A place of their own

The Hmong-Americans in the Tracy area are meeting to discuss the possibility of having a community center as a place to preserve cultural heritage, support each other and strengthen their roots in SW MN

Eight-month-old Willow Thao accompanied her parents, Khou Lor and Kou Thao, to the Pioneer TV’s “Postcards” viewing of “Hmong Culture in Walnut Grove,” followed by a community meeting to discuss the possible construction of a cultural center in the future. Ali Joens, pictured holding Willow, works with Lor at Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnerships.


Family and community are important in the Hmong culture — something that was evident at a comprehensive meeting recently at the Veterans Memorial Center in Tracy.

Khou Lor, Project Uniting Southwest Hmong (PUSH) lead, welcomed the group of more than 50 individuals. After viewing the Pioneer Public Television “Postcards” documentary of “Hmong Culture in Walnut Grove,” there was a question and answer session with Dana Conroy, senior Pioneer TV producer. Following door prizes, ECCO consultant Karen DeYoung facilitated a public meeting and small group discussions regarding a possible community center project that would develop the PUSH initiative.

“This project is very important to us and we want to know how you might use the center and how you might see it fitting into the community,” said Lor, who is the organizational manager at Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit community development corporation with the mission to create thriving places to live, grow and work through partnerships with communities. “It was a great success,” Lor said of the film review and community meeting. “A lot of people showed up — more than I anticipated. It was great to see so much support.”

Hmong populations have been in Minnesota since 1975.

“I don’t know much about the war because I was way too young back then, but from my understanding, the Hmong assisted the U.S. during the Vietnam War,” Lor’s husband, Kou Thao, said. “Then after the war, the Hmong were being persecuted by the Vietnamese, so we had to find refuge.”

The Hmong, an ethnic group with ancient roots in China, fled their homelands in Laos because of the destructive wars.

“On 1975, the communists took over the country, so we had to move up to the high mountains for a couple of years to survive,” Terry Yang said in the segment. “We left with no food or medicine or weapons or ammunition. We found we couldn’t win the war, so we decided to escape and take a long journey, from our place to the Mekong River and across Thailand. It took us over 30 days.”

Thao said there were refugee camps in Thailand that took in the Hmong.

“Our parents did try to get to the camp,” he said. “I believe at that time, the U.S. had programs that would take the Hmong in. That’s how we ended up in the U.S.”

Today, more than 66,000 Hmong reside in Minnesota, with the largest concentration living in the Twin Cities. In the early 1990s, some of those families began moving to southwest Minnesota.

Blia Moua came from Thailand to St. Paul in 1987. Then in 1990, he moved his family to the Marshall area.

“I’m the first family to move to southwest Minnesota,” Moua said. “I only moved here for three months before I found a job. It was real difficult for me to learn a different language and a different culture.”

Moua’s first job was at the Heartland Food Company.

“It was pretty hard for me and my family because we didn’t have any family here to go visit them,” he said. ” My wife said, ‘Why did we come here? Should we go back to the cities?’ But I said to be patient. Later, a lot more people came to this area.”

Despite the cultural challenges, Moua said he felt fortunate to be treated well in the community.

“They were accepting,” he said. “They welcomed you. We didn’t have any problems with neighbors or people.”

Sean Yang estimated that about 220 Hmong families now live in southwest Minnesota, adding that about 100 of those families live in Walnut Grove.

“Our Hmong community has been in the southwest region for a long time, but we have never had our very own space, our very own facility,” Lor said. “So this is where the idea of building a cultural center blossomed.”

In the documentary, Terry Yang explained the importance of preserving the Hmong culture so that their children and future generations would know who the Hmong are. Sean Yang agreed, noting that they were losing so much of their culture trying to assimilate in this country.

“Our kids are adapting to the American way of life, Sean Yang said. “The elders are having a tough time adjusting to the new life. They try to, but at the same time, they’re losing their kids, their culture and their language. It’s a tough time for them.”

Lor said the younger generation also struggles, at times, to balance the two different ways of life.

“The younger generation kind of has an identity crisis trying to figure out where you are and where you stand in the American culture,” she said.

A cultural community center would help preserve the Hmong heritage, the event speakers said. The goal of the PUSH initiative is to have enough space to incorporate multiple elements: a gallery/museum to preserve cultural artifacts, clothing and instruments; conference/meeting space for community project planning, development opportunities and educational classes; gymnasium suitable for active after-school programs; auditorium for theatrical community performances and Hmong New Year events; event space for party rental and event planning; adequate land for local farmers to grow produce to sell to local markets; incubating hub to promote local cultural entrepreneurs and small business owners; commercial kitchen for facility and public usage and office space adequate for staff and general public usage.

“These components would give us the opportunity to reach our mission,” Lor said.

Along with Lor and Thao, six other PUSH members –Sandra Thao, Kao Yang, KaZoua Thao, Jeremy Moua, Sue Moua and Gene Yang — helped lead small group discussions at the meeting.

