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In face of pandemic, Hmong Americans press forward to maintain New Year traditions
FRESNO, CA — When Lisa Lee Herrick was young, she remembers the time of every year when "every relative, from Minnesota to France" arrived at her doorstep.
Herrick, an award-winning Hmong American writer and program liaison for the ArtPlace San Joaquin Valley Assembly, remembers the hand-sewn ceremonial clothes, folk herbs, photo albums, VHS tapes, the souvenirs they brought with them and how the Hmong language was the glue that bonded them.
"We tripped over their suitcases for a week, sometimes longer. They gossiped at our tables, in every room, snacking and talking long into the night," Herrick told the NewsHour.
"But they were all here, mostly, for only one reason only: to go to the Fresno International Hmong New Year."
As the omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads across the United States, shutting down in-person events and renewing worries of the pandemic, the Hmong American community is going forward with plans to celebrate one of their largest gatherings.
The Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration, canceled last year as a result of the pandemic, opens later this week, but will look a little different this year, organizers tell the NewsHour. The event – considered the largest celebration of its kind in the country and for the Hmong Americans in the United States – serves as a way to carry tradition from one generation to the next – is expected to be a smaller event this year due to crowd restrictions.
Ticket prices were raised since the event was not hosted last year and because the event is expected to last only four days this year, compared to the weeklong celebration that typically takes place. Vaccinations against COVID-19 will be offered on-site and fewer vendors will be allowed to set up.
Before the pandemic, the event attracted an estimated 120,000 people to the Fresno fairgrounds. Local and visiting Hmong dignitaries arrive to cheers from the thousands of people who join the event.
Extended family structures are important to the Hmong, and there are 18 different Hmong groups organized by surnames at the event.
Mitch Herr, president of the Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration, tells the NewsHour that the event is "the heart and soul" of the Hmong American community because there aren't many holidays the community celebrates together throughout the year.
Two different Hmong American organizations have previously hosted New Year's events and competed for contracts that allowed them to host the main event at the Fresno Fairgrounds, a venue that can host the thousands of people expected each year.
Competing events were held in previous years after division grew among different Hmong American residents. Only one event by one organization – Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration – is planned this year.
Traditionally, the Hmong New Year's celebration occurs at the end of the harvest season, and is a time for cultural rituals, family gatherings, and courtship, Seng Alex Vang, a lecturer in Asian American Studies at California State University-Fresno, told the PBS NewsHour.
Fresno is not the only place in the United States where the event is celebrated. Across America over the past 45 years, Hmong New Year's celebrations have been organized in communities with large Hmong American communities throughout the fall, often around the same time as major U.S. holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"The Hmong New Year's celebration continues to show how the community preserves some of the traditions such as dressing in Hmong clothes, cultural dances, traditional instruments, music such as singing and song poetry," Vang said. "The [Hmong] New Year's celebration is also an important economic event for the community so with last year's cancellation, many of the families and vendors were impacted."
Roots of the Hmong in U.S.
Hmong people began to settle in the U.S. in large numbers after the end of the Vietnam War and the "Secret War" in Laos. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hmong men and boys were recruited by the CIA, and led by General Vang Pao to fight in the "Secret War." However, after the U.S. withdrew from the region, the Hmong people faced retaliation for helping U.S. interests. According to the Migration Policy Institute, more than 200,000 Hmong fled Laos as refugees since 1975, and 90 percent of Hmong refugees have been resettled in the U.S. because of the U.S. role in the "Secret War," and the rest in France, Canada, and Australia.
As of 2019, there are an estimated 327,000 Hmong Americans living in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Minneapolis, Minnesota has the largest population, followed by Fresno. A small community is present in Metro Detroit, the filming location of the Hmong-focused, Clint Eastwood-directed 2008 film "Gran Torino."
Like all ethnic groups who have tried to maintain traditions against the weight of the pandemic, the Hmong American community saw its share of ups and downs this year. Holding the new year's event after the pandemic forced it to be canceled for the first time last year brings added meaning.
