These interviews with Iu Mien elders were translated by Muoang Saeyang, a care manager from Lao Family Community Development, an Oakland-based nonprofit founded in 1980 to support the growing Southeast Asian refugee community, which today provides financial and social services to its members throughout the East Bay.
At Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in East Oakland, behind the main house that now serves as a museum, is a garden. Within it are various plots, teeming with plants like sugarcane, beanstalks, and mustard greens.
Sturdy fences of metal wire and plywood have been fashioned to protect the produce. The garden and everything in it are the handiwork of Iu Mien elders who live in the area, like Yien Saechao.
“Look at this wiring for the fence,” said Saechao, smiling and speaking in her native language. “I made this.”
Every week since 2003, Saechao and other elder Iu Mien — an ethnic group with communities in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand with roots that can be traced to southern China — have gathered at the park to garden, about eight to ten families at a time. Most are women, though they will sometimes bring their husbands along. Some, like Yien Saechao, have been coming here since the start. Others, like Mey Yan Saechao, joined a few years later.
Mey Yan Saechao pointed to the tall sugarcane stalks sprouting out of the soil, noting that she helped plant them. “It’s been great to plant crops and also meet and talk with the other community members here,” said Yan. “I’m happy.”
The two elders are among the thousands of Iu Mien people who came to the U.S. as refugees in the late 1970s and early 80s in the years following the Vietnam War and the Central Intelligence Agency’s “Secret War” in Laos, a migration made easier by the Refugee Act of 1980. Sizable communities formed on the West Coast, including the Bay Area. Iu Mien families in Oakland are now mainly clustered in Fruitvale and other parts of East Oakland. Many of the elders share the same last names as the community uses 12 surnames that correspond with the 12 Iu Mien clans.
Kathy Chao Rothberg the executive director of Oakland-based refugee support nonprofit Lao Family Community Development, said employees began noticing around the early 2000s that many of their elderly Iu Mien clients were struggling from a combination of economic and emotional distress.
“We found that the seniors not only had chronic health conditions, but they had a lot of worry, anxiety, and depression related to financial stress and not having enough [to eat]”, said Chao Rothberg.
Most of the elders had grown up planting and cultivating their own crops in Laos, but finding land to farm in their newly adopted home proved difficult. “Since we came here, we haven’t had a lot of space to plant,” said Yan, who lives in East Oakland.
In 2003, Chao Rothberg approached her friend Holly Alonso, the executive director of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park, with an idea: If the elders were allowed to set up gardens in the fields behind the Peralta Hacienda House and grow their crops together, maybe it would help provide them some food and mental health support.
“It had sort of been abandoned and there were a lot of weeds and overgrown bushes,” Chao-Rothberg said of the park’s vacant plot.
Alonso had been looking for ways to revitalize the land and put it to good use and loved the idea of inviting the Iu Mien elders to grow vegetables like mustard greens, cilantro and green onions, which are used frequently in their traditional dishes. Work on the garden began in earnest later that same year.
“It became a much bigger idea than us helping them,” Alonso said. “It was them enriching us, with all their experience and life stories.”
The elders’ daily presence at Peralta Hacienda wasn’t initially well-received by neighborhood kids who were used to playing in the park’s once-barren field. “Kids in the neighborhood saw them as newcomers, and they would step on crops, and the elders were unhappy with that,” Alonso said.
In response, Peralta Hacienda staff organized a program that paired each young person with an elder who taught them how to plant crops and make traditional Iu Mien dishes. Peralta Hacienda documented the results of those encounters in 2007 in a community cookbook, which is now on display at the museum and features recipes and stories of the children and elders who worked together. The organization also curated an exhibit called “Embroidering our Lives” that told the stories of the elders through traditional Iu Mien embroidery.
“They’ve been explaining to us about the wars and the Refugee Act of 1980 that brought them to Oakland,” said Alonso. “It’s been a multifaceted journey [for them] and they have an amazing generosity.”
‘A way for me to connect with other members of my community’
The elders who spoke with The Oaklandside made a point of stressing how important gardening at the park is to them, and said the work is next to impossible in their East Oakland neighborhoods.
“There was no place to plant anything before I came here,” one group member, Foo Sinh Saechao, said. “Maybe there was some space to plant some spring onions, but nothing else.”
Foo Sinh Saechao’s family was originally from China but settled in Laos, and he served in the military during the Secret War there. He said the garden allows him to avoid buying produce at a market, which would be more expensive. “I get financial assistance because I was a soldier working for the U.S government, but it’s only so much a month, and I have to pay my rent,” he said. “We share what we have here with our families too.”
Yen Fong Saechao, another elder, said her family had space at their home but she never gardened there for financial reasons. “My kids didn’t really allow me to plant anything, I think because they were afraid we wouldn’t be able to afford the water,” she said.
Fin Loung Saelee said the garden helps her cope with the pain of losing family. Two of Saelee’s children passed while they were still living in Laos, and she lost two other children and her husband after moving to the U.S. “A lot of people told me, ‘You shouldn’t come because you’re older now,’ but this is a way for me to connect with other members of my community,” Saelee said. “The connection reduces my stress, so I want to continue to socialize.”
For Yan, growing vegetables that are familiar from back home helps serve as a reminder of the good times in Laos, before warfare caused her and many Iu Mien people to flee to refugee camps in Thailand before eventually making the long journey to the United States. She showed off a pong, a farming tool that she managed to bring over from Laos, which she uses now to plow the ground at the Peralta Hacienda garden.
“You can’t get access to those here,” said the translator, Saeyang, about the pong. “Throughout the process of migration, people threw away a lot of things that have meaning such as books, furniture, because you can’t take it with you.”
That Yan brought a pong with her to Oakland speaks to the centrality of farming in Iu Mien culture. It’s a facet of Iu Mien identity that the local community has struggled to preserve since settling in East Oakland.
“Even when they were in the refugee camps, they would request a small plot of land so they could garden,” Muang M. Saephan, executive director of the Lao Iu Mien Culture Association (LIMCA) Center, said. “I remember in junior high doing a presentation on 11 to 12 different types of herbs that my mother grew in her backyard, and saying how they were linked to health.”
The LIMCA Center was founded in Oakland in 1982 by some of Saephan’s relatives, and in 1995 the organization purchased its building on 105th Avenue. Nowadays, Saephan estimates that the Iu Mien community in Oakland is somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 though more are starting to move to neighboring cities.
“It’s important for our elders to have a place to garden because they take pride in it and it’s one of the things they can do on their own. But in Oakland, it’s so hard now because if you’re still renting, it’s expensive,” Saephan said. “Not many families can purchase a home because a lot of our parents didn’t have a formal education [before coming here].”
Still, the elders at Peralta Hacienda are doing what they can to carry on the tradition, even if they can’t do it from the comfort of their own homes. Yan participates in Peralta Hacienda’s ACE summer camp program, where she teaches the basics of horticulture and Iu Mien gardening skills.
Yan has also passed on her knowledge to the next generation of Iu Mien here in Oakland. “My own grandchildren take interest in planting green beans, and I teach them other things like pickling meats, which you have to do the right way or else it won’t taste good,” Yan said. “Some of us are able to pass the torch to our family [and keep this tradition alive].”