The tragic past and shining future of America’s Hmong played out at a south Sacramento restaurant a week ago when more than 400 Hmong from across the United States gathered to honor a family from Meadowview that achieved its American dream.
Starting with no money, formal education or knowledge of English, Ga Long Lee and his wife Mai Her Ly raised 10 successful children, including two police officers, a Sacramento Sheriff’s deputy, a forensic identification specialist, a nurse who won the Florence Nightingale Award, an activist lawyer and a community organizer working to clean up the Detroit Boulevard neighborhood they grew up in.
It’s been a rough, bumpy road, but the couple wept tears of joy when they were given a standing ovation at their “Family Celebration of 40 Years in America” at A&A Tasty Restaurant on Florin Road April 7.
"I am so proud of my children because I don’t speak English and they taught themselves, they never yelled at me and taught me how to be a better mom," a tearful Mai Her Ly told the crowd in Hmong. "I remember one time I went to the emergency room, and my daughter Nancy said at least one child should be a lawyer, one a nurse or doctor, and one a police officer."
She had no idea how prescient Nancy would be.
Ga Long Lee, who changed his name from Ly after moving here, served in the CIA’s secret jungle army led by Hmong General Vang Pao from the time he was 18 until he was 25, earning $5 a month. He promised to give his children the chance he and his wife never had.
The couple fled after the communist overthrow of Laos, arriving first at a Thai refugee camp in 1975 and then landing in the United States in 1978 with only the clothes on their back.
Lee thought he'd left war behind when he fled Laos and bought a home on Ann Arbor Way. But he and his family soon learned that the street near the end of Detroit Boulevard in Meadowview was a different kind of war zone, where Hmong youth tangled with Crips and Bloods, and drive-by shootings replaced jungle ambushes.
Pheng Ly, at 39 the oldest of 10 kids and a veteran officer with the Davis Police Department, said the family’s tough life on Detroit Boulevard across from Susan B. Anthony Elementary school inspired his siblings to go into law enforcement and public service and help bring justice to their neighborhood.
"I saw more crime and violence when I lived in my parents' house than I did as a police officer in Davis." he said.
He said his brother, Billy Ly, now a deputy sheriff, "saw a guy killed in front of him down the street when a DUI driver was driving too fast, too reckless, the guy was drunk and overturned the car right on Detroit at the school."
When the family moved into the Detroit neighborhood, "it was at the height of Sacramento's gang activity." Around the corner, one Hmong family saw three sons go to state prison, each for a separate gang murder. ("We’re the answer to that, the other side of it," Pheng Ly said.)
Compounding the problem was the fact there no cops who knew anything about the Hmong, so a lot of Hmong youth were branded gang members, whether it was true or not.
"The officers I saw coming to or driving through my neighborhoods did not look like me, understand my culture and seemed to look at me with suspicion," he said. As a police cadet in training, he remembers going on a ride-along where cops were sent to a domestic dispute and had no idea the violent threats each spouse was making until he interpreted.
Their mom, realizing the danger around them, figured out how to send her kids to elementary schools in East Sacramento, and most of the children graduated from Kennedy High School’s criminal justice academy.
“Even though they were small of stature, all the Lee kids were good athletes," Al Ikemoto, the academy’s head instructor, recalled at the family celebration event that drew members of the Lee clan, (who use both Ly and Lee), one of the Hmong’s largest, from Minnesota, Arkansas and Missouri as well as California. "It was a tough place to go to school; we had kids that were going to Harvard and Stanford, and those that were going to Folsom and Soledad prisons. We had a lot of fights and muggings."
Pheng Ly, "who was highly intelligent, even though he was quiet," set the tone for the family, Ikemoto recalled.
He was an inspiration for Pheng's sister, Nancy Ly, who went on to graduate from Hastings Law School and helped 13 Hmong organizations in five states address the humanitarian crisis of the Hmong still trapped in the jungles of communist Laos.
"There was a lot of failure before we got here tonight," she told the crowd. "We had a cousin help us get our first car and our first house … I took the bar several times before I passed it. Success is falling down seven times and getting up eight times."
