to a human rights unit, which is currently working on what Martorell says is the largest sex trafficking case in U.S. history.
The El Monte sweatshop workers who sparked international headlines as the first case of modern-day slavery proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. Martorell and her team helped organize some of the workers as activists leading the fight for change in the garment industry.
“What powers me is seeing people who have been so exploited and mistreated and denied justice, realizing what justice looks like and being able to achieve it,” she said. “They went through this amazing transformative experience. For me that was the most inspirational of all. It’s the reason I stay committed to this work.”
Since 1995, Martorell and her team have seen an unending flow of trafficking cases land on their desks, each worse than the last. In response, Thai CDC has co-founded organizations like the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Human Trafficking, and the Asian Pacific Islander Human Trafficking Task Force.
Meanwhile, the designation of Thai Town was only the beginning of an effort to revitalize the local economy. What follows is the Thai Marketplace, with aims to foster micro enterprises with a low-cost entry point. The marketplace provide entry-level entrepreneurs business counseling and technical assistance. Martorell hopes to see the space transform into an anchor for the Thai Town community. “It could become a model for other low-income communities,” she said.
“We’re here to empower people who are low-income and make sure they can be economically self-sufficient,” Martorell said. “We ask, ‘What can we do to bring about greater social justice and equity for all who are invisible, vulnerable, disadvantaged, whether they’re Thai or not?’”
This article is a part of a series of portraits and stories, in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, on API women who use their perspectives and voices to speak up and impact their communities. Read more here.