Throughout her U.S. school years, Dr. Ma Vang’s history lessons never included the Hmong, from whom she is descended. The Vietnam War was the only topic broached involving Southeast Asia, and her teachers never covered the war from the perspective of Vietnamese people.
“As a kid, this was confusing because sometimes I wondered if stories about my parents’ and grandparents’ lives in Laos were true,” Vang recalls. “I can’t remember Laos or Cambodia ever being mentioned in school.”
She adds, “Today’s Hmong-American students tell me they have the same experience.”
So Vang and countless other Hmong-Americans enthusiastically welcome this month’s exhibition of “Hmongstory 40” at the fairgrounds in Fresno, Calif., which lasts through January 2.
The $250,000, multi-media project traces the history of the Hmong in rural Laos, their role in the so-called Secret War in that country directed by the United States, then fleeing their war-torn homes and coming to this country to start anew. The first of its kind in California, the grassroots project celebrates the resilience of Hmong-Americans who began migrating to the United States en masse 40 years ago after the civil war in Laos ended with Communists taking control.
“This is a gift for our children,” project director Lar Yang says of the exhibit.
Like most of the three dozen exhibit organizers, Yang came with his family to the United States when he was too young to remember life in Laos, so he cannot pass down stories to the younger generation. Another exhibit organizer was at a loss for words when her middle-school-age daughter asked, “Mommy, what does it mean to be Hmong?”
“We assimilated here so well that we don’t know our own history,” Yang says. “But we are indebted to the older generation, so it’s crucial to tell their stories before they die. People without a history are like trees without roots. It takes 1,000 stories to have a voice.”
Vang, an assistant professor of history and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of California, Merced, says the lack of historical resources afflicts more than just K-12 classrooms. While working on her dissertation in ethnic studies, which she has since earned, she was researching declassified government documents at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library for details about the Secret War—only to discover them heavily redacted, much to her surprise and dismay.
The Hmongstory 40 exhibit focuses on four distinct phases of history, beginning with life in Laos. The phase about the Secret War, which the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency covertly directed in the 1960s and 70s during the Laotian civil war out of fear that Communists would prevail, details how thousands of Hmong soldiers, some of them barely in their teens, were recruited for battle under Gen. Vang Pao’s command. A third phase documents life in refugee camps in Thailand, and the fourth explores resettlement in California. Each phase is represented by archival photos, text and artifacts in a space of about 1,600 square feet. The artifacts vary from bars of silver that used to be paid by a groom’s family to a bride’s family, to radio equipment used and clothing worn by Hmong soldiers during the Secret War.
The exhibit segment about the refugee camps includes a mural of photos—600 and still growing—taken at the camps of individuals who stayed there. Each adult and child was photographed alone, holding signage bearing his or her name and identification number. Facial expressions among the refugees vary from hopeful to despondent.
A separate exhibit area features multi-media storytelling, such as oral histories of Hmong who survived the Secret War and allowed Yang and other exhibit organizers to record their stories. One war veteran, for instance, explains how soldiers kept contributing even after losing one or more limbs by packing parachutes for their able-bodied counterparts.
“History glorifies only the generals,” Yang says of military records to date. “But there were so many others who fought in the Secret War.”
He and other exhibit organizers commissioned paintings, sculptures and other pieces of fine art to illustrate the Hmong-American experience, such as life in public housing units upon arrival in the U.S. Most of the art is on view with the rest of the main exhibit in Fresno, but select pieces of work are on loan to the UC Merced Art Gallery, which is displaying them through February 11.
Last year, Yang and others took elements of Hmongstory 40 to Sacramento and Fresno State universities, both of which enroll critical masses of Hmong-American students, to encourage them to submit stories and refugee camp photos of family members. The outreach also lent opportunities to educate faculty about Hmong diaspora.
“Even though it’s Hmong history, it’s an American story,” Yang says.
California’s central valley is home to about 82,000 Hmong-Americans, 7,000 of whom live in Merced, which has the highest per capita Hmong population in the country, says Vang, the professor.
She and others organized a day-long symposium that took place earlier this month at UC Merced titled “Southeast Asian American Legacies,” which became a lead-in to the Hmongstory 40 exhibit opening in Fresno. Project director Yang was among participants on a panel discussion about community-engaged research. The symposium was followed by performances by cultural groups.
As the day unfolded, Vang noticed how community members in the audience were outnumbering those of students and academicians, a head count that grew in the afternoon and into the evening’s theater performances when entire families arrived. Later, a woman in the audience who had commuted 100 miles to the campus from Sacramento thanked Vang and her colleagues for organizing the events, expressing how the day was filling a void in the lives of attendees who had apparently lacked communal space and opportunity to explore their heritage and identities.
The impetus for Hmongstory 40 took hold among Yang and others more than three years ago when acquaintances in Minnesota, which also has a sizable Hmong population, embarked on a similar historical project there.
Admission to the Fresno exhibition is free. The exhibit will travel to the city of Merced for a showing in May and later in the year for display in California’s state capital of Sacramento.
Information about the future showings of Hmongstory 40 is available at https://www.hmongstory40.org/.