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Hmong In Milwaukee Seek The American Dream

LaToya Dennis
AC Xiong hopes to go to college to become a nurse. She says a professional career and home ownership are part of her American dream.

Milwaukee sometimes gets a bad rap for being one of the most segregated cities in the country. But there’s no denying how racially diverse it is.

It’s a majority-minority city, in which Asians make up about 3.8 percent of the population. The majority are Hmong. In fact, the Milwaukee area is home to the fourth largest concentration of Hmong people in the country.

During the Vietnam War, many Hmong sided with the United States, joining in the fight against Communism. That made them targets for retaliation, after the war. So, in the 1980s, thousands of Hmong resettled in the U.S. And many are still seeking the American dream.

On Milwaukee’s west side, family pictures adorn the walls of the two Bedroom one bathroom house that Houa Lor rents. Lor lives here with her 97-year-old mother. During the week, Lor babysits two of her grandchildren who are too young for school. Lor’s daughter AC Xiong translates because Lor doesn't speak English.

“The language barrier and everything, it’s just so hard,” Xiong says.

She says her mom is originally from Laos. Like many Hmong people here, Lor moved to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand.

“There’s times when I’d come over and she would watch YouTube and she’d just be looking at the mountains and then she would just start crying,” Xiong says.

She says Lor describes life in Laos, before the Vietnam War, as stress-free. But here, it hasn’t been that way. Lor’s only income is from social security. Up until about six years ago, she had a husband who worked in manufacturing, but they are now divorced.

Xiong was born in the U.S., so she doesn't suffer from homesickness for Laos like her mom. But Xiong says she's had her own struggles: growing up with refugee parents and six siblings.

“With the limited financials that we were getting in the household, it was really hard with seven kids. I wasn’t able to do a lot of stuff with school. Even when I needed help with homework, I wasn’t able to get the help. If I go to school, I just have to pay attention and really focus with my education in order to get my work done,” Xiong says.

Now 27, she's married and the mother of four boys, with another one on the way. She married early, 16, which she says used to be common in the Hmong community. But she says young people are doing things differently these days.

“I’m pretty young, but again because I married young too I was able to adapt within the older generation but then also understand my generation. And with the experience helping my mom versus someone else that’s my age [who] had a better, easier life with parents that were able to drive, able to go to school to educate themselves,” Xiong says.

She wants more out of life. She says she’s ready to go to college and become a nurse. And she wants her piece of the American dream — owning a home.

“We live in America and there’s a lot of stuff that we haven’t achieved but at least we own a home and that we did it for some time,” Xiong says.

She also has big dreams for her sons, including making sure they attend college.

“I don’t want them to follow my steps. My goal is to of course not follow my parent’s steps and to be successful. It’s a little delayed, but I still plan to still finish my goal. And I want my kids to see that, so they don’t have to repeat another generation of suffering financially wise and having a hard time with life,” Xiong says.

Tuesday we'll have another story on the Hmong experience in Wisconsin.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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