“It was a really good outcome because there were different mindsets that came in and gave different opinions,” Sue Moua said. “Being a small group that we are, you kind of get stuck with the same ideas and stuff. It was a really good opportunity to hear what the community thought as a whole on a project like this.”

After coming up with 11 different benefits, the groups then mulled over the challenges. The final topic was on location. Attendee Julie Rath suggested relocating the Walnut Grove grocery store and partnering it with the new facility.

“There’s 20,000 people from all 50 states who come to Walnut Grove every year for the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant, so we have a huge draw to the community already,” Rath said. “You could make the old grocery store a craft store.”

A Tracy city official added that “Tracy was just as nice.”

Like so many others, Sue Moua refers to the Walnut Grove-Tracy-Marshall area as one community.

“I live in Marshall right now, but I consider Tracy my home,” he said. “I pretty much grew up here, graduated here and got married here. For me, home is always Tracy.”

Moua said his early experiences in the community were not as positive as they are now.

“When we first came here, we were probably the second or third family in Tracy only,” Moua said. “We actually moved to Marshall back in 1992. I went to school in Marshall for first and second grade. I came to Tracy in third grade, finished high school and then went to Minnesota West for auto body.”

Moua now manages the Lockwood Shine Center. Growing up, there were Asian jokes and some mistreatment, but the more people got to know him and the more Moua got to know others, the better it got, he said.

“I would say right now, it’s so much better,” Moua said. “Being from the community — Tracy, Walnut Grove and especially Marshall — when you walk into Marshall school and see all the diversity, it’s a beautiful thing.”

While he cannot change the past, Moua said he certainly can attempt to shape the future for his children. One of the ways he shares his culture is by bringing homemade Hmong food for his coworkers and boss.

“I can’t change it for myself, but I can change it for my kids,” he said. “Hopefully, by doing these community things and by bringing the community together, it will help them out.”

Lor said the best thing about being Hmong is that everybody is family.

“I might be in California and see an elderly grandmother,” she said. “I can address her and say, ‘Hey, Grandmother.’ They don’t shut you out. It’s a great thing to be part of this family that you didn’t really know existed.”

Sandra Thao said one of the things she really loves about the Hmong culture is the way they express themselves.

“For our weddings, we gather in large groups,” she said. “We make sure everybody comes and everybody has a good time. We drink and eat a lot of food. We celebrate even the smallest thing, like one person graduating.”

Making sure all the families are in attendance helps them stay connected to eat other.

“We really value family and the way we express it is very open and physical,” Thao said.

Education in the Hmong culture is very important, but there are definite challenges.

“We make education so important in our lives at such a young age that we hit senior high school or college stages and tend to drop off,” she said. “Our parents want us to pursue higher education, but they don’t have the knowledge or they can’t support us beyond that. They don’t know how to apply for college or deal with financial aid. That’s the struggle us Hmong students nowadays have.”

Oftentimes, Hmong students are kept from extracurricular activities because of their parents’ work schedules or educational beliefs.

“Definitely in the Hmong culture, education is textbooks and going to class with a teacher,” Thao said. “They don’t consider extracurricular activities a part of the education. So a lot of Hmong families don’t let their students join FFA, FCCLA or the National Honor Society

A cultural center could potentially be a place of support for those students as well as people of all ages.

“As an individual, I was treated pretty well, but there’s room for improvement in the community,” Thao said. “The school system is starting to understand now, too, that not all Hmong students need to be in ESL (English as a Second Language). The younger generation, all they do is speak English. But the school still wants to put them in ESL and the lower classes. I love the program and why it’s in place, but not every student needs to be in there.”

Sean Yang stressed the importance of preserving Hmong instruments, music, art and language.

“Primarily, I want to preserve the language,” he said. “A lot of the kids are losing that language. They’re speaking ‘Hmonglish’ nowadays. It’s 10 percent Hmong and 90 percent English.”

Yang added that the southwest Minnesota Hmong New Year celebration provides a wonderful opportunity to dress traditionally, connect with people and share their culture through singing, dancing and other activities.

“It’s open to the public and we invite everybody to wear traditional clothes for your heritage,” Yang said. “Dance used to only be performed for high officials, but that changed since we came to this country. It’s opened up opportunities for performers and little kids to perform for the general public. They’re still using traditional skills to promote their culture, but at the same time, they’re having fun with it.”

Since southwest Minnesota is home to many Hmong people, it’s no surprise that they’ve had positive impacts on the area. But according to Yang their journey isn’t finished as they want to continue striving to improve their community.

“I was one of the fortunate ones who came when the community had already embraced our culture and welcomed us to their world,” he said. “But the journey hasn’t stopped there. I hope that my kids will continue to embrace the community and hopefully grow and advance the community — both the Hmong community and the mainstream community.”

To view the “Postcards” segment on the Hmong in southwest Minnesota, go to: http://www.pioneer.org/postcards.html and select Episodes, followed by Season 8, Episode 10.