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Tampa's growing Hmong community is ushering in the new year

Hmong traditional costume and dance
Nancy Guan
At the Planteen Recreation Center, kids learn traditional Hmong dances every week.

The Hmong New Year, or "Hmoob Lub Tsiab Peb Caug," will be celebrated Dec. 16.

Sounds of the qeej, a traditional Hmong woodwind instrument, echo within the halls of the Planteen Recreation Center in Plant City.

Inside, children are preparing for the Hmong New Year celebration, which falls on Saturday, Dec. 16 this year. The annual tradition is tied to the end of the fall harvest.

Nowadays, the Hmong diaspora, scattered across the country, celebrate depending on where they are on the map, explained Shoua Camille Moua Lor.

Across the southeast U.S., Hmong communities schedule new year celebrations on different weekends, so that people can attend multiple events if they want to, said Moua Lor. That's how the community can stay connected within their respective regions.

Moua Lor, a mother of three boys and four step children, recently traveled with her family to celebrate in Georgia and North Carolina.

"I told them, 'when you're older, then we'll go to Minnesota,'" said Moua Lor, "And you'll get to experience what Mom and Dad experienced growing up."

When U.S. forces withdrew from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, most Hmong refugees resettled in Minnesota due to robust social services in that area. The state is now home to the largest Hmong community in the U.S., boasting a population of more than 80,000.

"Back in Minnesota, you didn't have to explain who you were, whereas here, in Florida, people are like 'who are you guys, where do you come from, what are those coins, why are they French?'" said Moua Lor.

Hmong background

As Moua Lor grew up in the U.S., she learned more about her family's journey from Southeast Asia and the immigration history of her community at large.

She discovered that the Hmong were one of the multi-ethnic groups in China before conflicts during the Han Dynasty pushed them to flee into the mountains in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand in order to keep their cultural identity.

During the French-Indochina War, French missionaries came to their villages, said Moua Lor.

"That's where we get our French influences from," she said, adding that that's when the Hmong language began to be Romanized.

In the 1960s, the U.S. recruited the Hmong to assist during the Vietnam War.

"We knew the mountains, and the CIA learned that we could perhaps help stop the Ho Chi Minh Trail — supplies and all that stuff," she said, "When the U.S. pulled out, they sent a couple planes to take people out ... My dad didn't (make it out)."

Instead, her parents were among the more than 138,000 who fled to Thailand by crossing the Mekong River.

They escaped to the Ban Vinai refugee camp, where Moua Lor was born in 1978. She learned from her older siblings that the camp resembled more of a Hmong village.

"Even though they were surrounded by barbed wire and even though it was a refugee camp, it was a booming little Hmong town," she said, "During new year's, there were soccer tournaments, and it was fun. They weren't really aware of what our parents knew."

More than 40,000 Hmong refugees immigrated to Minnesota in the late 1970s through 90s.

Moua Lor said she grew up surrounded by those immigrants. Thousands would attend the new year festival in St. Paul. The celebrations would last several days, reminiscent of how her ancestors observed the new year.

"You would travel from village to village, to your family members' village, for example," said Moua Lor, "so it would take a couple of days."

Growing community in Tampa preserves tradition

In Florida, the Hmong population is closer to 2,000, with Lakeland being home to one of the largest communities.

Moua Lor moved to the Tampa area in 2019 with her husband for work and to escape the Minnesota cold. She noted that the community continues growing.

"There are more and more families moving down here every single month, and they're reaching out to find others," she said.

Florida Hmong Community, Inc, the nonprofit that Moua Lor is a member of, helps those newcomers adjust, and tries to keep the Hmong culture alive throughout the year.

instructor teaches hmong dance
Nancy Guan
Stephanie Vang teaches younger girls the Nkauj Hmoob Toj Siab, a performance that is dedicated to the hard, agricultural work of the Hmong ancestors.

Stephanie Vang teaches Hmong dances at the rec center every weekend.

"The younger generations, they're not as familiar with the culture, so these programs help keep the culture and language alive," said Vang.

In preparation for the Dec. 16 festival, which includes a celebration at the R.P. Funding Center, Vang is teaching a group of middle and high school boys the Tub Dhia Qeej.

It's a dance ritual where the performers rotate in a counterclockwise direction while playing the Qeej. Vang explains that it's performed at weddings, funerals, the new year and any time "you want to usher out the old and welcome the new."

"It's not just a performance, but it's spiritual as well," she said.

Benjamin Lee, Moua Lor's son, is a high school freshman who's taking part in the show. He said the qeej was a symbol he saw frequently while growing up.

"When I was younger, I didn't pay too much attention to it, but now it's a really big part of my life, so I have to take more responsibility over it," he said.

Moua Lor said she understands the push and pull of growing up in a multicultural environment. It's not always easy being a Hmong American, which is why it's important to build a sense of community.

"I remember my parents telling me, 'Hey, you need to do this, I need you to do that' — sometimes you need to be voluntold!" Moua Lor said, "But I think they [the kids] see their friend is doing it and so they say 'I can do it.'"

More details for the celebration that the public can attend can be found here: https://asiatrend.org/event/florida-hmong-new-year-2023/

Corrected: December 14, 2023 at 3:05 PM EST
This story has been updated to reflect the new location of the celebration at RP Funding Center in Lakeland, and the number of children Moua had.
As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.
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