It stemmed from tragedy. After eight teenage suicides scarred the Central Valley's Hmong community, Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno) convened a group of the Hmong to seek solutions to the youth crisis of poor self-esteem and cultural confusion.
The legislation born that day has been praised by leaders of the people with Southeast Asian roots. But Reyes' seemingly innocuous bill -- which would encourage California schools to teach the history of Hmong involvement and sacrifice in the secret war in Laos -- has triggered a bitter debate on the very nature of Hmong identity.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Hmong population -- In an article in Saturday's California section about a Hmong community dispute triggered by a bill in the state Assembly, the Mong Leng were incorrectly described as "a small culturally and linguistically distinct group." Of all Hmong in the United States, the Mong Leng are believed to exist in about equal numbers to Hmong Der, or White Hmong. It is a small group of Mong Leng that has voiced concerns about the Assembly bill.
Members of a small culturally and linguistically distinct group -- Mong Leng, or Blue Mong -- have come forward to demand that they be recognized separately in the bill, as a way to reverse what they say is long-standing subordination to the more dominant Hmong Der, or White Hmong.
The dispute taps into centuries-old divisions among a tribal people. Like other battles among recent immigrants lumped together under one ethnic umbrella, it is about class, culture and language as an anchor to identity.
Mong Leng -- who prefer the spelling with no "H" -- say they have seized on the legislation by the Fresno Democrat as a way to make their voices heard after decades of silence. If the bill passes as is, they fear, resources will flow disproportionately to the Hmong Der.
"Of the two Hmong groups, our group was the least educated and the least sophisticated when we got to this country," said Paoze Thao, a professor of linguistics at Cal State Monterey Bay and president of the nonprofit Mong Federation. "But our group has always disputed the fact that the group Hmong includes Mong. The public has been misinformed."
But many Hmong -- from community leaders to student activists -- are startled by the controversy and insist that Hmong of both dialects have coexisted here peacefully.
Although they say some concerns raised by Thao's group are well-founded -- namely that curricular materials should be translated into Mong Leng as well as Hmong Der -- they worry that the sudden fissure could derail a bill that benefits all their people.
"We have White and Blue and Green. Traditionally and culturally the dialects are different and the cultures are different, but the ethnicity is Hmong," said Christopher Vang, assistant professor of teacher education at Cal State Stanislaus-Stockton and a supporter of the bill.
"Somebody has taken this opportunity to publicize a personal quest for linguistic equality," he said. "We need to say: Enough is enough."
One measure of the battle is the fight over the spelling "Hmong," devised more than three decades ago by a Western academic to describe the diverse hill tribes of Southeast Asia.
Among them were White Hmong, Blue and Green Mong, Striped Hmong, Black Hmong and Red Hmong -- classifications based on costume and custom. There are differences in language between Hmong Der -- or White Hmong -- and Mong Leng -- known by some interchangeably as Blue Mong or Green Mong.
As many as 40,000 Hmong were killed fighting on the U.S. side in the CIA's secret war against Laotian communists in the 1960s and 1970s. Survivors settled in the United States as refugees, congregating largely in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California's Central Valley.
The more impoverished Mong Leng say their people died or were injured in greater numbers. The Hmong Der were generally more educated, more affluent and consequently more influential, Hmong scholars say.
As a result, dictionaries, written translations and other literature are skewed to Hmong Der. State officials in Minnesota, for example, only recently began translating children's books into both Mong Leng and Hmong Der, said Mark Pfeifer, resource center director at the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul.
But whether the dominance of Hmong Der has scarred the community is a matter of debate. Many Hmong Der leaders say tensions have been minimal. They point to intermarriages with Mong Leng.
Vang, who is Hmong Der, says he knows many Mong Leng who use their dialects at home but have adapted to Hmong Der in the workplace.
But Thao and other Mong Leng activists say they have suffered inequality and a stereotype of inferiority for years.
A refugee worker turned academic, Thao moved to California from Illinois in 1995 and began working with the Central Valley's Hmong, noting the dearth of translated material for Mong Leng children. Under his leadership a younger generation took the reins of the Mong Federation, among them Chimeng Yang, 36, a former teacher and current administrator in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
Yang said he has seen the disparities affect self-esteem in the classroom.
"The Mong kids will not comprehend the story," he said. "They are shy. They don't want to raise their hands, because of the teasing."
But it was an issue affecting all Hmong that brought the group's campaign into the public eye.