Passing the torch: Essay contest celebrates the past, present, future of Hmong community

Leon Xiong, winner of the Hmong New Year essay contest, recites his essay.
Leon Xiong, winner of the first Hmong New Year essay contest, recites his winning essay at the 40th Hmong New Year festivities at St. Paul RiverCentre on Saturday.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News

At the 40th Hmong New Year celebration, Minnesota's Hmong community reflected on their journey and achievements together through their first essay contest, themed "passing the torch."

The winner of the contest, Leon Xiong, gave a recital of his essay in front of thousands of Hmong who gathered to commemorate the festivities at St. Paul RiverCentre Saturday afternoon.

"My inspiration came from my family and watching all of us grow up in this country and how successful we've been able to become," said Xiong, who is a second-generation Hmong-American.

One of the judges of the essay contest was Sophia Vuelo, Minnesota's first Hmong-American judge, who was sworn in to Ramsey County District Court earlier this year.

She said that Xiong's writing was well-focused on the theme, featuring the past and the present of the community as well as how they can progress together in the future.

"In the 40-plus years that more Americans have been here, it was especially notable this year that we got to read literature, an essay by a young Hmong-American who was able to reflect on that theme well," Vuelo said.

Kang Vang, a Hmong-American filmmaker, who also took part in the judging process, said that the essay contest has provided opportunities for young Hmong-Americans like Xiong to express their voice through writing.

"A lot of times the voices of the younger people aren't heard, especially in the Hmong community," said Vang. "We're a community that really reveres the elderly."

Xiong, who is a senior in high school, plans to study political science in Washington, D.C., and work for a nonprofit after college. He said he looks forward to seeing his fellow Hmong-Americans show off their intellectual capabilities through more events like the essay contest.

"It's an amazing feeling and such an honor to be able to read it out loud and get some experience there too," said Xiong.

Organizers and judges of the contest hope to continue the new practice in future celebrations.

"This was indicative of how important it is to be inclusive of both those who were born here and are becoming our second- and third-generation Americans of Hmong descents as well as those of us who are born overseas and immigrated here as refugees," said Vuelo.

"It shows that together we are more creative, we are far more innovative and that is how we achieve prosperity for everyone."