California

San Diego’s Laotian community pushes for a place in California history books

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Members of Lao Advocacy Organization San Diego meet with elders from the area’s Laotian community.
(Phimphone Siripanyo / Lao Advocacy Organization San Diego)
San Diego Union-Tribune

Members of San Diego’s Laotian community have launched a statewide movement to get their history added to California textbooks.

Lao Advocacy Organization San Diego, or LaoSD, formed last fall after then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that added lessons on the Vietnamese American refugee experience, the Cambodian genocide and Hmong history to the state’s model curricula.

The group believes that bill left out the experiences of many who fled Laos during the Vietnam War.

“The bill is a great start, but it’s incomplete,” said Pida Kongphouthone, a Mira Mesa resident and chair of the group’s organizing committee. “It left out almost an entire country.”

As Hmong people make up a minority group in Laos, that community’s history includes some of the link between Laos and the U.S. Kongphouthone said he’s happy Hmong history is making its way into California schools, but he wants to see the stories of other Laotians represented as well.

“Laos is part of American history, which is why it’s important for it to be part of the K-12 curriculum,” Kongphouthone said. “We would like our fellow Americans to take a moment to explore Laotian culture, cuisine and heritage.”

As the U.S. fought the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, it found allies in the Laotian royal army and civilians who fought alongside American troops during the ensuing conflict. After the new communist government took over Laos, those who had fought against it were sent to reeducation camps.

Many escaped and fled to Thailand, where they were placed in refugee camps. The U.S. resettled many from those camps over the course of about a decade, Kongphouthone said.

There are close to 7,000 who claim Laotian ancestry in San Diego County, according to data from the 2017 census update.

The U.S. also waged a “secret war” in the region, through which Laos became the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

The Laotian American community avoided talking about its past for years, Kongphouthone said, because of the trauma many went through on their journeys to the U.S. Now, he and others are encouraging Laotians to be more open about their past and to get more civically involved.

LaoSD has been raising funds to lobby for Assembly Bill 1393, introduced in late February by San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, which would add Laotian American history to California’s model curricula.

The group plans to meet with legislators in Sacramento in late March, and in April, members of LaoSD will be encouraging the community to get involved in their efforts as part of their celebration of Lao New Year.

San Diego Union-Tribune writer Lauryn Schroeder contributed to this report.

kate.morrissey@sduniontribune.com