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First Hmong state legislator to visit Northern California

By: Putsata Reang, San Jose Mercury News June 7, 2002, Friday

SAN JOSE, Calif. _ Philip Nguyen was one of thousands of Bay Area Southeast Asian immigrants who cheered when a Minnesota woman became the first Hmong to win a state legislative office in the United States.

Now members of that community _ who showered Sen. Mee Moua with small donations and best wishes during her campaign earlier this year _ will get to meet her. Moua makes her first post-election visit to Northern California starting Friday.

"She's setting the example for us," said Nguyen, executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Center in San Francisco. "She's bringing us encouragement."

During her campaign, the Democratic senator and attorney from St. Paul said she received an outpouring of support _ both financial and moral _ from California. The state is home to the largest concentration of the estimated 2 million Southeast Asians in the country, according to the Washington D.C.-based Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, the country's leading Southeast Asian advocacy group.

California has the largest Hmong community, numbering more than 65,000, according to a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire study. Minnesota, is second with 41,000 Hmongs.

Moua, 33, won a Jan. 29 Minnesota special election on a campaign that generated a long string of small donations _ $5 from the grandmother down the street to $100 from the farmer across the country. The gifts, she said, humbled her. Moua will have to run again this fall when all 201 seats in the Minnesota legislature are up for election because of redistricting.

To show her thanks, Moua agreed to accept an invitation from a distant uncle, John Thao, to visit Sacramento where he is planning a banquet to honor his niece tonight. Moua also plans to visit Hmong farmers and other Southeast Asians throughout Northern California.

"It gives me tremendous hope and it's extremely telling that the Hmong community is at turning point in our resettlement here," Moua said. "We really have progressed a lot from being a refugee community to now being Hmong Americans."

Moua's political success created a swell of enthusiasm throughout the country's Southeast Asian immigrant and refugee communities, which have remained mostly politically inactive until recently. But that's not because they lack interest in politics, Moua said.

"They don't have the luxury to indulge in political activism," said Moua, whose family fled their native Laos 23 years ago when Moua was 9 years old. "They don't have the luxury to sit through city council meetings."

That's because many Southeast Asians who started arriving in the United States en masse in the mid-70s were forced to focus their energy on working and raising their families.

"For the past 20 years, we have been surviving and trying to get used to a new country," Nguyen said. "Now it's time for a development stage, and that means we have to get involved in mainstream American politics, to advocate for what we think is right and good for us."

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