The Hmong past met its future at Sacramento International Airport Terminal B this weekend when Chai Ying Moua, a confident man in gold-rimmed glasses and a brown fedora, and his wife Maivang Her got off the tram.
The couple from Laos were swarmed and bathed in tears of joy Sunday night by two dozen long-lost relatives from Sacramento, Fresno and Clovis. They included a brother who hadn't seen his older sister in 40 years and three younger brothers who had never met her.
The couple were introduced to a sextet of Sacramento-born nieces, ages 9 to 21, who were thrilled to meet their dashing uncle and his wife, who represent the end of an era.
"I'm happy to be here, it has always been in the back of my mind," said Moua, 63. "I spent 21 years in the jungles, hiding from the Communists. It was survival of the fittest, day by day."
Moua was one of the last remnants of Gen. Vang Pao's CIA-funded guerrilla army that fled into the jungles of Laos when the Communist Pathet Lao won in April 1975.
For years, Moua said his family lived off "yams, roots, anything that was edible," dodging Lao and Vietnamese army patrols, and waiting for the day when Vang Pao would return to lead them to freedom and democracy.
The general died in January 2011, and the dream of many Hmong veterans and their families in Laos died with him.
Moua and Her have seven sons and five daughters in Laos who didn't accompany them on this visit to America.
The couple said they saw a new dream for their children in Laos in the faces of their California clansmen and the lives they and 250,000 other Hmong refugees and their kids have built here through hard work, perseverance and education.
They marveled at the army of nieces and nephews who go to UC Davis, California State University, Sacramento, and other schools, training to become doctors, professors, social workers and lawyers.
The welcoming party included Her's brothers, sociologist Tou Herr, 45; bagel baker Neng Herr, 37; Clovis police officer Thong Herr, 35, and construction project manager Charlie Herr, 33. The Her clan spells its name both ways depending on what immigration officials wrote down on their naturalization forms.
Moua's younger brother Shue Young Moua, 44, sells insurance throughout the West; his cousin Teengh Herr is an administrator for Sacramento County.
"We were in the jungle together," said Teengh Herr, who fled Laos to a Thai refugee camp in 1979. "We starved together, fought together and nearly died together. We ate leaves, flowers, the pulp of palm trees - anything that moves, you eat; anything that tastes sour, sweet or not bitter, we eat. You wished you had salt."
Sunday night, they dined on spiced ground beef, fish soup, vegetables and salad at Shue Young Moua's south Sacramento home. Hmong music videos played on the flat- screen TV and the couple talked to a stream of relatives in person or by phone, including their children back in Laos who had tied white strings around their wrists.
"My kids tied the knots wishing us good luck so we can arrive safely," Maivang said. "They also sacrificed a pig to the ancestor spirits."
"They want to come, too," her husband added.
The couple had stayed in Laos largely because of their kids. It was hard to flee across the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand with small children whose cries might be heard by the Communists. "If you have kids, you're scared to cross," said Moua's younger brother Shue Young Moua. "At 16, I had nothing to eat, so I escaped to Thailand with three guys who were going back and forth to Laos."
He spent four years in the Ban Vinai refugee camp before coming to California in 1987. "All of my family lived in the jungle," he said. "Our dad, Blia Thee Moua, was a soldier in Vang Pao's army. So was my grandfather. My family were all freedom fighters. I have three older brothers who fought and died together in the war."
For 15 years, he said, he has pleaded with his family to leave their jungle hideouts. "My father wouldn't agree to come down to the city because they'd stayed in the jungle too long and it wasn't a good idea to surrender," he said. "Everybody believed Vang Pao would lead them back to their villages."
Maivang Her's dad, Lt. Say Lang Her, also was a warrior in Gen. Pao's army. He fled the CIA's secret base, Long Chieng, in 1975 with most of his family before they were caught and sent to re-education camps.
"We came to San Diego in 1979, then moved to Fresno," said Tou Herr, director of the Fresno County Office of Education's parents' involvement program that works with 32 California school districts.
But his sister and her husband stayed in Laos, where Moua's family owned a lot of livestock and farmland. "A lot of them were reluctant to change, and they hoped Vang Pao would come back, but it didn't pan out," Tou Herr said. "They were saddened by his death because he'd provided his people so much."
Chai Ying Moua moved his family from the jungle into a village near the Thai border in 1997, where he grew rice and yams. He said the Lao government never mistreated them once they came out, something the hundreds of Hmong in the jungle still fear.
"We, as Vang Pao's people, were scared to come out, thinking maybe the Lao government wanted to kill us, but it's not true," he said. "Compared to the United States, we're very poor, but life in Laos is OK."
He and his wife shared a pile of photos of their children in traditional Hmong garb.
"There's always so many misperceptions about our government and theirs," Tou Herr said. "People believed if they came here, a giant is going to eat you, but it's actually a great country.
"We don't live in the past," Herr said. "I hope someday the relationship between Laos and the U.S. will be fruitful and we can all benefit from some of our history. It's a new chapter for us and a new chapter for them."
Herr and his brothers were all amazed how much their sister looked like their dad, from her hands to her facial expressions. Five times Maivang and her husband had applied for U.S. visas and were rejected - even when her dad was dying of cancer two years ago - before they finally got clearance to visit.
"I'm so happy to see you guys, but I'm sorry I came late and didn't see Dad," Maivang said tearfully.
"Don't worry," Tou Herr assured his sister. "Dad's spirit is in each of us. He is very happy."
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.