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COLUMN ONE : The Child Brides of California : In the Central Valley, Hmong men continue the tradition of marrying girls as young as 12 or 13. Most of them quickly become welfare mothers. But some women are balking.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bee Xiong chose Valentine’s Day to pop the big question. Seeking the perfect romantic spot, the 20-year-old Hmong refugee drove his girlfriend, Mee, to the bank of the Merced River. He pulled out a $100 gold ring from Sears and vowed to jump in the water if spurned.

Standing outside a market a few weeks later, Xiong introduced wife Mee to an American friend. Xiong was proud that marriage had not distracted him from junior college, and that he had shown the good sense of keeping Mee in school too.

“I’m in the seventh grade,” the small bride blushed. “I’m 13.”

Every winter in the Central Valley, where tens of thousands of Hmong tribesmen who fled war-torn Laos have resettled, young girls like Mee leave home to marry. Often they simply vanish from school after the Hmong New Year, their new lives a mystery to teachers and classmates.

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“We like them young,” Xiong explained. “The men have a saying in Hmong: ‘If you marry a girl your age, by the time she has given you enough children, she will look twice your age.’ ”

The old-world custom of early marriage endures 15 years after the first Hmong arrived in this agricultural heartland. Its resiliency in the face of popular American culture--unique among immigrants here--is a measure of how far the Hmong had to come. Perhaps no group fleeing to America has possessed fewer modern skills. Until missionaries converged on their mountain huts three decades ago, the Hmong had no written language.

Early marriage has helped make Hmong mothers among the most prolific in the world--with an average fertility rate of 9.5 children per woman, according to studies--and has fed what U.S. authorities say is the highest welfare rate of any refugee group in this country.

Of the 125,000 Hmong in the United States, more than 62% rely on public assistance. The rate is higher in the Fresno and Merced areas, where 45,000 Hmong have been drawn by the bountiful soil and generous welfare checks.

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The typical Hmong girl in California outshines the boy academically, yet a 1990 study at Merced High showed that for every three Hmong male graduates, there was one female graduate.

“Brilliant girls are dropping out and becoming welfare mothers,” said Kenji Ima, a San Diego State sociology professor who has studied Southeast Asian refugees. “A path out of poverty is cut off. We’re losing some real Horatio Algers out there.”

Girls such as 16-year-old Nou, a student at McLane High School in Fresno who did not want her last name used. She cracks the books late at night after putting her children--ages 4, 3, 2 and 1--to bed. Her husband’s parents died in Laos and her own mother has her hands full caring for 15 adults and children living in her house.

Welfare allows her 28-year-old husband to stay home with the children while Nou continues high school. But even if she manages to finish, the four small children make it unlikely she will escape the welfare cycle.

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“Many Hmong have been on welfare six to eight years and more,” said Ernest Velasquez, head of Fresno County social services. “Now we’re seeing their children have babies and go on assistance. It’s scary. We didn’t anticipate this second welfare generation.”

Hmong marriage rituals here are a mix of the old and the modern. Some marriages are arranged by parents, but in many cases the bride’s parents don’t learn of the wedding until afterward. Often the marriages are spurred by a girl seeking independence from parents who forbid dating, or by an older man who employs techniques ranging from sweet talk to snatching a bride by force.

However the couple is paired, the wedding itself begins when the man whisks his intended bride to his family’s home. At the doorstep, the bridegroom’s father performs a 30-second ceremony blessing the new couple with a live chicken. Only then can the girl cross the threshold into her new family.

In a concession to modern times, her parents are telephoned immediately and told of the marriage. Hmong culture affords them little choice but to accept the match. Later, over shots of whiskey, elders from both sides haggle over the payment due the bride’s clan--usually $2,000 to $5,000 in cash.

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Hmong clan leaders estimate that 30% to 50% of the girls marry before age 17. But the girls themselves say the figure is much higher, perhaps 70%, and that some of the brides have yet to reach puberty.

“There is no such thing as adolescence in the Hmong culture,” said Wendy Walker, a lecturer at UC Berkeley and anthropologist who has studied Hmong in Southeast Asia and here. “Girls go from childhood to adulthood by the mere act of marriage.”

Hmong rarely talk about the custom with outsiders, knowing the marriages are often illegal and could provoke backlash. Sex with anyone under 15 is a felony in California, and marriage under 18 requires court permission. So the unions remain hidden from view. One of the few outward signs is a ceremonial string tied around a bride’s wrist.