"Just having the Hmong new year [celebration] is like bringing life back to all the community. To all the Hmong people. That will lift them emotionally, physically and … spiritually," Herr said.
In Fresno, the Hmong American community nurtured a close relationship with city leaders and nonprofit organizations. In 2008, the city got its first Hmong city council president.
When a 2019 mass shooting hit a Hmong family, killing four and injuring six just before the New Year event, city officials sent messages of condolence immediately after the tragedy while the police department dispatched Hmong-speaking officers to the area for support. The tragedy sent shockwaves across the Hmong American community. At the New Year event that year, Fresno officers were present for added security.
The Hmong community has been in Fresno for over 40 years and over time has been challenged and also successful. Sandra Lee, Asian and Pacific Islander community liaison for the City of Fresno's recently created Community Affairs Office, is Hmong American herself and came to the U.S. as a refugee in the late 1980s. She graduated from California State University-Fresno and eventually began working at a local nonprofit helping refugees who were resettled in Fresno, like her family once did.
Lee says the first Hmong refugees were farmers in their native country and have been able to thrive in the Fresno area because of the region's agricultural environment. But she has experienced the generational changes that young Hmong American people in Fresno undergo as they become professionals and become caretakers for their parents.
Being in a position to bridge the needs of her community in a city with such a large Hmong American population is a job she plans to take seriously, Lee said, and educating the Asian and Pacific Islander community about how they can reach the city for help is one of her main tasks.
"[Hmong American people] have been here for a long time," she says. "There are many professionals and many who are still struggling," Lee said.
Growing up Hmong American in Fresno
As a teenager, Herrick was completely embarrassed when a local television crew would sometimes catch her, dressed up in traditional Hmong garb, in the background of a broadcast, and she would have to explain to her amused classmates the following week. She was also a little resentful of the courtship rituals and the idea that she could possibly fall in love at first sight at the Fresno County Fairgrounds.
As she grew older and learned more about the historical significance of the contemporary festival, she began to appreciate being able to bond with other Hmong people from around the world based on shared language, culture, food, and history.
"As a child, this was an either/or question: Was I either Hmong or American? Would I be an obedient daughter, or a poj laib (a bad/modern woman)?" Herrick said. "Now, as an adult, I accept that everything about me is negotiable. I'm glad my parents made me learn these rituals. I'm glad I later investigated their meaning, because the reconsolidation of both memories and new inquiry now color my perspectives on the world and my shifting place within it."
Unlike other holidays, Herrick said, the Hmong New Year is not about private family gatherings. Even in Laos before the U.S. backed "Secret War," it was a time after the harvest for people from one village, often whom were all related, to meet people from many other villages in a socially acceptable setting. Different villages or locations would host a new year's festival, which was attended by relatives and visitors. Traditional celebrations hosted public courtship rituals of songs, dance, pov pob (ball-tossing), competitive games, and animal fights.
Today, while many of the traditions have continued, others, such as animal fighting for sport, have changed to fuse with more mainstream American culture.
"Contemporary Hmong New Year celebrations in the U.S. are still a riot of color and sound with parades of immaculately-dressed men and women, but animal fights have been replaced by a distinctly American event: The beauty pageant," Herrick said.
"It's family reunion en masse," Herrick said. "Hmong Americans make up less than 1% of Asian Americans [and] the percentage is similar overseas. During the Fresno Hmong New Year, you are saturated by the intimacies of other people who understand exactly who you are, the words you use that shape the lens looking outward into the world, and, for a brief week, you live in a pop-up nation of your own kin."
Celebration amid struggle
Like other Asian Americans, Hmong and Southeast Asian American communities faced violence and hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Vang said.
Feelings in the Hmong American community about Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 were also complicated The partner of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin – who was filmed murdering George Floyd – Tou Thao, was a Hmong American officer. Chauvin's wife, Kellie Chauvin, was also Hmong American. Kellie Chauvin later divorced her husband. Thao is still awaiting trial for his alleged role in Floyd's killing.
