Citizen Hmong

Laura Leonelli is the executive director of the Southeast Asian Assistance Center

The Hmong people I met in the mid-1980s told me that when they arrived in this country they felt “like newborn babies.” Every aspect of life here was so unfamiliar; whatever they already knew was no longer relevant. I wonder if any adult reading this can fully appreciate how devastating this would feel to have a family to support and a new life to build with absolutely no clue about how to do this.

In those first years of struggling to adapt while still painfully homesick for their native country, what kept many Hmong going was a dream: that someday they might go back, armed with modern technical skills, and create a new democratic system in Laos based on their experiences in the United States.

Whether or not their leader, General Vang Pao, was realistic about making these promises, I don’t know. I also don’t know whether or not he is guilty of the crimes of which he and others have been accused. What I do know is that there are many more self-destructive ways of dealing with major depression and trauma than by nurturing a dream that could sustain people mentally and emotionally. General Vang is revered by Hmong not only because he is their leader, but also because he gave them hope.

Hmong people gradually overcame enormous obstacles to achieve, in one generation, full participation in American society. This is the real story that has unfolded over the past seven weeks. More than the speculations about arms smuggling and overthrow of the Lao government, what gained coverage in the major news media was the sustained protests of the Hmong community. Thousands turned out in Sacramento, Fresno, Minneapolis and other cities. They demonstrated against the arrests and the denial of bail, but they also demonstrated their amazing capacity for collective action. Many carried large U.S. flags, reminding us that Hmong served U.S. interests in Laos, and continue to serve America as teachers, nurses, farmers, sheriffs, elected officials.

For their efforts, the Hmong have gained not only bail granted for their leaders, but also world-wide attention to the ongoing threats faced by their people who remain in the jungles of Laos. Youth and elders have discovered a shared passion for their history and ethnic identity. Their courage and accomplishments make me proud to call them fellow citizens.