December 5, 2016
Photo Courtesy of: Citizen 2016 @Elk Grove Citizen
Steve Ly has just made history by being elected as the first Hmong mayor in the United States. He fled Laos at the age of four and came to the US as a refugee after its “Secret War” had ended in 1976. Ly wants his story to inspire next generations of Hmong youths in the diaspora. For more information about the recent history of the indigenous Hmong people, click here.
The following article was published by Elk Grove Citizen:
When Elk Grove Vice Mayor Steve Ly is sworn in as the city’s next mayor at the next City Council meeting on Dec. 14 , he will also make national history.
During a recent interview with the Citizen, Ly spoke about his upcoming status as America’s first Hmong mayor.
“It certainly is a big honor,” he said. “When I ran for mayor that was not my intent to make history. I think for me, I really just wanted to be a person who cares and loves our city very much and wanted to be at the table, and is stepping up to play a more active role on the City Council. It’s a byproduct of what I decided to do.”
Former St. Paul, MN School Board Member Choua Lee, who became the first elected Hmong in the United States in 1992, expressed her excitement for the election of Ly as Elk Grove’s mayor.
“It was fantastic that Steve was elected mayor of Elk Grove,” she said. “Back in the 1990s, the Hmong were just breaking out in American politics. So, now we have the first Hmong mayor. So, that’s wonderful, and I’m looking forward to many more higher offices being held by Hmong candidates in the future.”
Ly was born in the Lao province of Xieng Khouang and he came to the United States as a refugee at the age of 4 in 1976. He received many congratulatory messages from members of the Hmong community throughout the nation.
“Certainly for the Hmong community across the United States, they’re very happy,” he said. “And they’re very happy that a war that occurred 40-plus years ago has transplanted a number of refugees here in the United States, and I think this is very symbolic of the Hmong community becoming fully integrated into the United States of America.”
Ly added that the war he spoke about is known as the Secret War of Laos.
“It is the Laotian theater during the Vietnam War,” he said. “The reason why it’s termed, ‘The Secret War’ is because during that time, it didn’t exist.
“In modern history, it’s often referred to as the Secret War of Laos, because it was completely run by the Central Intelligence Agency (with the U.S. Air Force) Air Commandos. And all the folks who fought in that war who are Americans, it wasn’t until recently that they could disclose that they were part of that theater.”
As a refugee, Ly came to America with his parents Youa Chao and Tu, and the majority of his siblings.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited Youa to rescue American pilots in Northern Laos. The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran from North Vietnam through northern Laos to South Vietnam.
Ly said that it was his father’s involvement rescuing American pilots that earned his family “a place on the ‘must kill list’ when the communist government took over (after) the United States pulled out of Southeast Asia.”
“With that being the case, we had no choice but to leave,” he said. “During that time, my father’s interest was ‘Well, why don’t I go to America, because I’ve become good friends with many Americans?’ And so, that was our decision to come here.”
Ly added that his father had very little money when he arrived with his family in America.
“My father, I remember him telling me that he took all of his savings and he converted it over to American dollars,” he said. “It was a whole month’s salary for him, and it was $5.”
Ly mentioned that stories like his own present opportunities for America to advance as a nation of immigrants.
“I think it’s important that we remember that it doesn’t matter whether your ancestors came here 20 years ago or you came here two months ago,” he said. “It’s an American story and we need to embrace these stories, so that we can move together as a nation of immigrants.”
Ly also expressed his appreciation for the opportunities he gained in America that led to him becoming Elk Grove’s mayor-elect.
“When I think about how beautiful and how great this country is, it makes me cry happy tears,” he said. “Because it’s only in America where a refugee boy (can) come here as a product of the Secret War of Laos, but (also) have an opportunity to run for public office. And not just any regular, old city - this is the great city of Elk Grove.”