Not the last stand

When arson struck Hmong families’ strawberry stand, they got right back to business

BURNED Mary Lou Moua says last weekend’s fire was not the first time the Hmong families’ strawberry stand was the target of vandalism. Last year, someone “made a sign like they want to kill us or something.”

BURNED Mary Lou Moua says last weekend’s fire was not the first time the Hmong families’ strawberry stand was the target of vandalism. Last year, someone “made a sign like they want to kill us or something.”

Photo by Tom Angel

Hmong history: he Hmong have existed as a distinct ethnic group for 5,000 years. Many Hmong families settled in Butte County after fleeing their native Southeast Asia. The United States had broken its promise to protect the Hmong if they helped fight the Vietnamese under the direction of the CIA’s secret army in Laos. Many veterans and their families have since struggled against poverty and prejudice.

Around a dozen Hmong families lease a small plot of land along Chico River Road just outside of town, nurturing neat rows of organic strawberries to sell for $1.50 a basket.

Last weekend, in a short blaze that fire officials are calling intentional, someone burned down the enclosed stand the families were using as a shelter from which to sell. Charred planks and the metal frame of a lone chair greeted the families when they showed up for work early that morning.

The Hmong families, undeterred, set up folding tables and were back in business with their baskets of berries and buckets of purple flowers.

Mary Lou Moua said she feels discouraged but is focusing her thoughts on the people who are kind and friendly to her and the other family members. Their goal is simple: “We grow organic stuff, and we want to help the community get whatever they need.”

A member of another family who farms there, a Mr. Xiong who didn’t want to give his first name, said he doesn’t understand why the stand has been targeted. “We try to be nice to everyone,” he said, but they’ve had people in trucks tear through the rows of ripe berries, throwing things and shouting “very bad words.” Last year, someone painted racial epithets and curse words on the stand. Finally, the families installed thick posts so people couldn’t maneuver their vehicles to smash into the building anymore. They figured the stand was safe.

“We stayed all day until dark,” Xiong said of the busy Saturday at the stand. “In the morning we came back here, and it was burned out.”

Already, people from the community are stepping forward with empathy and donations. Several have even offered to rebuild the stand. “A lot of people are offering to help,” Moua said.

Norman Corwin, of Congregation Beth Israel, said its members want to take on the project with lumber donated by Payless Building Supply.

Corwin said the Jewish community immediately felt an affinity with the Hmong upon hearing of the fire. “This is a Nazi mentality,” he said. “That’s why our congregation especially felt a kinship here.”

The fire was set early in the morning of Sunday, May 5. A fire engine arrived just four minutes after the fire was called in, around 1:30 a.m., but the wood structure—its materials valued at about $500—was so small that it was quickly consumed.

Captain David Hawk of Butte County/CDF fire investigated and found there was nothing electrical in the shack-like structure that could have started the fire, which began near its front.

“I don’t think there’s any question that it was intentional,” Hawk said.

He said chances are “remote” that the arsonists will be caught, but they are getting information on the people—described as college-age—who had done the drive-by vandalism and shouting but didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the fire.

Longtime Chicoan Debbie Besnard, who lives not far from the stand, had watched the Hmong families coax the land into production over the years. “They started out with just coffee cans and a little plot of land,” she said. That someone would try to destroy that spirit, she said, “is so sad.”

Xiong said, "We don’t care if the work is hard or easy. We just enjoy the work and seeing new faces. We enjoy doing it to raise our family."