The United Hmong Family, Inc., which hosts Hmong New Year in Saint Paul each year, canceled the festival in June due to the pandemic. The event typically draws upwards of 60,000 people. Credit: Mee Vang | United Hmong Family, Inc.

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For a community devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hmong New Year comes at an opportune time. Hmong families across the world will spend this next week performing rituals at home to cleanse themselves from last year’s bad luck in hopes of a healthier, more prosperous new year.

The Hmong New Year festival in Saint Paul, which in past years has drawn up to 60,000 people, was cancelled this year. Hmong people from across the country would travel to Minnesota for the festival for games, food and merchandise vendors, dance competitions, and a beauty pageant at the Saint Paul RiverCentre.

Mee Vang, vice chair of the United Hmong Family, Inc., said organizers decided to cancel the event in June due to the pandemic. Vang said the organization knew it would have to cancel Hmong New Year after another large Hmong cultural event this summer—the Hmong International Freedom Festival, known as J4—was canceled.

But festival or no festival, the New Year will come. We asked members of the Hmong community to share some of their memories of the festival—along with a photo—in hopes that their own fond memories may provide some solace to Hmong families who cannot celebrate together this year.

Credit: Kyarii Ly

Kyarii Ly, 27, United Hmong Family, Inc. board member from Saint Paul.

My grandpa, Colonel Teng Ly, and I serve on the board together. He’s one who piqued my interest in joining the organization. My cousins and I would always sleep over at our grandparents’ house and go to the festival together to help volunteer.

The Friday before the festival is always really exciting because that’s when you get to meet all the vendors and help them set up. It’s really cool to see what they’re selling and cooking, since it’s different each year. It’s really fun for me to run around, keep busy, trying to catch your breath.

Those are my grandparents, my cousins in 2018 in the photo. We’re standing in front of our grandparents’ house in Blaine. We would wake up early and our grandma would help us put on our clothes. My cousins and I are dressed up in traditional Hmong wear, but it’s a more modern style. They all have skirts and I’m (third from the left) wearing more traditional pants.

It’s really hard for Hmong people because we don’t have our own country that we belong to. So it’s very important to have these holidays and celebrations together to honor our people. We’re not in a lot of textbooks. People don’t really know about our culture, so it’s really important to make it known to the world that we exist.

Credit: Mai Neng Pha

Mai Neng Pha, 40, United Hmong Family, Inc. assistant secretary from Brooklyn Center.

Going back to when I was kid, I remember vividly just going to the festival, seeing people in their native Hmong wear, and hanging out with friends. Growing up, there was so much excitement as the days approached. I grew up in a traditional Hmong household with my parents, my grandparents, my brother, and his wife.

We usually have a traditional soul-calling ceremony to call spirits back home—spirits that may have been lost, or scared, or frightened. My grandfather was a shaman, so we would watch him take down his altar and help him set up a new one for the new year. As a shaman you help people connect with their spiritual side. He’s like a “spirit doctor.” Now, my brothers do the rituals.

Also, I love, love, love wearing Hmong clothes. And we don’t get a lot of opportunities in Minnesota to dress up in our native costume. Hmong New Year was the only time you could wear it and feel like you belong. I like this photo because we’re all so different. One of us is wearing a more American-style gown. I’m in the middle in a blue traditional Hmong gown. The person next to me is wearing Hmong clothes with modern touches. And then city councilperson Nelsie Yang on the right is wearing what a city councilperson wears. We’re all showing where we come from and where we’re going—through our clothes.

Credit: Khou Yang

Khou Yang, 29, law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law from Saint Paul.

I competed in the pageant competition in 2017 and it was a very rigorous process. The competition is three days and there are three-four rounds each day. It’s an opportunity to showcase to the Hmong population who you are, what you stand for, the changes that you want to make, and the benefits that the Hmong community will receive if you win. It builds a sense of leadership, individualism, and a lot of confidence. It’s nerve wracking, but to be able to stand in front of hundreds of thousands and get your message through is a very empowering process.

What’s also really important about the pageant is that everything is in Hmong. Knowing that not a lot of Hmong kids speak Hmong anymore, it reinforces the idea that they need to learn the language if they want to compete. In some rounds, the judges will ask you a surprise question so you have to be prepared to answer in fluent Hmong.

It’s also the one time in the year we get to wear our traditional Hmong attire—with some modern touches. There are variations of traditional attires: black, striped, Hmong Chinese. You get to see where everyone originates from through their clothing. Since the festival is canceled, I have plans to do a photoshoot at home in my traditional Hmong attire, but I’m also studying for finals—so it might not happen.

Credit: Mee Vang

Mee Vang, 42, United Hmong Family, Inc. vice chair from Saint Paul.

My most fond memory of the Minnesota Hmong New Year is opening day and seeing all types of people—whether it’s an elected official or a Hmong elder. There’s a certain unity in the room when we do the ribbon cutting with people we haven’t seen for months, maybe years. 

This photo shows the ribbon cutting ceremony where we were joined by many dignitaries last year to help bless the Hmong community and the state of Minnesota as we ring in a new year. I’m pictured here, third from the left, with a general and other soldiers serving in the U.S. Marines and the army.

It sounds cliche but Hmong New Year really is about cleansing all the bad luck in the old year and looking forward to the new year to come. We usually have a soul-calling and home-cleansing ritual at home. But due to the pandemic, family members that usually practice the rituals can’t come. Otherwise, every family typically blesses their home by sweeping away the bad luck.

Hmong New Year is a very happy time—whether you’re Shamanist or Christian—in the Hmong community. It’s about coming together with extended family members and friends. It’s definitely been a difficult year for us.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.