Above: Merced City Council candidates for Districts 1, 3 and 5 listen to a question as it is translated from Hmong to English during the city’s first-ever Hmong candidate forum.
By Hannah Esqueda
Photo via Building Healthy Communities Merced
Merced, Calif.– Hmong residents had the opportunity to directly address candidates running for Merced City Council during the city’s first ever Hmong-language election forum earlier this month.
While Valley cities like Fresno have had Hmong community groups as co-sponsors of English-language political forums in the past, the bilingual nature of the Merced event made it a first for the region.
Organizers say the event was born out a goal to build up civic engagement within the sizable Hmong community. Michelle Xiong, youth coordinator with Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Merced, helped organize, moderate and provide translations at the event. She estimates that Merced is home to more than 8,000 Hmong residents, including her own family.
“Older Hmong residents feel most comfortable speaking in their language directly,” says Xiong. “So, when they attend town hall meetings … they can’t even participate comfortably.”
“Hmong people have been here for over 40 years and the fact that there’s never been a forum in their language, doesn’t make sense when they make up a significant portion of this community,” she adds.
The bilingual forum drew nearly 70 people and was a joint effort from BHC Merced’s Neighborhood Action Team, Health Equity Project and the Merced Organizing Project.
Organizers invited all the candidates running for Merced City Council Districts 1, 3 and 5 – the only three district seats up for grabs this election year.
Seven candidates attended, including District 1 contenders Jesse Ornelas, Lakisha Jenkins and Anthony Martinez. Christopher Ramirez, Daniel Kazakos and Monica Villa represented District 3. Three candidates were no-shows.
“It was super, super important for me to be there in the same way it was important to attend the Spanish [language] forum,” Daniel Sabzehzar, who ran for District 5, says. “This idea of a Hmong forum is great because they represent a huge population locally and have accomplished so much since coming over as refugees.”
“It’s an amazing example of a community who came from nothing pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. This forum was a sign of respect to this community and all that they’ve done,” he says.
Several of the questions focused on how candidates will bring more jobs and opportunities for Merced’s young people.
“Many Hmong kids get jobs elsewhere and move away, so what can parents do? They are going to follow them as they get old and cannot take care of themselves,” said Palee Moua, whose family was among the first Hmong to settle in Merced in the 1970s. “We want to hear what the city council will do to help the Hmong community in town so they will not leave.”
Audience members also asked several questions about adding streetlights and sidewalks in South Merced neighborhoods as well as requiring Merced City Police to undergo more regular cultural sensitivity training.
“That was a big concern for many because in the Hmong culture we have ceremonies and a lot of our relatives come over,” says Xiong. “Sometimes our neighbors make complaints, but this is our culture and we don’t know what else to do.”
To help make attendees feel more comfortable, organizers encouraged residents to show up in traditional Hmong dress and had a local singer perform a Hmong folk song before the start of the forum.
“It sounds cheesy but that’s really the sort of thing that will encourage many in our community to attend,” Xiong says. “My parents were excited to hear the performance because it has an important message about the value of voting and the meaning of leadership in our community.”
Multiple interpreters were on hand for the forum. While the interpreters were necessary, organizers say the drawback was the lengthy translation process which limited the number of questions.
“Even though we ran out of time, we had many audience members at least reading out their questions so the candidates could be aware of the types of issues going on in our community,” Xiong says. “They waited through the whole event to participate so it just goes to show that when the structure is designed to encourage communication, they will be actively engaged.”
Moua says the forum was intended to build communication bridges between local candidates and residents.
“My hope is for the Hmong to understand that we lived in this country for many many years and need to get to know the leaders who lead our county and the City of Merced. Otherwise, we will not know who to ask for help,” Moua says.
Through her work as director of community engagement at the Health Equity Project, Moua has advocated for better translation services at local government forums. Employing qualified interpreters and using best practices at public hearings is a must if the city wants to hear directly from its residents, she says.
While Xiong and Moua say the first-ever event was not without its kinks, both agree that it was a success at showing candidates the top priorities for Merced’s Hmong community. They hope the forum could lay the groundwork for future interpretation efforts at city government meetings.
“Many people were so proud and called me and texted me afterwards,” Moua says.. “I hope that this will pave a road and will fix a bridge so in the future we will connect to one another better.”