Hmong wrestle with leadership question as national Hmong conference opens in Minneapolis.
Someday Ka Zua Melissa Vang would like to be a maykong -- a marriage negotiator in a traditional Hmong wedding.
Right now, only men can play that role. But times are changing for Minnesota's Hmong, the second-largest Hmong community in the country.
After 35 years in the United States and the death earlier this year of Gen. Vang Pao, the man many called "grandfather," Hmong-Americans are redefining their place. The old power structure of clans and male elders must contend with the emergence of women as leaders, the coming of age of a new generation of Hmong born here, and other voices demanding their say in community affairs.
The issue will take center stage this weekend as hundreds of people from around the country gather in Minneapolis for the annual Hmong National Conference. A pivotal question will be who will lead the Hmong -- if anyone should.
"We are at a crossroads," said Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans. "The first 35 years was about survival. These next 35 years will be about making this our home, and really embracing it."
Bao Vang, 42, was born in Laos but grew up in Minnesota. "I came to America when I was 10 years old," said Vang.
Her first stop was in Hawaii with relatives. "The minute we got there they told us to save our money because we're going to a place where cotton falls from the sky. We didn't have a word for snow."
Minnesota's Hmong connection began in the mountains of Laos during the Vietnam War when the U.S. government recruited Gen. Vang Pao and his followers to fight. After Laos fell to Communist forces, many Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Thousands ended up in Minnesota.
Today, there are at least 50,000 Hmong people living here, the nation's largest Hmong community after California.
Vang now heads the Hmong American Partnership in St. Paul, the largest Hmong nonprofit outfit in the state. Nonprofit groups dealing with community issues are among those pressing for a larger role in Hmong leadership.
"There's a lot of confusion in the community right now with the passing of Vang Pao," she said. "Particularly with the older generation. ... With that generation there's a need for replacement."
Just a few weeks ago in Minnesota, a ceremony took place to anoint one of the general's sons as his successor. It was a small -- and old -- crowd, said Lee Pao Xiong, director of Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia, who was at the ceremony.
Community decisions used to revolve around a set leader whose authority was unquestioned, Bao Vang said. "It was mostly male-driven leadership. ... With the passing of the general, and his generation, so, too, does that style of leader pass.
"With the newer Hmong generations, there are more women in leadership roles. As we assimilated, we've also adapted to embrace certain values that are much more democratic," Vang said.
Indeed, the first Hmong-American elected to public office was Choua Lee, a woman, who served on the St. Paul school board. Other female Hmong trailblazers include Mee Moua, a lawyer who was elected a state senator in 2002, and Wilder Foundation President MayKao Y. Hang.
Female clan leaders?
Women are beginning to push the cultural envelope, as well.
On a recent afternoon at a Roseville coffee shop, a group of college-age Hmong men and women talked about the changes they've seen.
"When I was growing up, my mom used to say, 'You're a girl. You should be coming home [after school] and doing the chores,'" said Lee Vue, 21. She and her sisters would balk, choosing to play sports instead.
Young women are also clamoring for cultural leadership roles traditionally held by Hmong men.
Men are now the clan leaders, but Ka Zua Melissa Vang, 22, and her friends say that may change, too.
While a lot of people are open to women leading the community, many others oppose it, said Souvan Samuel Lee, a University of Minnesota student. Personally, he supports the idea.
More educated, less poverty
When they first arrived in Minnesota, Hmong refugees were ill-prepared to adapt to the new world. They were farmers with little formal education. Many families relied on government assistance; their children struggled in school.
Three decades later, the improvement is obvious. Hmong-owned businesses line W. University Avenue in St. Paul, transforming the area. Lee Pao Xiong, who used to counsel teens not to join gangs, said the gang problem has diminished.
Census data show that 65 percent of the Minnesota Hmong population was living in poverty in 1990; by 2000, that rate was cut in half to 33 percent. The latest data from the American Community Survey report that poverty number is down to 31 percent.
Lee Vue sees progress, too.
The presence of Hmong student associations on college campuses is a testament to the growing number of Hmong students who are now going to college, she said.
But the new generation's embrace of the future raises concern about preserving the past during this transition.
Ilean Her works with youths and has noticed that many don't know the meaning behind Hmong customs and rituals.
The other day, she spotted a string tied to a child's wrist.
She knew it meant something big had happened in his family, something worthy of a blessing ceremony. At the ceremony, the relatives come over and each guest ties a string around the host family members' wrists, wishing them success and happiness.
When she asked the child about it, he didn't know what the tie was for, she said.
"For some community members, the loss of the general has hit them really hard. They see this as a turning point," Her said. "They ask, 'Will the Hmong community be able to retain that we are Hmong? Or will we all disband and not know each other and be consumed by mainstream community?'"
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488