Field of dreams

Hmong woman keeps in touch with her roots by working the soil

FRUITS OF THEIR LABOR <br>The family of Ka Moua, including her son Moua Xiong (left) and grandaughter Cindy, help sell Moua’s produce at the Saturday Farmers’ Market. Moua refused to pose for a photo, saying she did not care to have her image recorded.

The family of Ka Moua, including her son Moua Xiong (left) and grandaughter Cindy, help sell Moua’s produce at the Saturday Farmers’ Market. Moua refused to pose for a photo, saying she did not care to have her image recorded.

photo by Tom Angel

A matter of life and death: The average life expectancy in Laos is just over 53 years, and the infant mortality rate is almost 10 percent.

Life hasn’t been kind to Ka Moua.

Squatting in a tidy field lined with half-buried garlic cloves and cucumber vines, she digs through the leaves looking for ripe vegetables while remembering the horrors of her past: the murders of her daughter, parents, husband and brothers by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Then there was life in a Laotian refugee camp. Then there was saying goodbye to her surviving relatives in Laos and a traumatic move to the United States, where she’s managed to build a relatively successful life as a farmer in Chico.

Not that she feels sorry for herself—she never really has time for self-pity. Moua, who is one of a growing number of Hmong residents in Butte County, is up every morning at dawn and in the field by 7 a.m., where she plows, digs and waters her crops until it get too hot to stay in the sun. Moua, with help from two of her sons, grows several types of flowers, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, lemongrass, corn, green onions and garlic at a farm not far from the Sacramento River.

By any stretch of the imagination, she doesn’t earn a whole lot doing so, but remember this: She’s managed to farm the land using little more than instinct and pure hard work, and she’s done it speaking absolutely no English. She can’t count American money, even, and depends on her 7-year-old granddaughter to take money and give change at the weekly farmers’ markets held all over Butte County, where she sells her produce.

Farming has been good to Moua, although it earns her and her family only enough to live day to day. But working the land means more than money for Moua, who said that farming is the only physical tie she has left with her Hmong roots.

The Hmong emigrated from China thousands of years ago and have lived as an ethnic minority in the mountains of Laos since then.

Born about 50 years ago in Laos (Moua said she doesn’t know exactly how old she is, as no birth records were kept in her village), Moua lived with her in-laws while her husband, Xiong, went off to fight with the Americans during the Vietnam War. While he fought, she helped his family farm their land. He never returned from the war, leaving her with five children to raise alone.

After the war, she and her children were taken to a refugee camp when the North Vietnamese—whom she said killed many of her people and whom she still fears—took over control of the country. She lived there until 13 years ago, when an uncle who’d already immigrated to the United States helped her leave the country.

Life in Laos was hard, Moua said, but she still misses it. She admits to feeling lonely here, with only two of her sons close by and none of the familiar Hmong traditions or family support she grew up with. Moua said working in her “garden,” as she calls it, helps assuage some of the loneliness. Her son rents their one-acre farm for $150 a year, and with the help of her granddaughter Cindy, they work the land together.

“When you’re out in the fields, and I hear the bugs call and the birds chirping, I cry with them and it makes me feel better,” she said through a translator. “ … It hurts my heart to tell you this.”

Wearing black sweats and slip-on tennis shoes with no laces, a dirty baseball cap and mismatched rubber work gloves, Moua looks like the farmer she is. Her skin is thin and deeply lined from years of working outdoors, and even when discussing sad events she smiles easily and often.

It doesn’t take very long when talking to Moua to realize that she is still living with the violent ghost of the Vietnam War. The war ended almost 30 years ago, but you get the sense that it hasn’t really ended yet for her. She’d like to go back to Laos at least to visit the relatives that she hasn’t seen in more than a dozen years but doubts that she’d be able to obtain the visa she’d need for the trip. Laos, which borders Vietnam, China, Thailand and Cambodia, was ravaged by the Vietnam War and is now run by a communist government.

She’s openly disgusted with the Laotian government and mistrustful of its intentions. She’s afraid that if she goes back, the government will kill her like the communist soldiers killed her husband, parents and brothers so many years ago.

“My arms and legs might be here, but my heart is in Laos,” she said. “I miss it, I miss it, I miss it. That’s why I’m in the garden so much.”

Although working in the field is hard physical labor, Moua said she would continue to do it until she can’t do it anymore. She said it helps her feel less lonely; it gets her out of the house and keeps her busy. And really, she can’t imagine life any other way.

Even so, making a living on the farm is tough. Weather regardless, Moua and her family work in the field. It is labor-intensive, physically taxing work that produces little if any profits, she said. Cucumbers, for example, sell for 75 cents a pound and tomatoes for just a little more, she said. When she doesn’t sell all her crop at the farmers’ markets, Moua often has to throw the ripe leftover produce back into the field as fertilizer, as it wouldn’t be sellable by the next week.

Although her life in America often has been hard, she acknowledged that if she had stayed in Laos, it likely would have been harder.

“In Laos, you farm to eat," she said. "Here, you farm to live."