Forty years after Laos fell to the communists, decimating the Hmong people and their culture, a new generation of Hmong American leaders has emerged to preserve their heritage before it’s too late.
About 300 Hmong came to Will C. Wood Middle School in south Sacramento on Sunday to preview four new exhibits of photos and artifacts chronicling their recent history: “Hmong in Laos”; “The CIA’s Secret War against the Communists”; “Refugee Camp Life”; and “New Life in California.”
The displays were created by a group of 30 Hmong young professionals, business owners, educators and community leaders throughout California developing a traveling exhibit, the “Hmongstory40” project. They are urging families in Northern and Central California to “be a part of history” by sharing photos, artifacts and memories of their families’ journeys from Laos to Thai refugee camps and on to America.
Wood Assistant Principal See Lor, 42, who was born in Laos, taught for 10 years at Elder Creek Elementary. “Adults would ask the kids, ‘What is Hmong?’ and young Hmong kids had no clue,” she said. “They don’t know why they’re in this country. They don’t know that we’re political refugees forced to come here, not because (we) were dreaming big about America.”
Lor, clad in traditional Hmong silver and embroidery, said the children’s lack of knowledge about their culture and history “touched my heart and I knew I need to help preserve the history and the culture.”
Hmong history dates back more than 3,000 years. The Hmong once had their own kingdom in China, but they were crushed by the Chinese emperors and driven into the mountains of northern Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
According to the exhibit, “From developing a written language, to advancements in textiles, farming and fashion ... the Hmong identity was strengthened, an identity that would be resilient and spirited enough to survive a secret war and eventual exile.”
At age 5, Lor fled with her family to Ban Vinai, the largest of the Thai refugee camps, where more than 40,000 Hmong awaited sponsorships to the United States. Lor, who came with her family to the United States and entered fourth grade in 1986, said she has no idea where she was born. “When I asked my mom, she said, ‘Joking Mountain.’”
Over the past 40 years, an estimated 250,000 Hmong refugees have resettled in the United States. “There are about 30,000 Hmong now in Sacramento and 32,000 in Fresno,” said Lar Yang, one of the exhibit organizers. He said he expects more than 100,000 people will view the traveling exhibit.
Hmong throughout California - inbcluding those in Sacramento Sunday -- are being asked to contribute stories and memorabilia to the history project. The full exhibit is scheduled to go on display in Fresno during the Hmong New Year in December, in Merced in May 2016 and in Sacramento in the fall of 2016. Details are at hmongstory40.org.
“Thanks for coming today and caring about your history,” project director Lar Yang told the audience Sunday. “Now is the time to write the truth about our history before our elders are gone.”
Dr. Lue Vang, the first Hmong in Sacramento to get his doctorate, asked the crowd to stand for 10 seconds in honor of Gen. Vang Pao, who led the CIA-funded Hmong guerrilla army against the Laotian and Vietnamese communists, then helped the Hmong resettle in the United States. Vang Pao, who died in January 2011, is unknown to many of today’s Hmong youths, “but without Vang Pao we wouldn’t be here today,” Lue Vang said.“We are passing the torch. It’s up to you to hold onto our history for future generations.”
In the Laos exhibit, children looked at pictures of Hmong girls carrying huge baskets on their backs. “Every Hmong girl had to do this,” explained Maykou Vang of Fresno, who said she was born at Vang Pao’s headquarters at the secret CIA air base in Long Thien, Laos. “My dad was one of the first Hmong pilots,” she said proudly.
Also on display was a wall of black-and-white photographs of Hmong adults and children taken in the refugee camps.
Anthony Ly, a sixth-grader at John Bidwell Elementary, toured the exhibits with his mom, Chua Khang and dad Vue Ly. He did not know that his father’s father was one of Vang Pao’s right-hand men at Long Thien, his mother said. “There’s a lot more to the Hmong people than what I know,” Khang said.
Mai Xi Lee, district director of social and emotional learning for the Sacramento City Unified School District, said Hmong history “is at the core of who we are. While we acclimate, we retain our identity, which has been built on our resiliency over the many relocations and disturbances in our past.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.