It was 1988 when the first and only Lao New Year celebration happened in Merced, with a parade going from Main Street to the county fairgrounds. Since then, the Lao community has celebrated privately amongst their own.
Sue Bangon Emanivong wanted to change that.
“[With] myself being embedded in the community so much as it is, I wanted to be the one that broke the barrier and bring our Lao community as well as the Merced community together and show that [by] coming together, amazing things can happen,” Emanivong says. “Events can happen. There’s support out there.”
For the last two years, Emanivong spent time planning and working toward bringing a public Lao New Year celebration to the Merced Lao community—from Thai to Mien to Cambodian and every ethnicity that comprises the Lao culture—and the greater community, as well. And on Apr. 28, Main Street saw its first Lao New Year celebration in 30 years.
“Originally, that’s where it happened, so we wanted to basically mimic exactly what happened 30 years ago,” Emanivong says. “Bring a little bit of the culture back to life, bring the history back into the present.”
Steve Arounsack, an associate professor of anthropology at Stanislaus State, grew up in Modesto but moved to Merced sometime 25 to 30 years ago. He says he attended the celebration to support his Lao brothers and sisters.
“This is an important cultural event for us,” Arounsack says. “It’s our new year. It’s kind of the washing away of the old and ushering in of the new. This is an important kind of demarcation of the year for us.”
The event was more than just a way to usher in the new year, but also cultural preservation.
“It’s for [future generations] to see how this is our culture and how our community celebrates Lao New Year, so then years to come, the next generation can know what to do and continue the traditions, that way our culture never dies,” Emanivong says.
Many attendees echoed Emanivong’s statement.
“Our generation is not dying out and they’re carrying on traditions,” says an attendee named Vonky. “I’m very proud of that.”
Vonky says he could’ve gone anywhere in the state to celebrate the new year, but chose to do so in Merced because it’s his hometown.
“This is where I grew up,” Vonky says. “The last time we had a parade here was 1988. That’s 30 years ago. To me, this is big.”
Emanivong says she wants to focus on positive things that the communities in Merced can come together on instead of focusing on the negatives.
“That’s really my mission—help create things that brings the community together in a safe environment and more of that small hometown feeling,” Emanivong says. “I wanted to share that because our town is small, but it’s getting big. But if we build all these networks and amongst all the organizations and leaders in the community of all walks of life, I think we can band together and make a big difference in Merced.”
Many associations from all over California were invited to attend the celebration, from Richmond, Fremont, Modesto, Fresno, to even Los Angeles. Phoumy Sayavong, a founding board member of the Center for Lao Studies, says he came down from San Francisco to celebrate the new year in Merced.
“It’s a wonderful thing [to see] because it’s essentially saying that as much as the Lao community accepts the diverse community that surrounds them, but it also means something else for them to actually be able to contribute and make themselves known and noticed and add to the diversity of the global community,” Sayavong says.
Many attendees say they decided to check out the celebration either because of family or friends or because they want to know more about the Lao community in Merced.
“I was really excited to have an opportunity to come and celebrate the culture and learn more about the community here in Merced,” says Judy Marks, a Merced resident. “I would love for there to be more Lao celebrations. I would love it. I’m really excited to give offerings to the monks and just to be a part of the cultural traditions.”
Nor, a resident of Dublin, Calif., says he came down from the East Bay Area for the celebration because his brother helped organize it. He says he thinks it’s great to see many people having a great time, enjoying each other’s company, and giving each other blessings.
“It means a huge deal, because this is the first one in Merced in 30 years and … it’s bringing a lot of people here out together and celebrating and giving each other good fortune,” Nor says.
Arounsack also noted that the showing for the parade and the performances at Bob Hart Square was more than he expected.
“So it’s great to see everybody coming here to support each other,” Arounsack says.
Lisa Vang of Fresno, Calif. is a member of Merced Lao Family and performed a dance during the event. She says she thinks it’s an opportunity for a diverse crowd to see their cultures and traditions.
“I think it’s a great experience and a great opportunity for us to perform at the Lao New Year,” Vang says.
No matter what happens during the celebration, Emanivong looks at her accomplishment of bringing a Lao New Year celebration back to downtown Merced in a positive way.
“It was a lot of work, but you know what, I put my heart and soul into this and no matter what, to me, I feel it’s a success already because we made a commitment to bring it and it’s been 30 years.”
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