At the time of the attack, Mai's* parents were at their wits' end. Things were tense at home, as a police report would put it much later, because she had been "running away." The document doesn't specify what that meant; perhaps Mai wasn't coming home after school to help run the house and care for her siblings, as many Hmong daughters are expected to do. Perhaps she found the door locked when she stayed out too late. The report does say that Mai's father threatened to send her away for six months to teach her a lesson.
So when she left the family's St. Paul home that last Saturday in March to go to a barbecue, Mai had already stepped out of line. But her 14-year-old sister, Yer*, and Yer's boyfriend were also going, and Mai didn't think twice about getting into a car with several guys she'd never met. Yer and her date got into another, and the caravan drove to a house on St. Paul's East Side.
Mai saw Yer and her boyfriend get out of their car and started to follow them. But the five older boys she was with stopped her, explain-
ing that they had to make one more stop before the cookout. She later recalled that the gray Toyota cruised to the intersection of Highway 61 and Lower Afton Road and under a bridge before finally coming to a stop in a secluded part of St. Paul's Battle Creek Park. One of the young men, whom Mai heard the others refer to as Junior, told her to get out.
He grabbed her arm and marched her away from the parking area. After walking a short distance, Mai stumbled. Junior, a 16-year-old whose real name is Chia Vang, pushed her down on her back and took off her pants, demanding that Mai "show me some love." She protested that she was only 12, still a virgin, and didn't want to get married. She wanted to "stay clean and not be a bad girl," she told the St. Paul Police Department sex crimes investigator who ultimately took her statement.
Junior pulled down his own pants. Mai tried to hit him, cried and screamed, to no avail. After Vang, the other four young men--the youngest 14, the oldest 22--took their turns, with the group's leader, Wang Vang, known to the other young men as "Willow," going last.
"When Willow was done, [Mai] put her own clothes back on and then [one of the attackers] took her for a short walk and asked her if she wanted to go out with him," the investigator reported. "Mai told me that she didn't want to go out with [him] but she thought she had better have a boyfriend so she would have someone to marry if she did turn out to be pregnant from this assault. So she told him she would go out with him. [They] returned to the vehicle and [he] told the other suspects that they shouldn't touch Mai anymore."
On the way back to the barbecue, the five teens told Mai that she was now an Asian Crip Lady. Mai didn't want that either, but she didn't say anything. She was thinking about what would happen if anyone found out she'd had sex. Her parents might beat her. At the very least, she was sure the incident would make her a bad girl, shunned by her family and the rest of the Hmong community. The Asian Crips and their ladies might be her only friends from now on.
When they got back to the house on the East Side, Mai didn't tell anyone what had happened--not even her sister. If Yer had known what was to take place, Mai couldn't imagine her sister would have let her get into the car.
Nor did she tell anyone about the next three times she met up with the group over the following two weeks, when her new boyfriend's directive that she not be touched again proved moot. During one episode, she failed to perform oral sex to one of her attackers' expectations, so he fired a gun into the air and ground to scare her. In another, Mai was raped anally. When she came home walking funny, her mother began calling her a slut. (Mai didn't know it at the time, but her sister and a 12-year-old friend had been taken to separate locations that night and were undergoing their own "raping in" initiations.)
In what police believe was Mai's final ordeal, she was one of three girls kept for several days at a Motel 6 in Roseville. She told police she wasn't raped that time; after seeing the other two girls spread on the two beds in the room, a line of gang members at the foot of each bed awaiting their turns, she'd locked herself in the bathroom. But after their arrests several of the gang members confessed to violating Mai at the motel.
In all, Mai was an Asian Crip Lady for less than a month--the time it took for another girl to open up to a tutor, who told the story to investigators with the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department and the Minnesota Gang Strike Force. Because of their ages and the nature of the crimes, City Pages agreed not to use Mai's real name or those of the other juvenile victims. Publicizing the names, investigators and counselors who've worked on the cases say, could reinforce fears of discussing the subject in a culture that traditionally has kept internal problems from outsiders' view. Though the crime has set off a strong reaction in the local Hmong community, many of the activists, social workers, and counselors contacted for this story refused to discuss the subject for fear the victims and their families would be stigmatized.
