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A Throng of Hmong in Fresno

By Ronen at Accredited Language
Posted on Thursday, October 6, 2011
Category: History, History, Languages, Languages



Mention “Hmong,” and California is unlikely to be the first place that comes to mind. Even for those familiar with the name, it will likely conjure up images of Southeast Asia.

But after Asia California is, in fact, home to the second largest population of Hmong people. And it is Fresno, California’s fifth largest city, that claims title to the largest Hmong population within the state.

Hmong Origins

“Hmong” is an umbrella term that includes a number of ethnic groups and dialects originating in Southeast Asia – mainly in Southern China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. The various sub-groups included in the Hmong family were traditionally referred to and differentiated by the colors or styles of clothing they wore. For instance, the names of two of the largest groups in the US, Hmong Der and Mong Leng, can be translated as White Hmong and Green Hmong.

A More Recent Wave of Immigration

The majority of Hmong immigrants came to the US in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. During the war, the US enlisted many Hmong Laotians to help fight against the North Vietnamese Communist forces in what is known as the Secret War. After the war, however, Laos was overthrown by communist troops sympathetic to the North Vietnamese. As such, starting in 1975, the Hmong began to flee the country in fear of persecution.

Many of the Hmong Laotians ended up in squalid refugee camps in Thailand. Through various acts of Congress, a fair number of refugees were permitted to immigrate to the US, the most recent wave being in 2003, when 15,000 were accepted into the country. A smaller number of refugees have immigrated to various other countries such as France, Australia, French Guiana, Canada and Argentina.

Ninety-five percent of the world’s Hmong population, however, is still in Asia. And despite the fact that a significant portion remains in Thai refugee camps (contrary to the UN’s wishes to repatriate them to Laos), the flow of Hmong refugees to the US has largely come to a halt, as the Patriot Act and Real ID Act restrict them from entering the country due to their past involvement in armed conflict.

Hmong Presence in the US Today

Despite the decrease in immigration of Hmong to the US, the country maintains the largest Hmong population outside of Asia, concentrated in cities such as Fresno.

According to census figures, as of 2013 the US boasted a population of 281,000 individuals with Hmong origins of some sort. The state with the largest Hmong population is California — a state that has seen a number of other Asian immigrant groups settle within its borders throughout history. And within California, the majority of individuals of Hmong heritage can be found in Fresno.

According to the 2010 US Census, 12.56 percent of Fresno’s population (62,528 individuals) identify as Asian, the majority of which are Hmong. One area of the city in particular that has a substantial Hmong presence is the “West Side” (also known as “Southwest Fresno”) — a neighborhood that is also home to sizable African American and Mexican American populations.

Other cities in California with a notable Hmong population include Sacramento, Merced and Porterville. But California is not the only area in which Hmong immigrants have settled. Today, Hmong-Americans can be found across the country, with Minnesota and Wisconsin claiming some of the largest Hmong-American communities in cities such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Wausau and St. Paul (which has the largest Hmong population per capita in the US).

Hmong Culture Takes Root in the US

Though Hmong-American communities are becoming increasingly assimilated with mainstream American culture, there are still lasting influences of Hmong heritage on the areas where they reside, and further efforts are being made to preserve the traditional culture, languages and ethnic identity. For instance, in cities such as Fresno there are Hmong newspapers and radio stations, as well as Hmong schools and New Year celebrations.

One example of a broader Hmong influence on the US mainstream is Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film “Gran Torino,” which draws much of its material from Hmong-American culture. Also, with former Minnesota state Senator Mee Moua paving the way in 2002, Hmong-Americans can now be found in government and military positions throughout the US.

New Niches for Hmong Translation and Interpreting

The prevalence of Hmong immigrants and their descendants in areas such as Fresno could present an increased demand for translators and interpreters.

Translation in Politics

One event that highlighted the importance of translators in areas with significant Hmong populations occurred in 2003/2004, when a bill was introduced in the California State Assembly that sought to recognize the contribution of Hmong people in the US’s Vietnam War efforts.

