Dec 26, 2012

Hmong: California School Aims To Educate And Preserve Culture

After surviving centuries of wars, genocide and migration mainly to the United States, the Hmong culture stands threatened. This has been acknowledged by a new elementary school in California, which has introduced an immersion program aiming to preserve the culture and connect migrant children with their roots.

Below is an article published by Public Radio International:

At Susan B. Anthony Elementary, Mr. Vue’s kindergarteners sit on a brightly colored carpet as they look up at him, repeating sounds of the alphabet.

“Ahhh, aaay, eeeh,” he sings as the children sing along.

The sounds are not in English. The school, located in South Sacramento, is home to the only Hmong dual-language immersion program on the West Coast — and the second in the country after a similar program in St. Paul, Minn.

“The idea of the Hmong immersion program is so students will become bicultural and biliterate in both English and Hmong,” explains Lee Yang, the principal and a former director of Sacramento City Unified School District’s Multilingual Literacy Department, who spearheaded the program.

In the past few years, language immersion programs have sprouted up across the country, particularly in California, where the number nearly doubled from 119 in 2000 to 233 in 2010, according to the California Department of Education. About 200 of these programs are in Spanish; the rest are in Mandarin, Korean, Cantonese, Armenian, German, Italian and Japanese.

In 2011, Hmong was added to the list.

But while languages like Mandarin are witnessing a rapid rise in global prestige, the rewards for students who become fluent in Hmong may be less tangible. Since the first wave of Lao Hmong refugees arrived in 1975, their culture and history has slowly receded, and with it, their language.

SBA Elementary, Hmong Language Immersion Program from Roldan Lozada on Vimeo.

  “They know that they are Hmong,” said Melany Lo, a first grade parent in the Hmong program, “but they don’t even know the tradition or culture.”

It’s a concern shared by many in the community who fear that in future generations their history will be forgotten. According to census data, some 45 percent of Hmong Americans are under the age of 17. Parents and teachers expressed concerns that their culture and language were slipping away from this younger generation. For Vue’s students, that’s where the learning begins.

On one wall in his classroom is a large, colorful tapestry. The embroidered quilt, or story cloth, depicts the history of the Hmong people including their migration from Laos to the United States. Handmade dolls dressed in traditional Hmong clothing sit near the doorway.

The Hmong originated in northern China and later migrated south, where about 9 million Hmong (called “Miao” in Mandarin) still reside. Over the centuries, they continued to move southward, settling in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and elsewhere. As a people, they have survived genocide and war. In the 1960s and 70s, the Hmong in Laos were recruited to fight in the CIA’s “secret wars” against the Communists during the Vietnam conflict.

When that effort was lost, many fled to neighboring Thailand and ended up in refugee camps there.  The first wave of Hmong refugees to the United States arrived in 1975, and the most recent came in 2005. Today there are more than 260,000 Hmong Americans.