NWP 20, Hmong 40
Yien Saetern: Elk Grove strawberry farm in above image
Twenty years ago, I started on an amazing, ongoing professional development journey by applying for the Area 3 Writing Project’s Summer Institute (SI). I knew from the opening day that my SI experience would provide me with exceptional best practices in teaching writing and, equally important, with an incredible professional learning community. But in 1995, I certainly had no idea of the life-changing connections that would come my way as a result of my joining the NWP community. I’d like to share one of those connections.
At the close of the SI, A3WP director Jayne Marlink invited our group to a celebration at her home. As I entered her hallway, I was completely drawn into an elaborately decorated wall hanging. The intricate embroidery depicted groups of people clearly fleeing an area and attempting to cross a river. Soldiers were everywhere. That was my first time to see a Hmong story cloth. It was a gift, Jayne explained, from a former student, a Hmong student whose family had fled Laos after the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam War.
I grew up with the Vietnam War. It was in the news during my high school years. By college, the war dominated the media, with an escalating protest movement on and beyond campuses. So I thought I knew about the Vietnam War, including its extension into Cambodia. But I do not remember any news coverage from Laos. The Hmong story cloth hanging in Jayne’s hallway was a new chapter for me. Over the years, I continued to “read” about the Hmong migration from Laos, mainly at Sacramento area farmers’ markets, where Hmong often sell story cloths along with their produce.
In 1998, I transferred from a small, semi-rural school district in the Sierra foothills to the Elk Grove School District, a rapidly-growing district in the south Sacramento area. Prior to World War II, the Elk Grove-Florin area had been home to hundreds of Japanese-American families who farmed the region’s strawberry fields. When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of all citizens of Japanese heritage from the West Coast, the history of this community overnight and forever changed. Few were able to return and reclaim their farms.
The Elk Grove USD annually commemorates the forced removal of its Japanese-American citizens through its Board Resolution 33: Day of Remembrance. As a technology integration specialist for the district, it has been my privilege to help document the internment stories through the Time of Remembrance Oral Histories Project.
History does have a tendency to repeat itself. Two wars later, the strawberry fields of Elk Grove-Florin are primarily farmed by Hmong and Mien. They are refugees of the “Secret War in Laos.” This year, 2015, marks the 40-year anniversary of the Hmong and Mien migration from Laos and Thailand to the United States. During the Vietnam War, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency formed a secret alliance with the Hmong army to fight Laotian communists and the North Vietnamese. Shortly after the U.S. military abandoned Laos in 1974, the communist group Pathet Lao announced plans to wipe out both the Hmong and Mien. Their only option for survival was to flee Laos.
It is through the vision and support of Steve Ly that have I become actively and deeply involved in researching and documenting the stories of the Secret War refugees. Steve’s family fled Laos when he was four. Thirty-eight years later, he was elected to the Elk Grove USD School Board, the first Hmong member. In his tenure, he introduced Board Resolution 59 to commemorate the critical role the Hmong played in supporting the U.S. during the Vietnam War, to celebrate relocation of over 100,000 Hmong to the U.S., and to encourage teaching students in grades 7-12 about the Secret War (in alignment with California AB 78). Forty years later, Steve now serves as the City of Elk Grove’s first Hmong City Councilman. Through text messages, emails, and phone calls, he keeps me in the loop on upcoming events in the Sacramento area, such as a recent CSU, Sacramento, presentation by author Gayle Morrison, or a local hosting of a Hmong Story 40 celebration.
To commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the Hmong and Mien exodus from Laos, my colleague, the very talented EGUSD graphic designer Kathleen Watt, and I have been developing and curating a new section on the TOR website: the Vietnam War. We currently have completed interviews with 10 Hmong and Mien refugees and are in the process of annotating each interview so that teachers can easily locate and share specific parts of the interviews. We’ve posted snippets of several interviews, and should have complete interviews available within the next few months. Thanks to Steve Ly, we’ve even connected with and interviewed five Ravens. Ravens were the U.S. fighter pilots used for forward air control in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency during America’s Vietnam War. The Ravens provided direction for most of the air strikes against communist Pathet Lao targets.
From my first foray into the Secret War in Laos via Jayne Marlink’s Hmong story cloth, I now have on my night stand a small but growing collection of publications on the Secret War: The Latehomecomer; Tragic Mountains; Hog’s Exit, Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA; and The Ravens: The True Story of the Secret War. Kathleen and I connect almost daily to discuss “Secret War” updates to our TOR siteand its accompanying TOR Talks site. Twenty years later, I could now confidently and enthusiastically provide a guided tour of Jayne’s story cloth, enriched by stories shared during our interviews.
It is through Writing Project networks that I’ve come to understand the value and importance of telling our stories. It is through the support of my department (EGUSD Technology Services), in partnership with our Sacramento Educational Cable Consortium, that I’ve been able to digitally document community stories from two separated yet connected wars.
As California commemorates the 40-year legacy of the Secret War in Laos, through projects such as Hmong Story 40, I eagerly anticipate expanding the Time of Remembrance Oral Histories Archive and facilitating discussions on the TOR Talks site. Your input is warmly invited.