Born in the mountains of Laos, Yaj and her family fled the Communists through the jungles. She clung to her dad’s back as he swam across the Mekong River into Thailand. They survived five years in a desolate refugee camp.
Yaj, 41, said her dad nearly gave his life battling the Communists for 15 years so she could come to America, taste democracy and run for political office. Now she’s a trailblazer – the first Hmong American to run for Sacramento City Council.
“My dad said the reason they worked so hard with the U.S. Army and the CIA was for us to have opportunities in the U.S.,” Yaj said. “He became a U.S. citizen but nobody ever taught the older generation how to register to vote. So we’re out there telling Hmong people how important it is.”
Yaj – whose name is Hmong for Yang, one of the largest Hmong clans – is among six candidates vying for the vacant seat in District 2 covering North Sacramento.
The political novice is running against five candidates: developer Allen Warren; pastor and school administrator Jason Sample; former Councilman Rob Kerth; 2008 Sacramento Obama campaign director Kim Mack; and retired personnel manager Sondra Betancourt.
While 5,000 of Sacramento’s 17,000 Hmong Americans live in District 2, about 1,000 of them are registered to vote. The district includes Del Paso Heights, Robla Park and Hagginwood.
An auditor, former small business owner and doctor of oriental medicine, Yaj said she’s running because the area’s Hmong residents sometimes feel like outsiders with little voice in government decisions affecting their lives.
“The graduation rate of Hmong kids is pretty low, and the crime rate is pretty high, but we don’t seem to do anything to prevent this crime or get these kids to get a good education and help themselves,” said Yaj, a mother of six. “It seems like we ignore them completely.”
When it comes to burglaries, drugs and gang violence, it often takes hours for authorities to respond, Yaj said. “But if there’s a conflict between parents and kids or husband and wife they show up immediately,” she said.
“Our community feels they are targeting family issues; they don’t understand our culture and the way we teach our kids what to do and what not to do.”
This includes how to discipline your kids, traditional home remedies such as coining, where hot metal is placed on the skin, Shamanist ceremonies and other ancient practices unknown in the West.
City police spokesman Sgt. Andrew Pettit said the race or ethnicity of those reporting crimes has nothing to do with response time and everything to do with urgency. Calls about violent crimes involving weapons take priority over burglaries and traffic accidents, Pettit said.
Sacramento’s Hmong, who began settling in Sacramento in the late 1970s, continue to struggle, though they’ve made up ground in the last decade.
Roughly 35 percent live in poverty, double the rate for all ethnicities. Fewer than 15 percent of Hmong adults have a bachelor’s degree, half the citywide rate. On average, seven people live in each of the city’s Hmong households, double the citywide average. About 21 percent of Hmong households contain three generations of family members, triple the citywide average.
Many are too young to vote – their median age is 20, and just 4 percent are over 65.
While Blong Xiong was elected to the Fresno City Council in 2006 and Hmong candidates have been elected to school boards in the Central Valley, none have been elected in Sacramento County. “We were waiting for so many years and nobody stepped up,” said Yaj.
Yaj, who has her own Hmong radio show, had success as a community organizer. She helped marshal thousands of Hmong to protest the 2007 arrest of the late Gen. Vang Pao and 11 others on terrorism charges for plotting the overthrow of Communist Laos. Ultimately, charges were dropped against Vang Pao and most of the others.
Yaj and others lobbied in Washington, D.C., to get Hmong organizations taken off the government’s list of terrorist groups.
Her father, Xiong Yee Vang, joined Vang Pao and the CIA’s jungle army at 14 and battled the Communists to the end.
She was born in a farming village in the mountains near Sayaboury, northern Laos. “I had a brother and sister who died in the village for health reasons,” she said. Another brother died in the jungle as the family fled the Communists. “My parents had to carry us on their backs walking and swimming across the Mekong; there was nobody to pay to take us,” Yaj said.
They came as refugees to Texas in 1980, then moved to Sacramento’s growing Hmong community. Yaj attended Pacific Elementary School, Fern Bacon Middle School and McClatchy High.
Clad in traditional Hmong dress at Sacramento’s festive Hmong New Year, Yaj caught the eye of Kengfue Yang, 22. She married him at 15 – not unusual in Hmong culture.
They started a family and lived in Long Beach, Chicago and Sacramento, where she became an interpreter. She has a master’s degree in acupuncture and oriental medicine from South Baylo University in Anaheim.
Yaj was asked to run by 12 Hmong community leaders, all from the Yaj clan, said May Cha, her campaign coordinator who worked in the campaigns of Mayor Kevin Johnson and President Barack Obama.
Veteran Hmong activist May Ying Ly, founder of the Hmong Women’s Heritage Association, said that while Yaj is untested, “having a Hmong face to represent the people empowers the community to be more active.”