It's the same fear that almost kept Mai silent. "When asked why she didn't report this immediately, Mai told me that she couldn't because she was afraid to tell police because she had run away from home and she thought that she would get into more trouble," the police investigator who took her statement noted. "Mai told me that she is more afraid of what her family will think of her and how they will punish her. Mai became sad again and told me that her father and [mother] will think that she is a 'slut' and a 'whore' and that she is 'bad' and she has disgraced that family because of what the gang members did to her.
"Mai told me that she sometimes thinks about what happened and she wonders if it was her own fault and if she had done something different then this wouldn't have happened to her. Mai agreed that the suspects in this incident would also know that she would be shamed and her family would be disgraced because of what they did to her."
In the end, the report concluded, Mai told herself "to just try to forget about what they did because it's in the past now... Mai told me that she knows now that she is a bad girl and she has accepted that and now considers the suspects to be her friends because she has to rely on them to give her rides."
Rape is said to be rare in Hmong culture. In the old days--before the clans of subsistence farmers living in the mountain regions of Laos were sucked into the Vietnam War--it was punishable by death in some cases.
But nothing stayed the same for the Hmong after the war began. Long discriminated against by the lowland Lao, they were recruited by the CIA in the early '60s to fight Communist Lao insurgents supported by the Viet Cong. After the fall of Vientiane in 1975, many fled to neighboring Thailand. A few were allowed to emigrate to the United States in the late '70s; many more spent the ensuing two decades in squalid refugee camps. Some have been allowed to leave the camps for America; others have been repatriated.
With the assistance of the Lutheran Church nearly 40,000 Hmong have settled in the Twin Cities since 1979, the highest concentration in the nation. Most live in St. Paul, where 18 clans--extended-family networks that form the backbone of Hmong culture--are represented. Many of the adults speak little English and observe the old country's traditions. Until recently, disputes and even crimes in the Hmong community went largely unreported to U.S. authorities. Families instead counted on the clan system to mete out justice.
Each clan has leaders who are chosen because of their status and training; clan members are expected to take their problems to them for mediation. In the case of a marital dispute, the leader might listen to each spouse and then set down rules for how the couple is to behave in the future. If a family wants to move, the leader can give advice about whether it's wise. If someone is wronged, the victim's clan leader may demand restitution from the perpetrator's clan. If the dispute goes unresolved it can complicate relationships, including future marriages, between the two clans. In the United States, clan leaders also sometimes refer people to social services.
Hmong youth are expected to marry outside their clan, with girls as young as Mai sometimes married to much older men. Sometimes the girls are kidnapped from their homes by their suitors in a courtship ritual that usually requires the parents' and the girls' approval. There are nuances to those traditions which are meant to protect the girls: A preteen bride might share her mother-in-law's bed until the older woman decides the young one is mature enough to sleep with her husband. And a man who kidnaps a bride isn't supposed to have sex with her. He must watch out for her until he can negotiate a bride price with her family.
Before the war, according to a 1994 University of Minnesota study on teen marriage in the Hmong community, young women generally married at 16 or 17. After the fighting started, families began agreeing to marry their daughters at much younger ages, in part so the girls would be provided for.
How much sexual violence the war brought with it is a subject of some debate. Diane Dovenberg-Lewis, the program coordinator for the Wilder Foundation's Social Adjustment Program for Southeast Asians, says she frequently discovers that women who come to her for counseling have experienced rape but have never spoken of it. "These women have been raped right and left--by soldiers, in camps, it's very common," she says.
But Dr. Joe Westermeyer, who heads the psychiatry department at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minneapolis and spent three years living with the Hmong in Laos in the 1960s, says there was "not a lot of rape during the war. The Hmong themselves are pretty averse to that... At least one of the myths among the Hmong about the reasons they were fighting was because the Communists were rapists."
