Kong Pheng Pha

Kong Pheng Pha, UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of critical Hmong studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, talks Wednesday with student Madison Dier. The university hosted several events in April to honor Hmong Heritage Month, and Pha hopes the month increases awareness of and appreciation for the area’s largest minority group.

EAU CLAIRE — Growing up, True Vue did not learn Hmong history in school, and she wondered why.

“Was our part in history not significant enough to be taught?” Vue wrote in an email. “Was our presence not appreciated because those who were not educated about us would tell us to go back to where we came from?”

Vue, lead organizer for the Black & Brown Womyn Power Coalition in Eau Claire, is one of many Hmong Americans in the Chippewa Valley who hope Hmong Heritage Month can contribute to overcoming that ignorance and serve as a starting point for ongoing education in the area.

In honor of April being Hmong Heritage Month, UW-Eau Claire hosted several events, and the Chippewa Valley Museum has an exhibit on Hmong people in Eau Claire. The exhibit notes that “about 4.5% of the global Hmong population lives in the United States, with just over 3,000 residing in the city of Eau Claire.”

Hmong Americans can trace their roots to several Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Hmong people started arriving in the United States in the 1970s as refugees after the Vietnam War, in which many Hmong people worked with and fought alongside U.S. soldiers.

“Hmong Heritage Month is a time to remember what the Hmong went through and why we are here today,” Vue wrote, also noting that it allows “us to openly have conversations with our family, friends and our community to remind each other of the retribution the Hmong went through for being an ally to the United States during the Vietnam War.”

Pa Thao, executive director of the Black & Brown Womyn Power Coalition in Eau Claire, said the month enables her to “recommit myself to friends, families and community.”

“Hmong Heritage Month is a time to remember and reflect on our past, embrace our present and dream our future,” Thao wrote in an email. “As we remember, celebrate and share our history, culture and heritage with friends and families, it is also a moment to reflect on our present and appreciate and honor the sacrifices of our ancestors.”

Mao Xiong, interim director of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, shared similar sentiments.

“It’s an opportunity to highlight all the great things Hmong folks do in our community and throughout the state and nation,” Xiong wrote in an email. “It is also a time for Hmong and others to appreciate and acknowledge the beautiful language, culture and traditions.”

Events help increase community awareness and support, but so do personal connections, Xiong noted.

“It is a time that encourages our Hmong youth to proudly share with their non-Hmong peers the different food we eat, the celebrations we have, the language we speak and much more,” Xiong wrote. “These are things that should be done every day, but to have a month designated to celebrate Hmong, it means that Hmong will not be forgotten.”

Kong Pheng Pha, UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of critical Hmong studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, hopes this month increases appreciation for the area’s largest minority group.

“Hmong Heritage Month serves as a way for all of us to see the beauty in Hmong people’s life stories and narratives, while also using those same stories and narratives for a larger good for all people in our community and nation,” Pha wrote in an email.

Locals also hope the month can raise awareness about the difficulties encountered by Hmong people and many other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From 2019 to 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities rose from 49 to 122 incidents, an increase of 149%, according to an analysis of official preliminary police data by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“This year, with so many hate crimes against Asians, and with Hmong being the biggest minority group in Eau Claire, I feel like it is a great reminder for the community to stand together to celebrate Asians,” Vue wrote.

An event earlier this month aimed for community solidarity. During a “Stop AAPI hate” rally and vigil on April 2, several local Asian Americans, including Pha and Thao, spoke about their experiences with racism and feeling like an outsider.

“Even during heightened anti-Asian hate sentiments and the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to persist and strive to live out our authentic life in this community, which we call home,” Thao wrote.

Thao said the month also can prompt Hmong people to look ahead.

“Hmong Heritage Month is a moment to dream (about) our future, of what we want to accomplish in the coming years, and of our future history, culture and heritage,” Thao wrote. “What do we want future generations to remember and to honor?”

Vue believes the month can spotlight Hmong people and culture, something missing in her and many others’ education.

“It is a time to recognize the work that we have done, to be proud of and celebrate who we are, and to make sure that no one forgets,” Vue wrote.