Although Minnesota’s Hmong community has been here for three decades, is well integrated into our workplaces and schools, and has influenced contemporary Minnesota culture in numerous ways, many non-Hmong Minnesotans don’t have a clue about who these people are and why they came here. In fact, many thoroughly American young Hmong people don’t know much about their ancestors’ history, either, as Concordia history professor Paul Hillmer learned.
“My Hmong students had many questions about their own history,” says Hillmer. “I helped them study that history, interview members of their family, and find some of the answers to their questions. But then they were done and ready to move on. They’re young people, after all, with social lives, family obligations, studies, and the rest. I, on the other hand, was becoming entranced by the subject and had many, many more questions of my own.”
The historian kept digging, and ultimately gathered stories and experiences from about 225 people. He shares his research in “A People’s History of the Hmong” (Minnesota Historical Society Press), a history book that examines the Hmong story through narrative. It’s easy to see why the project captivated Hillmer. Stories of near and narrow escapes haunt the reader, and the author.
“I think of the numerous heartbreaking stories about what people went through trying to escape from Laos and make their way to Thailand. The babies fed opium to keep them quiet, many dying accidentally. Children and the elderly left behind because they couldn’t keep up, people drowning in the Mekong River because they couldn’t swim, people going back to rescue family members only to be killed themselves. But there are also numerous inspiring stories of rising above the challenges and the despair of losing one’s country, one’s family, one’s way of life, and rising to meet the daunting tasks of finding meaning, work, and a way to take care of one’s family in a completely new place,” says Hillmer, who is also haunted by the hatred he sees directed at the Hmong by Minnesotans who are descended from immigrants themselves.
“Sometimes those of us who have grown up in this country and who have enjoyed lives of relative ease need to be reminded of how hard others have had it — including, by the way, people generations ago in our own family tree who underwent struggles of their own when they came to this country. … But there is growing awareness of not only how the Hmong were involved in the Vietnam War after being recruited by our CIA, but also how they have come together as a community here to address many of the problems refugee communities face,” says Hillmer.
“They are an economic and political powerhouse in the Twin Cities. There are two Hmong elected officials in our state Legislature. Growing rates of home ownership, college and graduate education, participation in the professions and various businesses — all of these give the rest of us a greater chance to see our Hmong community in a new and more comprehensive light. Of course, one can now catch an occasional Hmong person who’s been here for a while complaining about more recently arrived immigrants, so the cycle continues.”