Gao Long Lee, who rose to the rank of sergeant in his six years with the CIA’s secret Hmong army, said after fleeing Laos "we never dreamed for a second we were coming to America. People spread bad rumors, saying the Americans would make your wife sleep with a dog and give you a dog to be your wife."
But they began questioning those ideas after encountering the cruelty of the Thai guards in the refugee camp. "They treated us like animals, took our food and raped our wives and daughters if they ever left the camp,” he said.
So the family applied for refugee status and resettled in the United States, where Lee earned $4 an hour at an auto parts factory in Portland, Ore., before moving to Stockton, and later, Sacramento, now home to an estimated 30,000 Hmong, he said
He and his wife – both farmers in Laos – grew corn, squash, onions, collard greens, tomatoes, peppers and other fruits and vegetables in their backyard to feed their growing family. Lee, 68, became a community leader, advising the Hmong Womens Heritage Association on Hmong language and culture, but his primary job was making sure his children succeeded.
"Many Hmong kids who spoke English were 'playing' their parents, but my parents made sure to keep strict tabs on us to make sure we had the right friends," Pheng Ly recalled. When one of his sisters ran away from home as a teenager, "my dad would track her down at gang parties in south Sacramento and drag her back home. If he hadn’t done that she’d have been pregnant or in jail, and she wound up with a full scholarship to college."
Larry Lee, at 29, one of the younger children who took on the different spelling for their name, said Pheng Ly played the role of a third parent, always urging his siblings to do better. He’s worked for the city of Sacramento for 11 years and focused on improving his neighborhood.
"We implemented a neighborhood traffic management program, and were able to install speed bumps, cross walks, stop signs and are advocating for a gun detection system in the area," he said. "I would always hear gunshots late at night and report it to the police but we were never able to pinpoint where the shots were coming from. With a gun detection system, police can review the tapes and respond."
Gao Long Lee said he was happy to have children in law enforcement, because whenever Hmong got into a traffic accident and couldn’t speak English, it seemed the officers only talked to the white drivers and took their side of the story.
Pheng Ly said his family’s story offers lessons on many levels.
"I would like our story to tell those who are living in poverty, on public assistance, broken homes, non-English speaking homes, and in some of the worst neighborhoods in this community that there is hope to succeed and make a better life if you study, stay in school and work hard," he said.
The family's success also is emblematic of broader gains made by Hmong here, said Lee Yang, who pioneered the first Hmong immersion program on the West Coast. "You are an idolized family now, it is up to you to influence those that follow," Yang, superintendent of the Urban Charters School Collective, said at the Florin Road gathering, adding that the Lee children are joining the ranks of Hmong professionals, which now include doctors, nurses, elected officials, judges, educators, engineers, restaurateurs and social workers throughout Central and Northern California.
Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly, who is not a family member, draped city medals around each parent. "Mr. Ga Long Lee and I go way back." Ly told the crowd. "We admire and appreciate them because they have accomplished the American dream. The Hmong have spent thousands of years seeking respect and we found it in the U.S., but it wasn’t free."
Steve Ly extended his hand to the children and said, “This was a family who defied the odds. I remember a Congressman saying, 'Don’t bring the hillbillies here,' when the U.S. was granting Hmong refugee status."
Ly squared his shoulders and said, "When people look at me and say, 'You don’t belong in the U.S.,' I say, 'We are a nation of warriors, we fought alongside the U.S., saved U.S. soldiers, buried them, scraped their brains off the wings of planes.' "
That resolve continued in Sacramento, Ly said. Whenever the community met with police, needed bilingual teachers or applied for grants, "Ga Long Lee was the first to arrive and the last to leave. Wherever Hmong go in the world, we are a family."
'Detroit' neighborhood population
'Detroit' neighborhood population
The "Detroit" neighborhood surrounding Susan B. Anthony Elementary south of Meadowview Road is home to about 1,300 residents, according to the latest decennial census. Asians are the largest ethnic group in the neighborhood, comprising 37 percent of residents. Hispanics make up 29 percent of the community; blacks are 16 percent; whites are 8 percent and residents of other races make up 10 percent. Last year, the neighborhood saw one homicide, four robberies and eight burglaries, among other crimes, city police data show.
– Phillip Reese