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Taming tension:
Multicultural festival could help unite the Central Valley immigrant community to remedy common ills

By: Tyche Hendricks, The San Francisco Chronicle, APRIL 29, 2002, MONDAY

Pai Yang cradled her 2-year-old daughter on her lap as she watched a cast of ornately costumed actors perform a stylized, centuries-old Cambodian opera at a Fresno festival celebrating the diverse cultures of the Central Valley.

"This is a long overdue event," said Yang, 32, a Hmong woman who came to California from the mountains of Laos as a refugee in 1980. "It's time to celebrate the richness of our area and start building some bridges with each other."

The three-day event, dubbed the "Tamejavi Festival," was put together by Central Valley community organizers who feel that their immigrant communities live in isolation from each other and are often misunderstood by the larger society. Tamejavi is a term coined from the Hmong, Spanish and Mixtec words for a cultural harvest market.

The festival, which attracted hundreds of people to events through yesterday, offered food, handicrafts, and dance and musical performances from a wide variety of cultures, especially from Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Though the Central Valley's 16 counties, and particularly nine in the south that make up the San Joaquin Valley, are home to tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Hmongs and other Southeast Asian immigrants, the groups have not been free of tensions.

"We have different backgrounds, cultures and politics back home, but here a lot of people tend to lump us together as Southeast Asians," said Van Lam, who directed the Cambodian opera and is active with the Khmer Society of Fresno. "We don't speak the same languages and our beliefs are very different. Hmongs and Cambodians, for example, are very different."

In addition, there is friction between Laotians and Hmongs, though they come from the same country, said Lam, who is Cambodian.

"The Hmongs were mountain people from Laos, some people would call them outcasts," he said. "The Laos came from the city and they don't view Hmongs as part of their country. But here the Hmongs got more recognition and there are more of them. The Laos have no community-based agencies and the Hmongs have several."

In Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese and Cambodians have historically been enemies, and even here in California, the two groups feel reserved about coming together, Lam explained.

In the Central Valley, though, these immigrant groups are finding they have similar problems and need to work together.

"There's unemployment, poverty, a lack of housing," said Lam. "We know we are all poor and those economic development issues are common ground."

The same is true for immigrants from Latin America, who include Salvadorans, and especially Mexicans.

Though Mexican immigrants have traditionally come from the states of Michoacan, Jalisco, Zacatecas and Guanajuato, over the past decade or two, an estimated 65,000 indigenous Oaxacans (including Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Triquis) have settled in the Central Valley.

"Some Mexicans just see us as 'Oaxaquitas'; there's a kind of discrimination against us as indigenous people," said Concepcion Pacheco, a Mixtec woman who emigrated from Oaxaca nine years ago with her husband. "But here we work together, we go to school together, we're starting to see each other as individuals. So it's changing a little bit."

Pacheco, who came to the festival wearing a traditional embroidered Oaxacan dress and big, pink geraniums in her long, black hair, said she brought her two children along so they could see Mixtec dancers and musicians, but also to learn about the heritage of others.

"I used to think of blacks as people who didn't work and got into trouble, but here I can see their music and their culture. It's great," she said. "Our cultures cross in the street a lot, but here we learn more about each other."

One of the festival's principal organizers, Myrna Martinez-Nateras, said she thought it was significant that the festival was held in and around the classy and well-regarded Tower Theater.

"These communities don't have much access to public spaces," said Martinez-Nateras. "The fact that we're providing one of the most important theaters in town for them to come to and that we're opening these events to other audiences is important because there are people without much in the way of resources."

Martinez-Nateras said that at a time when immigrants are being viewed with increasing suspicion because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the recent economic slowdown, the festival was even more important.

"It's important to show the best of immigrant culture and show that they are important contributors to this society," she said. "Hopefully then our cultural, educational and political institutions will give these communities more support."

Not all of the Central Valley's ethnic groups were represented in this year's festival, said Martinez-Nateras, but in future years she hopes it will expand to groups, such as Russians, Armenians, Chinese and Filipinos.

The festival was held in Fresno this time, but organizers plan to take it to other cities in the valley in the future.

"Fresno needs more of this," said Dakota Iyall, a 23-year-old saxophone player who described his heritage as part white and part American Indian. "It's common to see different people living in Fresno, but to see them all in one place is something new."

Added his sister Laural Fawcett, 32, "This area was already culturally diverse, but now I think it's becoming more culturally savvy."

E-mail Tyche Hendricks at thendricks@sfchronicle.com.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO (5), (1) Kun Keo of Fresno, a member of the Khmer Society of Fresno, prepared to perform a Cambodian opera., (2) Robert Frasquillo (left), 12, and Jose Gonzalez, 11, of Hanford (Kings County) practiced a traditional Mexican dance backstage., (3) Bhavni Singh, 11, of Clovis (Fresno County) performed a classical Indian dance. Festival organizers hoped to unite immigrant groups., (4) Sokha Som (left) and Vandy Srey of Fresno, Cambodian opera performers from the Khmer Society of Fresno, prepare backstage., (5) Fatima Lee, 6, of Winton (Merced County), a Hmong Muslim, sells ethnic goods with her mother during the Tamejavi Festival in Fresno during the weekend. The Hmongs, mountain dwellers indigenous to Laos, were often regarded outcasts by city folk in their native country, but the former has enjoyed more success developing a community network in the Central Valley. Now, many different groups of Southeast Asian immigrants realize they need to work together to solve common problems in America. / Photos by Christina Koci Hernandez/The Chronicle