Locally, only three episodes of stranger rape in the Hmong community have reached the courts, all within the last year. In the first incident, three men broke into a St. Paul family's home, robbed it, and raped the mother and a 12-year-old daughter before leaving--possibly in an attempt to keep them from reporting the break-in. The crime's alleged mastermind was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other two suspects agreed to testify against the ringleader and pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
The second series of cases occurred over several weeks ending last December. Members of a Hmong gang set up a telephone chat-line and used it to troll for victims, many of whom were as young as Mai. Nine young men were charged in connection with the cases. To date, six have been tried and convicted or have pleaded guilty. Of the three whose cases are still active, one is appealing his certification to stand trial as an adult, another is still in the process of being certified, and the third is being sought in connection with the case and is thought to be in California.
In the most recent series of cases--the one involving the March and April rapes of Mai and four other girls--10 young men have been charged. Seven have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to up to 11 years in prison. An eighth was expected to plead shortly before press time, and the other two are being sought.
It is this case, many of those who have worked with the victims or the suspects say, that most clearly shows the teens' selective hearing when it came to their elders' teachings: The perpetrators seemed to ignore rules that obligate men to the women with whom they have sex, while absorbing the idea that Hmong men are entitled to exercise control over women.
When Wang Vang--"Willow"--was arrested, he acknowledged he'd had sex with one of the rape victims, but insisted it was consensual. He'd been to a dance, he said, and afterward a group of kids went to one of his friends' houses. He had "a little intercourse" with a girl that night, and again "a day or a few days" later; then everyone went home. He had no idea how old the girl was, he said. "In the Hmong culture age did not matter."
In the months before the rapes came to the attention of police, Wilder's Dovenberg was counseling one of the future defendants, a juvenile. "The family had been working with us in a program for emotionally disturbed and violent teens," she says. "His parents had just given up and he was running wild. We tried to help them rein him in." The family's troubles, she says, are fairly common among her program's clients.
"The parents don't know how to call the police," she notes, "or they can't because they don't speak the language. They don't know how to call the Youth Service Bureau. It's hard for them to know where to go to find help."
Many Hmong parents, say Dovenberg and other counselors, expect their children's behavior to be governed by the fear of bringing dishonor to their families. But the concept of losing face doesn't mean much to Americanized kids. By the time counselors see them, frequently parents have given up.
"Often they've tried their own family resources, getting an uncle or an elder to talk to them," says Dovenberg. "They've done a lot of yelling, calling of names, threatening, making them stay in--that's one of the things they try a lot, especially with girls. They figure the only safe place is right here in the living room." The kids, by contrast, sometimes "don't see their parents as able to protect them. Many of them have not been treated very well in this country. They want to get into gangs to see some kind of safety."
For some families, the challenges begin with basic communication. Many Hmong parents speak little English, while their kids are no longer fluent in Hmong. "When there's a disagreement in the family, they can't understand each other linguistically," notes MayKao Hang, who heads the youth violence prevention program Hmoob Thaj Yeeb, or Hmong Peace, which is housed at the Wilder Foundation. "A lot of immigrant communities experience that in the first generation."
And language is only the beginning, echoes Dovenberg. "There's a terrible culture gap between these kids and their parents. In Hmong culture you only socialize with the kids in your family and with your closest cousins. These kids want to go to the mall."
The tension between old- and new-world expectations is strongest for girls, says Hang. They're expected to come home after school and help with housework and care for their siblings--an important job in families that often have six or more children. "There just aren't a lot of activities that Hmong girls are allowed to do," says Hang. "They're stuck with a lot of child-care duties. They're really bored."
In the chat-line cases, says Hang, the operators of the message center seem to have sought out girls who were especially isolated. Teens told her that "one of the ways to get [the line's] phone number was to get passed one, and that they were picking girls who were lonely, isolated. If you baby-sit six kids, and people know your mom goes to garden for three hours every day, you might be passed a number.
"The chat-line was just a funny thing for them. Everyone has a phone at home, and if you're cut off from everyone and can't go anywhere, obviously you're going to do anything like that."
