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
E-mail Tyche Hendricks at email@example.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