For hundreds of years, wherever the Hmong have traveled – from China to Vietnam and Laos and eventually to America – they have retained their community and cultural identity. Nowhere is that more obvious than at Hmong New Year celebrations, currently kicking off this month around the Central Valley.
Thousands of Hmong people from Merced and surrounding countries turned out last weekend for the local Hmong New Year at the fairgrounds, which featured a parade, dance contests, an outdoor market and lots of food.
New Year is one of the most important days for Hmong people. It normally falls in November or December – after the fall harvest – and is a time of eating, blessing and meeting with family. Community events like this one offer an opportunity to participate in dance, sports and traditional ball-tossing called pov pob.
“We are very close together and we help each other,” said Moua Thao, adviser chairman of the Merced Lao Family Community. “Every year the Hmong come to help and support us.”
“They come to support us, to learn our culture for the new generation, then the new generation learn from that, and we keep our culture going on.”
The holiday is a chance for families who are busy working throughout the year to connect with those they don’t see that often.
“Just like back in Laos, we are working so hard,” Thao said. “We don’t see each other so much. So [during New Year] they come to talk to each other.”
America is home to about 330,000 Hmong people, with Merced being one of – if not the most – important Hmong communities in the country. The story of Hmong in Merced is an entire history of its own, known mostly to the Hmong who settled here and longtime residents of the county. Author Anne Fadiman documented the history of Hmong people in Merced in an award-winning book, The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down.
The Hmong first immigrated to America following the Vietnam War, when Communist forces seized control of Laos and persecuted them for the help they gave to American forces. Many fled the country and arrived in the Central Valley, having heard rumors of the good weather and available farming land. Merced became the epicenter for these rumors, and by the late 1980s the Hmong numbered over 15,000 people, about one fifth of the population. Economic recessions have since caused some Hmong to leave the area, but Merced is still one of the top Hmong communities in the country. Minneapolis has the largest community, followed by Fresno and Sacramento.