On rare occasions when social service and law enforcement agencies discover an illegal relationship, officials are stretched too thin to pursue a crime rooted more in culture than in vice--although infrequently a Hmong man is prosecuted for kidnaping a child bride.

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To look inside this secret world, The Times talked to girls in Hmong enclaves around the San Joaquin Valley--in high schools, at hangouts, in homes. Many girls agreed to cooperate only if their last names weren’t used. Even speaking about the practice, they said, is a betrayal of culture.

“Hmong females have no rights,” said Ying, a 21-year-old mother of two. “We’re just supposed to have babies, be housewives, do what the husband says to do. It’s a very sad life.”

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The custom of marrying young was already in place when the Hmong fled persecution in China in the 1800s and migrated to the rugged mountains of Laos. The Hmong were recruited by the CIA in the 1960s to fight the Viet Cong, and early marriage and child-bearing helped offset a casualty rate 100 times that of U.S. soldiers.

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“We have lived in many hostile environments,” said Houa Wa Yang of Fresno, president of the national Hmong Council, made up of leaders from the culture’s 18 distinct clans. “In Laos, people died or were killed at 34 or 35. Infant mortality was very high. So marrying young and having children was a way to preserve our own kind.”

Here, the forces that keep early marriage alive--even for girls raised on MTV and Big Macs--are a jumble of old and new.

Chue, 18, a senior at Merced High, said she was caught in public with her boyfriend two years ago. To fend off gossip, her parents pushed marriage, even though they knew it could block her goal of college.

It happens all the time, the girls say, puppy love promoted to marriage to avoid loss of face.

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“If you are seen outside the home with a boy, that is taboo,” said Mai, 17, a classmate of Chue. “Your name is a whisper on everyone’s lips.”

Other girls said they agreed to marry a man they barely knew as a way to win social privileges--dating, staying out after dark--that American girls take for granted. But their jump across the doorstep was no leap to emancipation, they say.

“I was 12. My husband was 23,” said Nou, 16, a senior at McLane High. “He told me he wanted to marry me. He picked me up and took me to his house. I didn’t say yes and I didn’t say no. My mother told me not to get married but it happens. It’s a very hard life.”

Some Hmong girls also choose marriage to avoid the disgrace of ending up twentysomething and unwed. The women complain that even the most eligible Hmong men--college graduates and Americanized--too often want 14- and 15-year-old wives.

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“Unless I became a second wife, no Hmong will marry me,” said Mee Her, 25, a graduate student at Cal State Fresno. “They fear a strong woman.”

Some parents, frightened and bewildered by the rise of Hmong youth gangs, encourage marriage as a way to impose adult responsibility. Gangbanging has ushered a new generation of Hmong boys and girls into the fold of early marriage.

Ou Vang, 17, and his girlfriend, Pa Her, 13, stood on the fringe of Hmong gang life. They survived two months on the streets by stealing car parts. Last summer, hoping to get back in his father’s good graces, Vang called home from a local convenience store.

“Tell our father I am bringing home a wife,” he told his older brother. “Get the chicken ready.”

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The way Ou sees it, marriage has proved a great bargain. His father, a mystical priest or shaman, had been challenging his every move, his clothes, his rap music, his girlfriend. Then one day, knighted by the chicken, he was suddenly a man with all the rights befitting a Hmong man.

As long as he attends high school, he can go and come as he pleases. The girl once forbidden to him now shares the bed in his room. About the only thing marriage hasn’t changed, he says, is his father’s distaste for rap music. The beat of rap reminds the older man of the beat of Hmong funeral music.

Pa Her isn’t so sure about the bargain. She hopes to wait until Ou graduates and finds a job before they have children. But already he is forcing the issue by refusing to wear a condom. “If I have a baby I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said. “My mother-in-law laughs, she says I can’t even cook the rice.”

Hmong brides of any age endure heavy pressure to bear a male child. A Hmong husband isn’t considered a man until he has sired a son. If a wife cannot conceive or the children she bears are all girls, the culture allows the husband to take a second wife. Polygamy continues to be practiced in the Central Valley but on a scale thought to be small.

