With food, songs, speeches and a showing of a new documentary, the forgotten history of one of the Twin Cities’ largest immigrant groups was detailed — and celebrated — in north Minneapolis on Thursday.
About 100 people filled the Capri Theater for what was billed as the “HMINNEAPOLIS Forum.” It was hosted by Blong Yang, the city’s first Hmong-American City Council member, who said he wanted to both shed light on the Hmong migration to Minneapolis and give a quick primer — in English and Hmong — on how city government works.
Yang told stories of the first Hmong to move into north Minneapolis in the late 1970s, shortly after the first Hmong immigrants arrived in St. Paul. The new residents were part of a large group who fled Laos after the end of the Vietnam War, settling in larger numbers in the Twin Cities than in any other urban area in the United States. Today, there are more than 77,000 Hmong in Minnesota, but Yang said stories about the early history are often focused on St. Paul.
“Nobody knows the history of the Hmong in Minneapolis until we tried to figure it out,” he said.
Yang, whose own family came to the U.S. in 1980, choked up after he showed a short documentary on the first Hmong families of Minneapolis. He told the story of three families who lived in a North Side fourplex and spent their days together in a single small living room, banding together to get by in a completely foreign community.
“It reminded them of home,” Yang said.
Four decades later, Yang isn’t the only marker of how the community has evolved. As he ran through a rapid-fire explanation of city departments and services, Yang invited a handful of Hmong city employees to the stage. Among them: two traffic enforcement agents, two housing inspectors and two police officers who have a combined 42 years on the force, one having become the first Hmong officer to achieve the rank of sergeant.
The audience at Thursday’s event was diverse, including young and old Hmong and people from all reaches of the city.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison praised Yang’s efforts to help the Hmong community learn about local government. He pointed to a recent tour Yang led of the city’s water treatment facility after the council member learned many Hmong were spending a significant amount of money on bottled water because they feared the city’s water was unsafe.
Ellison said it’s important to recognize the contributions of all immigrant groups that have changed the face of Minnesota and the Twin Cities.
“I think it’s important to, every now and again, stop and look at the tremendous diversity in our community, and to look at this patch in our quilt and say: Look how beautiful it is,” he said.