As a Child, Cy Thao Crossed the Mekong from Laos to a New World. Now His Paintings Are Taking the Hmong People Home.


Thao's studio is in a small upstairs room of the pretty blue house he shares with his wife, performer and playwright Lee Vang, and a three-year-old daughter, Cyanne. "We've got another one on the way," Thao smiles broadly as he passes a tidy accumulation of toys and a petite pink jacket on the porch. Inside, the walls are decorated with Thao's paintings, including one of his first, a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene of Christian missionaries converting Hmong refugees.

Sitting on an easel upstairs is his current work-in-progress, a portrait of the late Paul Wellstone, which he's painting for a friend. Nearby on the studio wall, opposite a small collection of Japanese robots, is a photo of Thao's family taken shortly after they arrived in America: five brothers and four sisters awkwardly bundled in thick winter jackets and knit hats.

Paintings By Cy Thao - Photo By David Kern

"You know that cereal commercial: 'An open box is an empty box'?" he says, again with a squinty grin. "In our family, any box was an empty box. Food was a big deal with us. Whenever we ate, it was a big feast."

Thao and his family came from a village renowned for the sweet mountain water in its well. His father was a provincial governor, which meant he acted as both a judge and the commander of a National Guard-like militia. By the time Thao was born, Laos was already in chaos. In the 1960s, America had used the Hmong as its proxy army in a covert war against the Communist insurgency of the Pathet Lao. But the Americans had fled, and, by the early '70s, the Pathet Lao had begun to purge Hmong who had fought for the U.S. Many of those who did not go into exile were sent to jungle gulags euphemistically called "seminar camps."

Later, the purge turned into wholesale genocide: Uncounted thousands of Hmong were killed by Communist bombs or chemical weapons. Because of his political position, Thao's father knew his family would be in grave danger if they were to remain in Laos. "The Communists visited my father twice," Thao says. "His family told him, 'You have to leave. The third time, they'll come to take you.' We left in the middle of the night. My uncles, my father's sisters, they got scared and went back to the village."

Thao's family crossed the Mekong in 1975, when he was about three years old. In order to reach the river, they'd disguised themselves as servants. His father had hired smugglers to ferry the family across to safety. On the first night, Thao's older brother and sister made the crossing. Then, in the early hours of the morning, Thao was put into another boat alone. After reaching the far shore, he was taken to a house on stilts, he remembers, where he spent the afternoon playing with the ferryman's son. From there, a bus took the family to a refugee camp. Only a week later did they reunite with Thao's father.

Though safer than Laos, the Thai refugee camps were far from a sanctuary. According to Thao, a family of seven would share a makeshift hut little larger than his Capitol office. The food supplied by international relief organizations was barely sufficient, and the rice was often filled with stones and rat droppings. Thai guards were accused of raping Hmong girls. Health care was virtually nonexistent. Death was everywhere. It is the custom during Hmong funerals to sing and play a large drum and a bamboo flute called a qeej. This dirge, called qhuab kev or "showing the way," is intended to help the dead journey to their ancestral homes. At night in the camps, Thao recalls, there were always many drums beating, guiding spirits back across the Mekong.

Some years ago, a Chinese ethnologist used the qhuab kev to trace the southward Hmong exodus across Asia. In each village, he found, the people directed the souls of the dead north. Finally, near Beijing, he found a Hmong community that didn't send its souls anywhere. This, he reasoned, was the ancestral homeland of the Hmong.

For Thao's family and other refugees in the Thai camps, their final destination was far from clear. "There was an overwhelming feeling that the U.S. government was going to take care of them," Thao says. "And that wasn't necessarily the case. The U.S. packed up and left. But they had no choice but to resettle people. For sure, everyone felt abandoned or used." In order to be allowed to emigrate to America, refugees were forced to take a "test": Only by identifying a series of U.S. military commanders could you prove that you'd fought with American forces.

In 1980, after five years spent in a series of refugee camps, Thao's family arrived in Minnesota. He recalls: "The first morning, we got up, opened the back door. There was snow out there. We didn't know what it was. Everyone was trying to figure out what it was. They convinced me to find out. So I, being the brave one, ran upstairs and got a spoon, and took a spoonful of the snow and ate it. And as I ate it, I told them it was just ice. So that was our first introduction to America, to Minnesota: eating dirty snow."

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