When it comes to sex, adds Hang, most teenage girls have very little information on which to base their decisions. "The perception people have is that sex is not something you do when you're a teen. So if you want to have sex, you get married. And then you see all this sex on TV and you think that's what being American is, that's what America is about. A lot of kids don't have friends who aren't Hmong. What they know of America is really more from popular culture and not from people."
Partly cut off from their own parents, and yet unable to socialize with other teens, Hmong kids make incredibly naive runaways, adds another youth worker who knows many of the gang-rape victims and their families. "Girls aren't given the opportunity to do things," says the Hmong woman, who asked that neither her name nor that of her program be used for fear that its participants could be stigmatized. "They can either be a good girl or run away. That's why we have so many problems with young girls."
(What "being good" means can be a matter of some confusion: When Hang was growing up, she says she assumed it meant doing nothing that wasn't expressly permitted. At 21, after several years of living away from home at an East Coast university, she finally asked her mother. "She said, 'If you're going to have sex, don't get pregnant,'" Hang recalls.)
Faced with what they see as an impossible choice, some Hmong girls conceal their social lives from their parents--compounding the older generation's suspicions that they are up to no good. Hang says that while the Hmong community's response to the gang rapes has been shock and outrage, she has heard a few elders speculate about how the victims got themselves in trouble: "They probably wanted to be in a gang and that's how this happened," she's heard them say. In fact, that assessment may hit the nail on the head--only it wasn't the victims who were seeking to join the Asian Crips.
"It,s the end of your childhood, Chia," Ramsey County District Court Judge Charles Flinn said at 16-year-old Chia Vang's sentencing in May. "You will be in your early 20s when you get out of prison and you will be on supervised release for a while. What you have done cannot be undone, either from your end or the victims' end." The first of the boys who raped Mai, and the first to make his way through the court system, Vang was sentenced to nine years in state prison.
Court documents reveal as little about Vang as they do about Mai and her family. His attorney, Ramsey County Public Defender Heather McCleery, says he moved to St. Paul from Fresno, California, within the last two years to live with his brother-in-law, who is Vang's legal guardian. The thirtysomething brother-in-law speaks English. Vang's parents do not.
According to his statement to police, Vang briefly attended Johnson High School here and completed the 10th grade, earning mostly C's and D's. Vang said his parents came to the United States in 1978--whether from Laos or Thailand he was not sure. He was born in St. Paul, but spent most of his life living with his parents in an apartment in Fresno. He said he didn't know how his mother and father made their living.
McCleery describes Vang as "very much a follower," a kid who knew what he did was wrong, but had no idea how wrong--or of how serious the consequences would be. Once arrested in connection with the rapes, he, like most of the others convicted in the cases, immediately confessed. (When City Pages asked Vang through McCleery about his perception of the case, he would only say that when he was arrested, neither the police nor the Gang Strike Force officers listened to him.)
McCleery's description of her client squares with the standard profile of gang-rape participants, according to Suzi Kim, youth outreach program coordinator for Minneapolis's nonprofit Sexual Violence Center. In group rapes, she says, offenders often are motivated by their desire to fit in or impress someone else, and the crime often serves as an initiation rite. "Group rape is more about acceptance than it is about control," says Kim. "In most gang rapes, the offenders have a sense of ambiguity. They don't bear sole responsibility for the rape--they did it to participate."
Kim, who has worked with Hmong victims of sexual violence and conducted research into the psychology of gang rape while at the University of Minnesota, compares the mind-set of group-rape perpetrators to that of fans who riot after a game. "Your sense of morality becomes even weaker because other people are there, egging you on and directing you," she says. Kim adds that her research shows that gang rapes by teens are on the rise, with many reported among white, rural teenagers.
Neither the Sexual Violence Center nor city, county, and state agencies contacted by City Pages keep track of group rapes as a separate category in their sexual-assault statistics. But Lt. Jim Singer, head of the St. Paul Police Department's sex crimes unit, says that so far his officers have received reports of about 120 sexual assaults; he estimates that 15 percent involved multiple perpetrators.
