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'We're putting Hmong on the map': Stockton celebrates Hmong New Year with 3-day festival

The annual event features dozens of merchants, food vendors, cultural performances and sports tournaments.

STOCKTON, Calif. — Thousands of people are expected to flock to the Stockton 99 Speedway Saturday and Sunday as an annual three-day event returns celebrating the Hmong New Year.

The Stockton Hmong New Year Festival, hosted by Lao Family Community Empowerment, runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Hundreds were in attendance at the Stockton 99 Speedway as festivities got underway.

"What you can expect here at the New Year event is just really having a good time learning about our traditions," said Sallee Her, Interim CEO of Lao Family Community Empowerment. "Back in Laos, where my family came from, this is an annual event after a whole year of farming."

The event features cultural performances, music, sports tournaments, merchants, food vendors and information booths.

In the nearly 30 years since the first Hmong New Year Festival was held in Stockton, some things have changed. What has not changed, according to Her, is the sense of community felt at the event and the "happy tears" shed by many over the course of three days.

"Last year alone, my mom was here and she saw a friend of hers from back in Laos and they hadn't seen each other for years so it was a wonderful connection and they had happy tears and everything. I see that often here," said Her. "I get emotional when I think about it because it's just happy emotions and just happy that we can actually make a difference."

While allowing old family and friends the ability to reconnect, the event's goal is to also pass on traditions and culture to the younger generation. That goal was in mind as coordinators set the theme for this year's festival as "the Hmong American Dream."

"Every single year, we think of our youth," said Her. "That's the reason why we're here because we want to continue carrying on our culture, our tradition and this is the best way to do it. As they come out here, they get exposed to all the different cultural traditions like the ball tossing I mentioned about, the sports in the back and so they get to really see our culture in action."

The opportunity to expose their young kids to the Hmong culture is part of what brought Tuv and Betty Vang to the event Friday. The two have been attending Stockton's Hmong New Year Festival since they were children.

"It's very important because it reminds you of how the old tradition used to be, it keeps the tradition running," said Tuv. "We're younger people but it's a good thing that we're doing it every year and people are seeing it."

It's the sight of hundreds of young families in attendance and the happy emotions felt throughout the weekend that give festival coordinators like Her motivation to continue the event year after year.

"It's just something that we're going to continue doing for the community," said Her. "We are a small minority group and not a lot of people know about us but as our youth are growing up and doing more and they're out there — kind of being out in the mainstream community — people are starting to notice us. We're putting Hmong on the map."

Watch more Stockton stories from ABC10: Stockton gets new federal COVID-19 relief funding from USDA

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