At 15, Sarah Vang is a confident leader. With her big, persistent smile, she runs her high school Hmong Club meeting with ease, spreading enthusiasm even to the most reluctant participants.
She founded the club last year as a sophomore. And as president, she takes it upon herself to look out for new Hmong students.
“There’s a lot of Hmong freshman,” she says, “and I just want to tell them, 'Join the Hmong Club! I’m so happy you’re Hmong!' I feel like I’m the mother of all Hmong people. I love my community so much.”
But that love came only after years of wrestling with her identity. Sarah didn’t speak much Hmong growing up, and she didn’t really talk with her parents about their life in Laos or why they came to the United States.
In elementary school, kids tormented her with racist taunts.
“It made me want to diminish all Asian or Hmong aspects of me,” she says. “I did not want to associate with any Hmong people. I really hated Hmong people.”
She felt that way for years. Then eventually, as a teen, she started wanting to know more about her culture. Around the same time, her high school introduced its first Hmong language and history class, and Sarah enrolled. Now every high school in the Fresno Unified School District offers these classes.
One day her teacher showed the class a documentary about the Hmong in Fresno. It included a tragic episode in the community's history -- the suicides of eight teenagers between 1998 and 2001.
“Once I saw my brother’s face, I started crying,” Sarah says.
Sarah’s brother was one of those teenagers. He died before she was born.
“My teacher didn’t know that that was my brother, or that the person they were interviewing was my dad,” she says.
After her brother’s death, Sarah’s dad, Peter Vang, talked to the families and friends of the other teens who had killed themselves.
“I cannot save my son anymore because he’s gone,” Vang says, “but I want to make sure other parents save their kids.”
Vang learned the kids all had distinct troubles, but he found a common theme: “These kids didn’t have an identity,” he says. “They don’t know who they are, where they came from, why their parents were involved in the war.”
Vang says that for kids to have a better sense of their identity, they need to learn about that war -- the so-called secret war in which the CIA recruited Hmong fighters to help stop the spread of communism in Laos during the Vietnam War. At least 30,000 Hmong died.
After the war, many Hmong ended up in the Central Valley, home to the second-largest Hmong community in the United States. Vang says that when his son was in school, this story wasn’t told.
“There’s nothing in history books,” he says. "So schools, when they talked about Vietnam War, the Hmong did not exist.”
So Vang and others in the community successfully advocated for California legislation that encouraged schools to teach students about the role of the Hmong in the Vietnam War. And they began pushing for Hmong language and history classes at Fresno schools, like the one Vang’s daughter, Sarah, took for the first time last year. In that class, the secret war got a lot of attention.
“At first we were like, 'Why are we learning about this?' We didn’t understand,” Sarah says. “But once we got into depth about it, we realized Hmong people went through a lot of hardships trying to get here. That’s when I started to ask my dad, ‘So tell me a little about the war.’ ”
Vang grew up in the war. As a 4-year-old, he remembers the screeching sound of rockets flying through the air, the sight of body parts strewn across the ground, and the stacks of body bags. At one point, his house was destroyed.
“I thought my parents were dead,” he says. “I realized they were still alive after all the smoke cleared.” Vang’s father fought with the CIA and was injured more than once. He lost multiple fingers to a grenade.
Hearing these stories had a big impact on Sarah.
“It really hit home. It made me appreciate everything the elders did,” she says. “Because of them we are here.”
After more than a decade, the work of Peter Vang and other community members is paying off: This year Sarah’s school offered a more advanced Hmong class for the first time, and last year Fresno State University introduced a minor in Hmong.
Fresno Unified has something else in the works, too. It’s testing out a dual immersion class for kindergartners so that kids like 6-year-old Logan can learn Hmong.
“I know how to read English,” he says, while looking through a children’s book written in Hmong. “I don’t know how to read Hmong. It’s hard.”
Misty Her oversees the new dual-language program. She says the biggest challenge is developing the curriculum.
“There’s really nothing, nothing out there for us," she says in terms of models. "But what’s exciting is we get to build it from the ground up.”
Her says there are very few Hmong dual-immersion programs, and there aren't a lot of Hmong written texts out there to work with.
“Our written language only happened about the last 60, 70 years,” she says.
The kids are just a couple of weeks into the after-school class, but Fresno Unified is already planning to offer regular Hmong dual immersion at elementary schools as early as next year. It will be the first in Fresno, and one of just a couple in California.
The Hmong who fled their homeland since the Vietnam War hope this generation -- and those to come -- will walk through the world with confidence. They hope that by knowing their language, their history and exactly where they came from, younger Hmong can decide who they want to be.