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A Historian Shares Insight About The Hmong American Experience

Darren Hauck/Getty Images
A young woman wears a traditional Hmong outfit at the Hmong New Year Celebration at the Wisconsin State Fair Dec. 11, 2004 in West Allis, Wis.

Hmong people make up the largest group of Asians in Milwaukee. In fact, the Hmong population across Wisconsin is the third largest in the country, behind California and Minnesota.

Chia Vang, a historian at UW-Milwaukee, says what’s different about Wisconsin’s Hmong population is that it's spread across the state. So, why did Hmong people decide to resettle in Wisconsin?

“They actually don’t choose where they want to go. In fact, most refugees have no idea where these states are and no frame of reference. For the refugees, in order for them to come to the United States, they have to have a sponsor. Sponsors typically are individual families or churches that have a number of families that would volunteer to help the refugees,” Vang says.

Vang is also Hmong. She says her family was resettled in the Twin City area in the mid-1970s. 

While Hmong have been in the U.S. for more than a generation now, she says the average family size remains larger than that of typical Americans.

“The immigrant generation and the second generation as well tend to have larger families. It’s pretty typical to still have Hmong families that are four or five children,” Vang says.

She says there are many reasons for that. For example, infant mortality rates in their home country are higher so they have more children in hopes that they live long enough to take care of them in old age.

Vang also points out that like with other cultures, the more educated the woman, the fewer children she has.

READ: Hmong In Milwaukee Seek The American Dream

In the 1980s, about 60 percent of Hmong refugees received public assistance. These days, it’s about 20 percent. When you compare Hmong people to where they started, Vang says the number of those considered middle class has increased drastically. Still, she says there’s more work to be done.

“We are still one of the poorest among Asians in [the United States],” Vang says.

She says Hmong people are changing and that change is being led by younger generations.

Vang says people tend to think of the Hmong community as insular because they often turn to each other for help, but that is also changing.

“You have a lot of elders who couldn’t seek outside support because of language barriers. Professionals of a variety of sectors, they didn’t speak Hmong and so people couldn’t seek services in those area so they tended to rely on family support. So, a lot of younger Hmong Americans, they’re much more comfortable speaking to others that may be able to support them in a way that family members couldn’t,” Vang says.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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