"There was intense division in the community between young community activists and organizations that supported BLM and racial equality, often led by Hmong women," Vang said. "And some community members that supported law enforcement and held more conservative anti-Black and anti-immigrant views."
Then Hmong American gymnast Sunisa Lee won the gold medal in All Around Women's gymnastics this year at the Tokyo Olympics, as well as bronze and silver medals, and then was named 2021 Sports Illustrated Female Athlete of the Year, bringing together the Hmong American community in excitement.
"If people ask me, 'Who are the key Hmong people who are known around the world?' I would say the first one is Gen. Vang Pao" – who was recruited by the CIA to lead Hmong forces in the Secret War – "and the second one is Suni Lee," Herr said.
Sunisa Lee was invited to the Fresno Hmong New Year event but will not be able to attend due to a schedule conflict, Herr said. But he is not rebuffed.
Herr said Lee's achievements only help broaden the image of the Hmong community.
"Now we have a young, Hmong lady who is an Olympic champion," Herr said. "Her mom and dad sacrificed for her."
The tight-knit Hmong American community's celebrations also carry burdens that are felt equally hard.
Aging elders who were pivotal in establishing the Hmong American community in the U.S. and who have helped grow the new year's celebration in Fresno and other cities are dying. More recently, many have died from COVID-19. In any case, they leave cultural voids as the first Hmong Americans in their community.
Herr, said celebrating the arrival of a new year means coming to terms with elders passing away while paving a way for the younger Hmong American community to continue their traditions and visibility in the country. A tradition at the Hmong New Year is to honor elderly family members on opening day, something that must continue as it has been done for years.
Herr said he teared up last year when the time came around and the fairgrounds sat empty and does not want to go another year without celebrating a new year with his Hmong family. "We have to start living again," Herr said.
The San Joaquin Valley has remained a COVID-19 hotspot in California, with hospitalizations surging through the fall in places like Fresno County. But among different racial groups in Fresno County, Asian Americans have a higher percentage of vaccinated residents compared with the two largest groups that make up the county, white and Hispanic, according to the Fresno County Department of Public Health. Asian Americans make up just 7 percent of total COVID-19 cases in the county.
COVID-19 changed the way Hmong Americans mourn their lost loved ones. Typical funerals last a week, a slow ritual that allows the deceased to cross into their spiritual resting place. Many Hmong Americans believe older loved ones return to ancestral homes in Laos. At the end of the mourning period, a message from the departed is read back to the living through a shaman – considered a "master of spirits" – to assure the families of a successful transition.
But because the pandemic overfilled funeral homes and the threat of infection during lengthy gatherings, Hmong American funerals during the pandemic have lasted just hours or, if there was space, just two days.
Paula Yang, a Fresno Hmong American community leader, opened "Celebration of Life Services" this summer. It's a funeral business to help Hmong American families mourn their family members as close to normal as possible in a large setting and under current pandemic norms.
Resuming funeral services after a long period of the pandemic where elders in the Hmong American community died and were not properly mourned is Yang's main task for now; one of the features of a Hmong funeral service is drawing a large number of people, and Yang has opened a hall big enough to fit at least 500 people.
She has organized a new service to start on Jan. 8 for a local grandmother who died after fighting pneumonia caused by COVID-19.
"She's got a daughter who is a doctor – a physician – and sons who are engineers," Yang said. "All the young people are now doing funerals because we are celebrating our parents. Our first generation is all dying."
The ritual and color that accompanies one's death reflects the Hmong tradition of not celebrating death itself – but instead the life lived by the Hmong person, Yang said.
But she notes that among the Hmong American community, there is a strong "fear of death," and many young and elder people in the community have gotten vaccinated against COVID-19 to avoid sickness.
Avoiding death and illness is woven into the New Year event itself, Yang said.
"If you go to Hmong New Year and you don't do the ball tossing, they say you're going to get a sickness. If you don't go underneath the arches made to bless and protect everybody, you have to go under it to cleanse and sacredly bless you," Yang said. "So, many of us are going to go [to Hmong New Year] to celebrate that we're alive."