Vang's brother and parents were surprised by his arrest, says McCleery. "They loved their son and they didn't see him as a bad person. But as much as they wanted to be involved in Chia's life, they were naive about the kinds of things he was involved in." Vang asked her to describe all of his options to his relatives at every juncture, and his guilty plea to three of the six counts against him was a family decision, she adds.
McCleery doesn't know whether Vang had a history of gang involvement in California; there's nothing in his file to suggest he's run afoul of police in the past. She does know that he felt alone in his new city, and quickly became very attached to the few friends he'd made at school. They happened to be members of the Asian Crips. "I don't think my client ever did these acts with a severe malicious intent. I think he did it to get into the gang," says McCleery. "Because he was a follower, because he was new here, he liked his friends in the gang, he wanted to stay in the gang, so he did what they told him to do."
Founded in California's Central Valley, the Crips are one of an estimated 70 Asian gangs operating in the Twin Cities, according to St. Paul Police Investigator Richard Straka, who is currently assigned to the Minnesota Gang Strike Force. Many of the groups--which in some cases consist of no more than a handful of kids--are organized by national background: There are Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, and Hmong gangs, as well as pan-Asian ones.
Some of the suspects questioned in connection with the rape cases told state gang investigators that at the time of the attacks, the Asian Crips were dominated locally by three older men who had recently moved here from Fresno. One of them was Wang Vang (not thought to be related to Chia Vang), who according to Ramsey County Court files pleaded guilty last year to possessing an illegal weapon. Before that, he was picked up in Fresno twice on charges of carrying unregistered weapons and was once convicted of possessing burglary tools. (Wang Vang's attorney did not return City Pages' calls about this story.)
In his police statement, Boury Yang, a self-described member of a different gang who admitted to being present at the Motel 6 rapes, said that Wang Vang and the other two Original Gangsters were aggressively recruiting new members throughout the Twin Cities at the time. While most men are "jumped" into the gang--beaten for a set period of time by a handful of members--Yang explained that some were allowed to skip the pummeling and be "walked in" if they brought additional recruits.
Straka says that one of the suspects told police that initiating female members by rape is the "in thing" to do in California, and has been for some time. In Fresno, only one such case has thus far reached the courts; it involved three Hmong girls, described in news reports as runaways, who in April accepted a ride from one of their friends. He took them to a Motel 6 where more than 15 boys and men, aged 15 to 31, allegedly participated in a gang rape. All were awaiting trial at press time.
Gang rape is nothing new to Fresno: In 1997, according to news reports, 36 group rapes were reported to the city's Rape Counseling Service. But none of them involved members of the Hmong community. "This is so new, we're still gathering intelligence," says Sgt. Len Gleim, head of Fresno County's multi-agency gang unit. "Because of cultural differences we don't get a lot of crime reports."
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher says Hmong gangs first came to his attention in 1991, when he was a lieutenant in charge of the St. Paul Police Department juvenile unit. In this new job, he noticed that the number of Southeast Asian youth being arrested was skyrocketing. He met with a number of community leaders including General Vang Pao, the leader of the Hmong efforts on behalf of the CIA in Laos during the Vietnam War. One of the things he learned was that many Hmong parents were anxious to work with police to rein in what they perceived as out-of-control kids.
Back then, the White Tigers and other reputed Southeast Asian gangs didn't seem to be involved in dealing drugs or defending territory, Fletcher says. Loosely knit and not very hierarchical, they were mostly into property crimes. The earliest were armed with screwdrivers, and they stole bikes. Later they moved on to cars; in 1986, there were 1,326 reports of stolen cars in Ramsey County. By 1989, the number had reached almost 3,000.
In the early '90s, some gang members began driving those stolen cars through the facades of gun stores. Fletcher estimates that, since 1989, Southeast Asian gangs have stolen 600 to 700 guns in this way in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
For all the firearms that should be floating around as a result, there have been few reports of violent crimes by gang members. But Fletcher worries that the rape cases may signal a change. "With the other stuff, there's a direct economic evolution from [stealing] bikes to cars to guns," Fletcher explains. "But with the rape cases, that appears to be something that migrated here from California or somewhere else."
