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Mee Vang attended some of the earliest Hmong International Freedom Festivals when she was still a baby. Hmong clan leaders, who organized the gathering at the time, asked Mee’s father, Tou Vang, to volunteer at the event. This was the early 1980s, and the festival, on Harriet Island in St. Paul, amounted to little more than a picnic: a small gathering of Minnesota’s newest Hmong families. The first Hmong family in Minnesota, after all, had only arrived in 1975.
Over time, the festival grew, and the venue moved up to Como Park. With more fields available, attendees could play more sports and set up stands to sell food. Before paved areas criss-crossed the park, booths would line the hills of Como Park. Mee said she looks back fondly to climbing them in the heat, buying cold papaya salad, and sitting down to watch soccer.
“It’s really ingrained in the Hmong community,” said Mee, who now organizes the festival as vice chair for the nonprofit United Hmong Family. “If you’ve never attended the event, you’ve probably had family members that have either attended or volunteered over the years.”
In recent years, the two-day Hmong International Freedom Festival, also known as J4, has drawn an average crowd of 40,000 people, from across the Twin Cities and the Midwest, and from as far away as California and Laos.
But April 24, in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mee and UHF canceled what would have been the 40th staging of the festival. As a result, members of the Hmong community have lost an opportunity to reconnect with friends and family. And vendors who usually spend months preparing for the festival will face a steep economic loss.
“We understand everyone is facing tough times with concerns related to the novel coronavirus,” UHF said in a statement. “The United Hmong Family, Inc. is aware of the interruptions the virus has caused to many families with daily routines as the numbers impacted continue to increase.”
In a typical year, the scale of the celebration recalls a major outdoor music festival, with cars stacking up throughout the Midway neighborhood. There are three soccer and football fields, five softball fields, as well as multiple volleyball courts at Como Park’s McMurray Fields. J4 is the world’s largest Hmong sporting event, with 20,000 athletes participating in soccer, volleyball, flag football and tuj lub (a team court game played with spinning tops).
Food and merchandise stands attract a nonstop stream of customers, selling barbecue and boba tea, clothes and craftwork. Stages host a steady slate of performances, including the opening ceremony.
Beyond a blow-out summer block party, the festival functions both as a reminder of the Hmong refugee experience and a celebration of unity. Since its inception, the festival remains an opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of Hmong immigration to the United States. The Refugee Act of 1980, in the wake of the Vietnam War, prompted a mass resettlement for Hmong families, with 27,242 Hmong people arriving in the United States. Many of these immigrants settled in Minnesota. In St. Paul, leaders from the 18 Hmong clans began organizing family gatherings, which became the origin of the Hmong International Freedom Festival.
Wang-Yu Vu, the chair of DFL’s Hmong caucus, attended his first J4 festival in 1993, the same year he immigrated to Minnesota. He recalled it rained that day. But J4 provided the chance for him to reunite with cousins he had not seen since 1975, when they had lived together in a Thai refugee camp.
Early on, Wang-Yu joined the J4 soccer tournament. This is a massive affair, with 150 teams in multiple brackets: Teenagers and young adults usually start practicing in April.
“It’s pretty much like the World Cup,” Wang-Yu said.
He played at each festival for the next ten years. Now, Wang-Yu attends the festival as an activist to promote Minnesota’s DFL Party.
It’s not just a community gathering, but a global one, Wang-Yu said. “It’s also a time to meet family members that we have not seen for ages.”
Sitting at a table and eating lunch together represents one of the most memorable parts of the festival for Wang-Yu. “The food is a big deal for us,” Wang-Yu said. “You see all the stands there, the smell of the barbecue, the spiciness of the papaya salad, the sticky rice in the morning, the Hmong sausage.”
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Wang-Yu was upset when he heard this year’s J4 festival would be canceled, but he said it was the right decision.
Savannah Vang, a University of Minnesota-Duluth student from Oakdale, took the news hard, too. Savannah has been attending the festival since she was about 5 years old. Like Mee, she enjoyed watching soccer from the hills at Como Park.
What Savannah finds most memorable about the festival is being able to reunite with her family. Once, Savannah happened to run into her grandmother while shopping at the booths. On one hand, Savannah hadn’t expected to see her. On the other hand, where else would she be that day?
“It gives you a reminder of how small a community really is,” Savannah said.
A huge loss for Hmong vendors, local businesses
While the Hmong may feel like family, the festival has attracted up to 55,000 people in recent years. According to Mee, over half of the attendees and vendors come from out of state. The festival costs UHF about $500,000 to stage. Most of the expenses go toward setting up the grounds and hiring security for the event. After paying the bills, Mee said, UHF is typically left with $60,000. These funds help pay for organizing the Hmong New Year Festival, a three-day festival of rituals, games and dancing held at the Saint Paul RiverCentre in the fall.
In this sense, the decision to cancel J4 was especially difficult, Mee said. “It actually doesn’t impact one event, it impacts two events.”
The impact may prove even more pronounced for vendors, who can make a year’s worth of income at the festival, Mee said. J4 commonly attracts 30 to 50 food vendors, 100 merchandise vendors, around 30 beverage stands and 10 food trucks.
“The meaning behind the Hmong International Freedom Festival is about this group of new American settlers who come into this country looking for a new hope, a new future, and just becoming successful,” Mee said. “There is success for those vendors.”
Mee said the festival has become a way for family-owned businesses to try new products and promote their year-round storefronts. Rolled ice cream, now popular up and down University Avenue, found some of its first local fans at the festival.
After surveying vendors, UHF found that more than half typically come from out of state. These stands often rent equipment from retailers in the Twin Cities; many stay with their families and staff at local hotels. While Mee said she has not been able to quantify the impact of the festival, it undoubtedly boosts the area’s economy.
J4 has become a global presence and, as such, a source of pride for Hmong families in Minnesota. But Mee said she also appreciates support from the local community. “Our governor in Minnesota and our mayor in St. Paul described it so well,” Mee said. “It’s not only just a Hmong event anymore. It’s respected as a community event.”
The festival, she added, has become a symbol of new beginnings for the Hmong in Minnesota. And in this spirit, Mee looks forward to next July. The community intends to celebrate the 40th Hmong International Freedom Festival—in its 41st year of existence.
Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.