Bill Spurs Bitter Debate Over Hmong Identity

Times Staff Writer

It stemmed from tragedy. After eight teenage suicides scarred the Central Valley's Hmong community, Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno) convened a group of the Hmong to seek solutions to the youth crisis of poor self-esteem and cultural confusion.

The legislation born that day has been praised by leaders of the people with Southeast Asian roots. But Reyes' seemingly innocuous bill -- which would encourage California schools to teach the history of Hmong involvement and sacrifice in the secret war in Laos -- has triggered a bitter debate on the very nature of Hmong identity.

Members of a small culturally and linguistically distinct group -- Mong Leng, or Blue Mong -- have come forward to demand that they be recognized separately in the bill, as a way to reverse what they say is long-standing subordination to the more dominant Hmong Der, or White Hmong.

The dispute taps into centuries-old divisions among a tribal people. Like other battles among recent immigrants lumped together under one ethnic umbrella, it is about class, culture and language as an anchor to identity.

Mong Leng -- who prefer the spelling with no "H" -- say they have seized on the legislation by the Fresno Democrat as a way to make their voices heard after decades of silence. If the bill passes as is, they fear, resources will flow disproportionately to the Hmong Der.

"Of the two Hmong groups, our group was the least educated and the least sophisticated when we got to this country," said Paoze Thao, a professor of linguistics at Cal State Monterey Bay and president of the nonprofit Mong Federation. "But our group has always disputed the fact that the group Hmong includes Mong. The public has been misinformed."

But many Hmong -- from community leaders to student activists -- are startled by the controversy and insist that Hmong of both dialects have coexisted here peacefully.

Although they say some concerns raised by Thao's group are well-founded -- namely that curricular materials should be translated into Mong Leng as well as Hmong Der -- they worry that the sudden fissure could derail a bill that benefits all their people.

"We have White and Blue and Green. Traditionally and culturally the dialects are different and the cultures are different, but the ethnicity is Hmong," said Christopher Vang, assistant professor of teacher education at Cal State Stanislaus-Stockton and a supporter of the bill.

"Somebody has taken this opportunity to publicize a personal quest for linguistic equality," he said. "We need to say: Enough is enough."

One measure of the battle is the fight over the spelling "Hmong," devised more than three decades ago by a Western academic to describe the diverse hill tribes of Southeast Asia.

Among them were White Hmong, Blue and Green Mong, Striped Hmong, Black Hmong and Red Hmong -- classifications based on costume and custom. There are differences in language between Hmong Der -- or White Hmong -- and Mong Leng -- known by some interchangeably as Blue Mong or Green Mong.

As many as 40,000 Hmong were killed fighting on the U.S. side in the CIA's secret war against Laotian communists in the 1960s and 1970s. Survivors settled in the United States as refugees, congregating largely in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California's Central Valley.

The more impoverished Mong Leng say their people died or were injured in greater numbers. The Hmong Der were generally more educated, more affluent and consequently more influential, Hmong scholars say.

As a result, dictionaries, written translations and other literature are skewed to Hmong Der. State officials in Minnesota, for example, only recently began translating children's books into both Mong Leng and Hmong Der, said Mark Pfeifer, resource center director at the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul.

But whether the dominance of Hmong Der has scarred the community is a matter of debate. Many Hmong Der leaders say tensions have been minimal. They point to intermarriages with Mong Leng.

Vang, who is Hmong Der, says he knows many Mong Leng who use their dialects at home but have adapted to Hmong Der in the workplace.

But Thao and other Mong Leng activists say they have suffered inequality and a stereotype of inferiority for years.

A refugee worker turned academic, Thao moved to California from Illinois in 1995 and began working with the Central Valley's Hmong, noting the dearth of translated material for Mong Leng children. Under his leadership a younger generation took the reins of the Mong Federation, among them Chimeng Yang, 36, a former teacher and current administrator in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

Yang said he has seen the disparities affect self-esteem in the classroom.

"The Mong kids will not comprehend the story," he said. "They are shy. They don't want to raise their hands, because of the teasing."

But it was an issue affecting all Hmong that brought the group's campaign into the public eye.

Concerned with low educational attainment, state Education Secretary Kerry Mazzoni formed an advisory group of Hmong Der and Mong Leng.

In a detailed presentation, Thao outlined the differences between the groups last year for officials, who describe the initiative on the secretary's Web site as "Success for Hmong/Mong Students."

Tensions surfaced only with the Reyes' legislation. Eight Fresno Hmong teenagers had taken their lives in a three-year period -- four within six months. The deaths accounted for nearly half the county's teenage suicides, although Hmong made up only 3% of the population.

Struggling to assimilate in American youth culture while living in profoundly traditional households, the teenagers felt adrift. Meanwhile, their history was absent from schoolbooks.

Responding to a Fresno Bee report on the deaths, Reyes assembled a group of Hmong to brainstorm, and AB78 was born.

"If you are a Hmong kid, who are you?" asked Peter Vang, a supporter of the bill whose 18-year-old son committed suicide.

"Your mom or your dad helped to fight the communists, but you are not included in the Vietnam history," said Vang, chairman of the Central Valley's nascent Hmong Education Task Force. "It's discouraging for kids."

The bill does not make a change in curriculum mandatory or direct money to schools. But it encourages educators to teach the "the role of the Hmong and other Southeast Asians in the Vietnam War" in grades 7 through 12, using oral and video testimony to stress Hmong reasons for immigrating.

Thao and Yang of the Mong Federation wanted the "Mong" spelling included. "We supported them 100%," Thao said. But Thao said the group turned against the bill when "we were ignored."

Reyes said she explained to the group that all Hmong in the United States are classified under that term and directed the Mong to seek a separate ethnic designation through federal channels. The bill neither favors one dialect over another nor mandates the creation of curricular materials, she said.

"If I put Mong in there, are the Black Hmong going to come to me? Are the Red Hmong going to come to me?" the assemblywoman asked. "We as a Legislature decided not to get into this fight."

Still, Reyes -- who has seen Latinos bicker similarly over self-identifying terms -- is sympathetic. "It's the struggle of a new community," she said.

Some, like Christopher Vang, worry that the debate will "create hostility and cause incivility." Others offer faint hope that the process could be healthy.

Doua Vu, a resource specialist for the Fresno Unified School District, helped craft AB78.

"I think," Vu said, "they have raised an awareness level among some who weren't aware before."

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