Fletcher says his office has noted a steady increase in gang membership among Asian youth in the last six years. The main reason, he says, is a generational shift: The kids now reaching their teens have had a different experience of America than their elders have had.
Hmong immigrants who arrived here in the late '70s did relatively well, Fletcher explains. "The early migrants were sponsored by American sponsors, lived in scattered-site housing, and had a lot of church assistance. In addition, the first wave had a lot of families who were tied to the clan leadership or the military. They had a little more wherewithal and a little more education."
By contrast, he says, later arrivals had often spent years in refugee camps in Thailand and ended up in public housing here. "The gang problem really has its roots in the failure to assimilate that second wave," Fletcher says. "They came to a society that was 150 years more technologically advanced, where they face 60 percent to 70 percent unemployment--often 80 percent in public housing. Ninety-eight percent didn't speak English when they got here. The women tended to be more connected with the community. But the men, for a variety of reasons, were uncomfortable."
Most gang members he's encountered, Fletcher says, "are from large families living in small public-housing units with fathers who are unemployed. Their behavior is good through elementary school, even though most of their academic skills are far behind. But when they get to junior high, things change. The work gets more difficult at the same time that their relations with adults get strained. They start skipping the classes they do poorly in. Their parents aren't able to be supportive of their activities. As they do poorly, as they get around other kids who are involved in gangs, as their parents aren't aware of what's happening, they end up allying themselves with some particular gang or group."
Koua Yang, a human service counselor at the Wilder Foundation, adds that kids who were born in the United States often seem to be at greater risk than their immigrant counterparts. They speak less Hmong and know less of their parents' culture than teens who spent their early years in the camps, he notes. "The kids born here call the kids who came from the camps 'Thailanders,'" he adds. "But those kids are trying hard to make it. Many [immigrant teens] became very successful because they still thought this was the land of opportunity."
In April, Ramsey County District Court Judge Lawrence Cohen sentenced the last defendant in the burglary-rape case. He was giving the man the maximum possible sentence, the judge announced, because of the calculated nature of the crime: Between the community's growing fear of gang violence and the stigma attached to rape, the perpetrators "were pretty sure that nothing would happen to them. They certainly knew what they were doing, and they left thinking they would be free."
Indeed, most of the people who worked on the rape cases say it's unusual for such events to be reported to anyone. The chat-line cases only came to light because some of the girls involved knew gang investigator Straka from their neighborhood. In addition to running a Boy Scout troop in St. Paul's McDonough housing projects, Straka and other Strike Force officers are fixtures at Hmong community events and spend a lot of time hanging out at after-school sports leagues and dances.
Chris Wilton, the assistant Ramsey County prosecutor who dealt with the chat-line and the Asian Crips cases, says cops and prosecutors have slowly been learning how to work in the Hmong community--using, among other things, the extra resources available to their "Gangs and Guns" unit, a special task force of prosecutors and support staff who concentrate on violent crimes. Having enough staff to respond to victims' needs has been crucial in cracking the cases, says Wilton.
For instance, he says, victims in the burglary case were reluctant to cooperate with authorities without the approval of their clan's leader, so Wilton and a county victim/witness advocate met with the leader at the family's house. The extreme remedy for such a situation--executing the rapist--clearly wouldn't work in St. Paul like it would in the mountains of Laos, the leader acknowledged, and thus he would not pass judgment in the incident. Instead, he would attend the trial to show his support for the victims and to let people know that they had respected the clan system.
In another case, part of the chat-line series of prosecutions, Wilton says he struggled to explain to a victim's family the tentative plea bargain he'd struck with one of the alleged rapists. Close to 17 years in prison, he told them, was a very long sentence. "The response I got," he recalls, "was that if they were back in Laos, [the defendant] would be dead." Eventually he figured out that from the family's perspective, "we appeared to be putting a roof over these guys' heads, giving them clothes, and feeding them. That's more than some of these kids get now." The family ultimately agreed to the bargain because it meant their daughter wouldn't have to testify in court.
