Inside the Wisconsin Exposition Center last weekend thousands of people circulated amid a whirl of colors, textures, fragrances and melodies from a faraway land.
A marketplace featuring tropical fruits and vegetables, racks of brightly colored silk clothing, hanging displays of ornate headdresses and steaming tables of food made up one part of the lively scene.
This annual two-day celebration of the Hmong New Year, hosted by the Milwaukee Hmong community and the Hmong Consortium, took place at Wisconsin State Fair Park. According to the hosts, every year “this culturally significant event draws between 8,000 and 10,000 Hmong and non-Hmong, young and mature participants from across Wisconsin and the U.S.”
The celebration also includes a beauty pageant, selection of a Man and Woman of the Year, Hmong dance and singing competitions, a fashion show, and Hmong entertainers from around the world. Cash prizes are awarded to contest winners. The Milwaukee Hmong Consortium awards merit scholarships to Hmong high school graduates in the Milwaukee area. The top contestants in the Miss Hmong Wisconsin competition also receive scholarships.
The Hmong people have lived for thousands of years in China, some gradually migrating south to Laos and Vietnam. They have long made their living as self-sufficient farmers and gatherers.
In the late 1970s, after the U.S. lost the Vietnam War, the Hmong in Laos were forced to flee because they had helped the Americans. “Many fled to neighboring countries, and a significant number sought asylum in the United States,” according to Rashaan Meneses, a cultural anthropologist at UCLA.
The Hmong population of the U.S. numbers 260,076, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Wisconsin is home to America’s third largest Hmong community, after California and Minnesota, with 49,240 Hmong residents.