Hmong Minnesotan Efforts to Liberate Us From Violence

Trigger Warning: references to domestic violence 

Yia Xiong’s sister, Yang Mee Lee, holding up her fist at a Saint Paul protest (photo by Cameron PajYeeb Yang)

On February 15, Yia Xiong, a 65-year-old Hmong elder, who didn’t speak English and was hard of hearing, was shot and killed by a Saint Paul police officer using a military-grade weapon, in an apartment complex that housed seniors with disabilities.

On March 10, Jennifer Yang, a 36-year-old Hmong woman, was killed in a murder-suicide by her husband. Yang leaves behind three young children. 

These two deaths have caused an unusual uproar among the Hmong Minnesotan community, which is now confronting systems of violence from the institution of policing as well as the cultural system of patriarchy within the Hmong community. I have been working as an advocate to seek justice for the families of Yia Xiong and Jennifer Yang.. 

As a 27-year-old Hmong person, I have already experienced many forms of patriarchal violence. In 2004 and 2006, my parents were in a rocky divorce. Their divorce was prompted when my father proposed opening up their marriage by introducing his potential second wife to my mother. [The Hmong people have traditionally practiced polygamy, but this practice has begun to fade since the migration to America.]

After my father moved out of our childhood home, my mother gained full custody of us kids. My father reacted by kicking through our front door and viciously dragging my maternal grandmother behind him as hostage. He headed straight for a butcher knife and brandished it on his way throughout the house. He proceeded to corner my mother, grandmother, 12-year-old sister, brother (aged 9), and myself (aged 11). He  threatened to kill us all. After a long evening of negotiating for our lives, he finally left. 

We called the police. When they arrived, my grandmother, in her mid-70’s at the time, picked up the butcher knife my father had used to show the 6-foot, white, Saint Paul police officer how my father had held us captive. My grandmother does not speak English. The officer told my grandmother in English to put the butcher knife down and that if she didn’t, he would tackle her to apprehend the weapon. That memory has haunted me since.

As advocates for domestic violence survivors have known for decades, these experiences — including the deaths of Yia Xiong and Jennifer Yang — are not unique. Events like these will continue to happen if the community, including Hmong Americans, continue to dismiss cases related to police brutality and domestic violence as individual stand-alone incidents. 

Yia Xiong’s widow, See Xiong, as she is preparing to speak into the microphone at a protest (photo by Cameron PajYeeb Yang)

In 2022,  Ka Lor, a 30-year-old Hmong woman, was killed by her husband in a murder-suicide, leaving behind five children under the age of ten. In 2019, Chaiser Vue, a 52-year-old man, was killed by Minneapolis police after the police fired 59 rounds of ammunition.

I appreciate the public statement of Transforming Generations, a Hmong domestic violence organization located in Saint Paul whose mission is to end gender-based violence within the Hmong community:

“[W]hether it is the police or the men in our community, it’s the same kind of violence. It is patriarchal violence.” 

I am exhausted, disgusted and discouraged about the ways we are mistreated by individuals who are upholding the patriarchy. During our organizing and advocacy efforts, we were met with elected officials and skeptical Hmong men who would verbally shame us and berate us.

Yet I also have been reminded — through the creative explorations of Hmong queer and transgender individuals, and Hmong women — that there is also hope. I have shared in creative experiences and  performances that speak directly to patriarchal violence within the Hmong community and showcase ways to hope toward a gentler future. 

  • In February, Cydi Yang (aka Cydi Like the City) performed an original music performance called Soul Call as a Cedar Commissions artist. Their hour-long set challenged and amplified the ways patriarchy has dominated the ways in which Hmong queer folks exist with Hmong spirituality and religion. 
  • Kao Kalia Yang’s operatic adaptation of The Song Poet follows her father’s refugee journey from a dreamful life in Laos as a romantic poet to his life as a machine operator in Brooklyn Park. The performance reminded me of ways that Hmong men and masculine folks have dreams of gentle futures, too. 
  • Katie Ka Vang’s Theatre Mu musical production of Again spoke to novel ways in which Hmong Americans are able to heal  interpersonal conflicts through new connections with loved ones. The musical portrayed simple ways Hmong families can resolve conflict without violence. 
  • Joua Lee Grande premiered a partial screening of her ethnographic documentary film Spirited in mid-April.As a queer Hmong woman, she spent ten years of her life trying to find answers to the misconceptions surrounding Hmong spirituality. Her documentary reveals the ways in which Hmong spirituality has been weaponized to harm Hmong women and queer folks. 

It is through art that our community will be able to dream about and conceptualize gentle futures. 

KabZuag Vaj, founder and previous co-executive director of Freedom, Inc., recently said, when summarizing her 20 years of organizing and advocacy work against patriarchy and white supremacy: “Love your community so profoundly and unapologetically that others have no choice but to love them too.” 

As a masculine-presenting nonbinary person, I dream of gentle futures where Hmong men and masculine-identifying folks are able to deeply trust that ending patriarchal violence liberates all of us.

CALL TO ACTION: Yia Xiong’s family is asking people to urge Mayor Carter and Saint Paul police chief Axel Henry to terminate two officers who killed Yia Xiong: Abdurrahman Dehir and Noushue Cha. Call Mayor Carter’s office or sign the family’s petition by contacting lead organizer Snowden Herr at 651.888.0248. 

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Cameron PajYeeb Yang (they/them/nws) identifies as a transgender, nonbinary, queer, Hmong second-generation person who has held the duality of both Hmong masculine and feminine expectations and the pains that come with them. They are a current PhD student at the University of Minnesota studying education policy and leadership. They work as a nonprofit grants writer, educational compliance and ethics manager, CRM and communications specialist, English language arts teacher, visual artist (2D/3D mediums), radio producer, and advocate for marginalized communities.