Hmong dancers perform a colorful routine as part of the New Year's celebration in St. Paul, Minnesota. Image: tcdailyplanet.net

Minnesota a Hub for Hmong Heritage

ASEAN China

In honor of the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Hmong people’s migration to Minnesota, the Minnesota History Center is hosting an exhibit celebrating Hmong culture and their contributions of Minnesota’s social landscape. The “We are Hmong” exhibit, which started in March and runs through the anniversary in November, showcases the journey from Laos to Minnesota and explores the impact they have had on the state as well as the nation.

With roots from ancient China, Hmong immigrants began coming to the US in 1975 after conflicts in Southeast Asia forced many to flee. Hundreds settled in Minnesota due in large part to a strong network of social services that existed. Organizations like Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, and various state-run resources played an active role in bringing many to the state. Today, there are more than 77,000 Hmong people in Minnesota, the second highest in the country, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area is home to the largest concentration of Hmong residents in the United States.

California has the largest Hmong population of any state, with over 90,000, many of whom are concentrated in the Fresno and Sacramento metro areas. Wisconsin has the third highest population of Hmong in the country, largely in the Milwaukee area. In total, there are more than 260,000 persons of Hmong origin across all 50 states, more than half of whom were born in the US.

Like many immigrant communities, some early Hmong immigrants to the US struggled to adapt to life in the United States. However, in recent years, illiteracy and poverty rates in the community have declined and social and economic contributions are growing. Hmong residents generate an estimated $100 million for Minnesota’s economy and the community is credited with helping to revitalize the University Avenue area in St. Paul. There is growing political participation, evidenced by elected officials like Foung Hawj, a current Minnesota State Senator who assumed office in 2013. Mee Moua is also a former State Senator and, when elected in 2002, was the first Hmong American elected to any state’s legislature. Other notable Hmong Americans include Ka Vang, a writer and poet living in Minnesota, and Sacramento native Brenda Song, an actress and singer who has had roles in several Hollywood films.

Originally an ethnic group from southwestern China, many Hmong migrated to parts of Southeast Asia that are now in Laos, Thailand, and other countries in the mid-1600s. Thousands fled to the United States in the 1970s after aiding American forces during the war in Vietnam. In Asia, roughly eight million Hmong live in southwest China and another four million in Southeast Asia.

Nate Schlabach is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a recent graduate of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.