The bill was translated into Hmong but brought about discontent among the Mong Leng community, as they felt excluded by not having the bill translated into their language of Mong. The discontent was exacerbated by the bill’s use of the term “Hmong,” which Mong Leng activists, who identify as Mong (no “h”), viewed as indicative of their group’s marginalization at the cost of the larger Hmong Der population.

The use of the umbrella term “Hmong” in the US to include these two groups as well as other smaller ones came to replace the Chinese “Miao” (or “Meo”), because of its perceived derogatory connotation, in the mid- to late-20th century. While the use of this term in the California bill was most likely not a conscious attempt to make the Mong Leng community feel marginalized, the problem could have been avoided by hiring professional translators to translate the bill into the languages and dialects of all of the groups involved.

Professional translators are sensitive to the acute nuances and connotations of language, so they could have been consulted about the implications of using the term “Hmong.” Some would likely have suggested including both “Hmong” and “Mong” in the bill’s language, while others might have proposed the alternative “(H)mong.”

Interpreting in Health Care

Ann Fadiman’s 1997 nonfiction book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” chronicles another instance in which Hmong translators and interpreters could have been used to avoid unnecessary conflict – although, in this case, professional medical interpreters and translators would have been needed.

The book tells the story of a young Hmong girl in Merced, California, who had epilepsy.  The girl’s immigrant parents, who did not speak English, viewed her seizures as a divine gift and thought the American doctors’ attempts to treat her were making her worse. Because of the language barrier, and the fact that the parents were illiterate, it is also questionable whether the parents could have even given consent for the girl’s treatment without an interpreter.

Had professional medical interpreters been present, not only could the miscommunications have been avoided, but also the hospital and doctors could have protected themselves from possible legal actions that the parents might have brought against them in the future.

Professional medical interpreters are more than simply fluent in the necessary languages – they are experts in the field of medicine and familiar with the pertinent medical terms that a family member acting as an interpreter might not know.

Immigration Assistance

According to the 2000 US Census, only 7 percent of Hmong-Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and nearly 30 percent of Hmong families in the US are below the poverty level. As such, translators and interpreters may also be needed in various public sectors to help Hmong immigrants become more successfully integrated into US society.

Professional translators and interpreters could be of use in anything from helping new immigrants find education or work to aiding in the treatment of elderly Hmong individuals who are less likely to speak English.

Building a Future for Hmong in the US

Despite the significant Hmong populations in cities such as Fresno, the Hmong-American community is still very young in comparison to other immigrant groups in the US. As such, they have not had as much of a chance to influence the development and local culture of the areas in which they have settled.

But as time progresses and the presence of people of Hmong origin in cities such as Fresno persists, they will likely leave a lasting mark on the country, just like the other immigrant groups that make up this great melting pot.



4 Responses to “A Throng of Hmong in Fresno”

  1. kellie lee Says:

    hello,im kellie lee and i was wondering if i can help the hmong/asain community in fresno and i am 17 years of age.any good news you can send me what can i do to help your hmong/asain community and i would love to help you in any ways to support
    kellie lee

  2. Amy at Accredited Language Says:

    Kellie,
    There are many ways to help your community. Check with local community organizations and leaders.
    Glad to hear you’re interested! Thanks for reading.

  3. Akyn Breusov Says:

    This article present incorrect information about where the Hmong-Americans live in Fresno. Only a few Hmong farmers live in southwest Fresno. Most of the Hmong in Fresno live predominately in the Southeast, east, and northeast side of Fresno all the way to Sanger where there are plenty of farmlands. Clovis also have a large amount of Hmong-Americans too. Hmong Americans in Fresno slowly scatter throughout Fresno and its surrounding areas. There is no one specific where Hmong Americans cluster around anymore. Although most Hmong American businesses tend to locate in Southeast and central Fresno, however, the people live else where and commute to these businesses.

  4. Amy at Accredited Language Says:

    Hi Akyn,

    Thank you for the updated information! This article was originally posted a few years ago, and of course the landscape is constantly changing. Thanks for the insight!

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