In the most recent set of cases, prosecutors tried a group approach to keeping the victims' families posted, convening monthly meetings at a community center in a suburb east of St. Paul. The parents quickly expanded the scope of the gatherings and began to compare notes on their daughters' behavior. And while that may seem like an obvious response, MayKao Hang says it is not typical for Hmong families: Opening up about family problems to others, she says, is a struggle.
The gang-rape cases, Hang adds, may signal a sea change in the Hmong community. "We who are survivors of war have seen a lot of violence," she says. "[But] this has forced community leaders to take a stand." After news of the rapes surfaced, Hang's violence-prevention program "got calls from people saying we really needed to do something, to say this is wrong. They said it was time to take a public stand." A number of community leaders took the unprecedented step of writing editorials or speaking with Asian media about the damage done by the rapes.
But while the rape cases lent the discussion more urgency, talk about gender relations and violence in the Hmong community has been going on for some time. Hmoob Thaj Yeeb recently concluded a survey of more than 1,200 local Hmong that resulted in the compilation of a "community action plan." Among the things participants wanted to change, the study said, were "little support or resources for Hmong women who want to get out of an abusive relationship"; "the belief that males are born with more power than females"; and the concept that teenage wives are "more vulnerable and easier to control" than more educated, older women. The report also noted that "as women, we blame ourselves, believing we deserve punishment when we are abused. As men, we learn that it is our right to have obedience from women."
Many of those attitudes, notes Hang, are hardly unique to the Hmong. "I have a hard time separating 'this is a cultural thing' from 'this is a thing that men do to women,'" she says.
Except that in the case of Hmong women, to date there has been no community institution equipped to negotiate the cultural and legal minefield of rape and domestic violence. That is about to change: Hang's group is among three community institutions that recently received a federal Violence Against Women Grant to develop a Hmong sexual violence program. The initiative will be under way in September, Hang says. "Ten or 15 years ago the Women's Association of Hmong and Lao tried to start a domestic violence program and they almost went under because there was so much protest," she adds. "This time--not a peep."
On those infrequent occasions when a girl was raped back in Laos, the leader of her clan might get together with the leader of her assailant's. Depending on the circumstances, they might jointly order the perpetrator to publicly atone for his wrongs in a healing ceremony.
"Its purpose is to heal and repair some of the spiritual damage done," notes Hang. "Sometimes it's as easy as publicly professing that, 'Yes, I did this and I was wrong.'" The offender might have to admit that he wounded not just the girl, but her parents and her extended family. Sometimes, she adds, the perpetrator would have to both perform the ceremony in front of the victim's family and pay them restitution.
But the men and boys who attacked Mai and the other girls are unlikely to be able to perform any gestures of atonement: The two in whose cases sentencing information was available received 11-year prison terms, the maximum sentence for first-degree sexual assault. Meanwhile some of their victims have received menacing phone calls, and last week, one was stopped on her street by several older boys and beaten so badly she ended up in the hospital. Some of the girls have left town.
At the sentencing of Xeng Vang, the burglary defendant, the father of his 13-year-old victim addressed the court through an interpreter. No act of contrition or monetary payment would restore his family, he told the judge: "We all come from Laos and we were in Thailand. A week before they let us enter the United States, the American person had us take the oath to God, and it included the adult and the children. And so to come to America we have to be a good person.
"Ever since they came and robbed my family, my family has had a lot of problems. They have scared my wife and my children. They have nightmares now. They are afraid to go to school and they are not doing well in school.
"Regarding my oldest daughter; before they came and did these bad things to her, she told me and her mom that she wanted to become a teacher. I was happy and I was hoping that I would have a daughter who would someday become a teacher.
"After that day when this thing came and he violated my daughter, he touched her and he raped her, my daughter has become heartbroken and she was internally hurt. She ran away from her school. She doesn't want to go to school anymore. She feels bad because she has been raped [and] no one will want to marry her anymore. She feels that she has no future, so she doesn't want to be a good person anymore."
City Pages news interns Eric Walter and Peter Ritter contributed research for this article.
*Name has been changed.
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