From left to right: Jesus De La Torre, Amee Xiong, and Nausheena Hussain. Credit: Photo collage by Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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When Amee Xiong watched the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, she thought of losing her sister. In June, Marny Xiong, who chaired the St. Paul Board of Education, died from COVID-19. 

Amee Xiong, 36, said she appreciated the tribute Biden gave in a moment of silence during his inauguration speech for the more than 400,000 people in the U.S. who have succumbed to the virus. 

“I know that if my sister were here, she’d be proud of this moment,” Xiong said. 

Xiong also said Marny, who died last summer at the age of 31, would have been excited to see a woman of color become the second-most-powerful public official in the country. 

“When I look at her leadership as vice president, I see myself,” Xiong said. 

As Biden took office on Wednesday and promised in his inauguration speech to be a president “for all Americans,” many of Minnesota’s immigrants and new Americans soaked in the scene, ruminating on the historic nature of the event as well as urgent tasks the new administration faces. 

COVID-19, which is still ravaging the country, came to the forefront of many people’s minds. So did the history-making election of Kamala Harris, who was sworn in as the first South Asian, first woman, and first Black vice president in the country’s history. 

Xiong spoke of both factors. She said she’s hopeful Biden will bring a better federal response and vaccine plan to the virus. In particular, she pointed to the recent confusion between state leaders and the federal Health and Human Services Department over the supply and availability of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. 

She has confidence Biden will handle the situation better than the outgoing Trump team did, she said. 

Helping Hmong businesses recover from cancelled holidays

Mee Vang is also hoping for a stronger federal response to the pandemic from Biden’s administration. Vang, who is 42, said she also wants to see the new administration offer more support to people who’ve struggled economically during the pandemic. 

United Hmong Family, where Vang serves as vice president, runs the two largest Hmong community gatherings in Minnesota each year: the Hmong New Year festival and the Hmong International Freedom Festival, also known as J4. In 2020, United Hmong Family canceled both events, which Vang said hurt the hundreds of vendors who depend on these huge gatherings for their livelihood.

Vang said she’s heard concerns over the cancellations from many Hmong vendors over the past year: both economic concerns and health concerns, as many of their families have been hurt by COVID-19. 

“They were really hoping on making some type of income to meet their needs, but they couldn’t do so.” Vang said. “We really wanted to adhere to public safety. We couldn’t provide that support for them.” 

Now she’s hoping Biden presents more financial support to people in these situations. She’s also hoping that Biden’s inauguration can tamp down the political division in the country. 

“I’m looking for unity that’s to come,” she said. 

Glued to the inauguration on screen

Last month Nausheena Hussain cast a ballot for Joe Biden as part of Minnesota’s electoral college slate. She spent all Wednesday at work, with the inauguration ceremonies streaming in the background. Hussain, who is executive director of the political organizing group Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment, said she’s never spent so much time glued to an inauguration before. 

Hussain, who is Indian American, paid special attention to Harris, whose mother is originally from India.

“Seeing Kamala Harris being sworn in was just phenomenal,” she said. 

And even though Hussain said she’s not the biggest fan of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, she got emotional when Klobuchar was the first to introduce Harris as “madam vice president.” The Minnesota connection felt “powerful.” Hussain kept tabs on Harris, watching her perform official duties as vice president like swearing in the two new U.S. senators from Georgia. 

Another thing Hussain watched for was any pending executive order from Biden to rescind Trump’s travel ban on multiple Muslim-majority countries. This is expected to become one of six executive orders Biden will issue on immigration during his first day in office

Watching Trump exit the White House

Other Minnesotans couldn’t help but speak about Donald Trump, whose term in office will surely go down as one of the most tumultuous in modern times. Kham Su Lor, who works in information technology in St. Paul and came to the U.S. as a refugee from Laos as a young boy, recalled his college education in history and mentioned the significance of the attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters two weeks ago. 

While politicians and leaders in the U.S. often warn of extremist threats coming from outside the country, the attack on the Capitol proved the country has significant domestic threats, too. “The problem is, most people don’t want to label what’s happening domestically as terrorism or threats,” Lor said. 

Trump’s refusal to attend Biden’s inauguration also stood out to Lor. By doing this, he said, Trump failed to participate in the country’s peaceful transition of power—a process the U.S. has previously taken for granted.

“He should be there to say, ‘This is how we do things as Americans,’” Lor said. “So many things are in his control as the outgoing president, even after all the divisiveness. In his final days, he really could have turned things around.” 

All of this has been bad for the global image of the country. Lor noted that he knows several people in his community, especially Hmong elders, who watch newscasts from China. The breach of the Capitol, Trump’s unwillingness to accept the election results, and the tepid response to the pandemic all cycle constantly in Chinese media feeds, he said. 

Lor recalled recently watching one Chinese newscaster emphasize how China has endured for 5,000 years while the U.S. has been around for only 250 years. Which country would you bet to have more lasting power, the newscaster asked the audience rhetorically. 

“They’re saying, ‘Look at them. They can’t keep order,’” Lor said. “They are literally mocking the U.S.” 

Some Democrats may be racist–but they do it ‘in the professional way’ 

Jesus De La Torre, 56, said he is just happy to see Trump leave office.

“I’m just glad the redneck is gone,” said De La Torre, who runs a traditional massage healing and therapy clinic in south Minneapolis. “He did a lot of damage to our community, to Latinos.” 

De La Torre, 56, said he knows racism won’t go away after Trump, and he emphasized that many Democrats are racist, too. “But they do it kind of quietly,” he said. “They do it the professional way.” 

Still, he believes things will get better for his community compared to the last four years. Biden approaches things in the opposite way from Trump, he said. 

“With Biden being an old man, whatever he’s going to do, he’s going to do it from the bottom of his heart,” he said. “What else can he be? He’s already been all over the place and this is the last thing for him.” 

Policywise, De La Torre said, he’s hoping a Biden administration will raise taxes on the rich and enact gun control measures to help curb the kind of violence he sees in the neighborhood where he operates his business. 

“My hope is for the next four years, he’ll take away the guns,” De La Torre said. “Even mine.” 

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...