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Kia Xiong feels the pressure to produce a son. Five years ago she was a 15-year-old at Fresno High School when she became smitten with a boy she met at the Fresno fairgrounds during Hmong New Year. Six weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, she married Yangpao Vue, then 18, and moved in with his family.

Unable to juggle school and domestic duties, Kia dropped out of 10th grade. Each year of marriage has brought a new child--three girls. She hopes their fourth child will be a boy so they can stop having babies. Her husband agrees.

“If it’s not a boy, maybe I will get another wife,” said Vue.

He keeps snapshots of various girlfriends--possible second wives. “I have one in Merced and one in Sacramento and Long Beach,” Vue said. “I met them at Hmong New Year.”

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His wife, fearful at the prospect of being left with young children to care for, said she tore up some of the photos. “I went back to my parents for two days but I came back,” she said. “It’s not easy. It’s hard. But this is my home. This is my place.”

Researchers who have studied the Hmong caution that their tightknit culture always has been reluctant to change.

“There is no reason to think that the practice of early marriage and childbearing will change significantly in our lifetime,” said Walker, the Berkeley anthropologist.

“Every single immigrant group has bowed to the pressures of the American lifestyle,” she said. “Among Southeast Asians, the Cambodians have responded. So have the Lao. The Vietnamese. But the Hmong have resisted.”

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Hmong clan leaders disagree. While many Hmong regard welfare as redress for blood spilled on behalf of the United States, leaders say welfare dependency is dropping. As for deep-rooted cultural rites such as early marriage, they say America must be patient. Fifteen years is but a blip in the passage of one of the world’s oldest and most primitive tribes.

“Give us time,” said Yang, president of the Hmong council. “It’s a matter of education. I don’t buy the argument that early marriage won’t change. It has to change. It already is changing.”

There is perhaps no better measure of that grudging change than the campus at Cal State Fresno, where 70 of the 270 Hmong students are women. Five years ago there were fewer than a dozen. “Every one of them is a pioneer,” said Katsuyo Howard, coordinator for Southeast Asian students.

Hmong women say that the number of teen-age girls resisting early marriage grows each year--along with the number of girls bolting joyless marriages.

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“I was supposed to marry my uncle’s son,” said Choua, a 17-year-old at Merced High who plans to go to college. “He had been chosen for me a long time ago. I told my parents, ‘Forget him. He’s not my type.’

“There is a lot of good in our culture. You know there’s no such thing as a Hmong convalescent home. Or a Hmong homeless person. So I want to keep my language. I want to keep my customs and music. But this early marriage stuff has got to change.”

Who Are the Hmong?

WHO: The Hmong, originally from China, are one of the most ancient tribes in the world.

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WHERE: Persecuted in China for refusing to discard their unique ways, they migrated to the highlands of Laos in the early 1800s. When war ravaged Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s, they fled to refugee camps in Thailand. More than 125,000 now live in the United States, concentrated in California and Minnesota.

TRIBAL NAME: Hmong literally means “a person.” It is pronounced Mong .

BACKGROUND: Sealed off from the outside world, the Hmong adopted a code of laws based on myriad taboos. Among them: Do not feed chicken gizzards to a child or he will grow up lacking in intelligence; do not tickle a baby’s feet or he will grow up a thief.

Hmong Communities in California

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About 88,000 refugees from the Hmong tribe of Southeast Asia and their offspring have settled in California. Yuba, Sutter and Butte Counties: 7,000 Sacramento County: 14,000 San Joaquin County: 8,000 Merced County: 12,000 Fresno County: 33,000 Tulare County: 3,000 Orange County: 2,500 San Diego County: 4,500 Los Angeles County: 1,500 Santa Barbara County: 2,500 Sources: U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and Hmong leaders in various cities.

Teen-Age Mothers

Hmong culture encourages girls to marry and have babies young. More than 15% of Hmong births in California are to girls 18 and under--the highest proportion of any ethnic group. Many Hmong mothers are younger than 16. The following shows the percentage of births to teen-agers in 1990 and 1991, by ethnic group: Hmong: 15% Black: 12% Latino: 11% Anglo: 5% Asian (excluding Hmong): 3% *

Births to mothers Total births: 18 and under: Hmong: 6,050 880 Black: 94,917 11,611 Latino: 503,141 52,919 Anglo: 499,117 22,617 Asian (excluding Hmong): 107,193 3,165

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Sources: State Department of Health Services


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