With the Hmong population in Wisconsin on the rise over the last decade, state legislators introduced a bill Tuesday that would require school districts to design a curriculum to teach Hmong history.
Bill author Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, said he felt the Hmong culture was “being ignored,” despite Wisconsin having one of the largest populations of Hmong people in the country, third only to Minnesota and California, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
The Hmong are historically from China, but also have populations in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, according to the Wausau Area Hmong Association.
The census also found Milwaukee, Wausau and Sheboygan have the largest Hmong populations in the state, with a community of more than 10,000 in Milwaukee and more than 3,000 in both Wausau and Sheboygan.
The bill would specifically include the history of Hmong fighting in Vietnam for the U.S., their persecution by the Laotian government after the Vietnam War and the emigration of Hmong to the U.S. in school districts’ curriculum.
“It is important that we let the public know the role Hmong community played in protecting American soldiers during the Vietnam War,” Kessler said.
Hmong people were recruited by the U.S. to serve as guerrilla soldiers to fight the North Vietnamese during the war.
According to the Wausau Area Hmong Association, 20,000 Hmong died after 1975 due to starvation, chemical spray, drowning, persecution or being killed by Pathet Lao, a communist leader in Laos.
David Chambers, a UW Ph.D. student with a specialty in Southeast Asian studies, said most students do not know any Hmong history or culture, something he would have benefited from as a student growing up in a Hmong-populated area.
Chambers’ wife, Mylia Chambers, said she embraced her Hmong background as she grew up and learned more about the struggles of her grandparents and parents.
“In Hmong culture, we don’t like to say we are so proud because we’ve done this, this and that,” Mylia Chambers said. “They’re pretty humble about what they’ve done.”
Despite their history, Kessler said there are still many people who do not like the special emphasis on specific cultures in course matter.
Kessler added there is a strong anti-immigrant feeling toward various populations including Africans, Indians, Pakistanis and others, when we should “keep talking positively” about such immigrant groups, especially when they are our allies.
“When you have a new immigrant group like this, who encountered a degree of discrimination, it’s perfectly proper for the state to address the positive things [the Hmong] have done for the people in this country,” Kessler said.
Fellow bill sponsor Rep. Daniel Riemer, D-Milwaukee, said he went to school with many kids in the Hmong community while growing up in Milwaukee.
His mother, a Milwaukee public school teacher, also taught Hmong students in her classes, Riemer added.
He said he was unsure whether his classmates felt discriminated against, but said they participated in everything else other kids did.
“My personal experience makes me feel a little more strongly about making it part of the curriculum,” Riemer said.