For Hmong American women, flag football breaks barriers

Flag football
Black Widow Sandy Vang, with football, evades defender Panong Lor's reach Tuesday, June 25, 2013 during a practice scrimmage at Bobby Thesien Park in Shoreview.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The pace of practice is picking up for a half-dozen Twin Cities Hmong American women's flag football teams. They've been playing for seven years, but face tough competition on the Fourth of July weekend when teams from around the country arrive in St. Paul for the annual Hmong Freedom Celebration.

That's not the only challenge they've faced, though.

"Of course my parents would prefer, you know, 'Settle down, have kids,' you know, but I'm playing flag football," says 28-year-old Ma Lee Vang, co-captain of the Blitz, one of the top women's teams here. She has settled down in one regard: She's a marketing director at a Twin Cities company.

But her light-hearted comment hints at the formidable cultural hurdle she and other young Hmong American women had to overcome. Teammates Kelly Yang, who's 20, and 16-year-old April Lee, say many families place a high value on women as wives rather than competitors.

Photo gallery: The Black Widows on the practice field

"The women are treated as, 'You should stay in the house and kind of cook,'" Yang said. "Girls don't usually like go out and things, and be independent, but flag football gives independence."

The first women's flag football teams were organized in the Twin Cities nearly a decade ago to help raise funds for various causes. Popularity and team numbers grew. Then, seven years ago, the women won approval to compete in the Hmong Freedom Celebration from the organizers, the St. Paul-based Lao Family Community.

SERIOUS PRACTICE

A nearly full complement of team members was on the field recently for a scrimmage.

As players got ready the chatter was bilingual; Hmong and English.

Dollops of Bengay are applied to sore muscles. Hands get taped: "All this tape, all this wrapping for the love of the game," one joked. And then it's time for drills.

Dia Lee and Ma Lee Vang
Dia Lee, left, was a leader of the petition drive seven years ago to give Hmong American women a chance to compete in the annual the Fourth of July weekend Hmong Freedom Celebration. She's co-captain with Ma Lee Vang of the Blitz. Photographed at a practice in Brooklyn Center on June 23, 2013.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"Go! Go! Go! Go!" a team captain shouts. Then to some late-comers, there's admonishment familiar to any jock.

"Ladies! Three laps, and then come!"

Many of these players have jobs or are in school. Ages range from the teens to the 30's.

Hli Xyooj, who's 36, is one of the oldest flag football players. Born in a refugee camp in Southeast Asia, she was 2 years old when she came to this country. She's an attorney now, and views flag football as a tool for personal growth.

"It takes a lot of leadership to organize and hold a team together," she said. "Leadership skills, organizing skills even social skills."

THE MINNESOTA LINK

Minnesota has the country's largest Hmong population, more than 66,000. Many if not most are here after thousands of Hmong men fought for the United States during the Vietnam War. After the war, they and their families faced death from the victorious communist forces, so they fled. The first families arrived in this country 40 years ago as refugees with little more than the clothes on their back.

Assimilation was bumpy.

Kor Zoua Pa Xiong and Gao Lee Vang
Kor Zoua Pa Xiong, left, and Gao Lee Vang, members of a Hmong women's flag football team called the Black Widows, practice chasing down an opponent to grab her flags Tuesday, June 25, 2013 at Bobby Thesien Park in Shoreview.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Twenty-seven-year-old flag football player Christine Yang, who's a law student, said it's not uncommon for some Hmong women to be isolated from other women.

But athletics can remove that barrier.

"This really builds a community, and there are role models you can look up to. A lot of our members, we hang out with each other outside of the field, and so this is a great opportunity to learn what you can do outside of what you've been taught," she said.

And one of the thing they can do is compete. The organizers of the Hmong Freedom Celebration, St. Paul-based Lao Family Community, expect more than 10 women's flag football teams will compete at the two-day event that starts July 7. It's the 33rd annual gathering and up to 40,000 people from around the world are expected to attend.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.