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Fresno Town Hall Offers Window On How Family Issues Platform Evolved

New America Media, News report, Mai Der Vang Posted: Jul 01, 2008

Editor's note:A town hall in Fresno, Calif. brought together more than 200 locals from the Mixtec, Hmong, Mexican, Cambodian and other communities to contribute to a national platform reflecting family issues. The dialogue offered a window onto the tremendous diversity of experience and the collective will to communicate that experience onto the national stage -- that characterized the platform, developed as part of the National Equal Voice for America's Families campaign. New America Media's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. NAM contributor Mai Der is the editor of The Know, a youth media publication based in Fresno. Photo credits: Tudor Stanley. Video: Min Lee

FRESNO, Calif.Guillermina, 41, sits up straight, her black hair tied back revealing a face warm with compassion. Originally from San Miguel Cuevas in Oaxaca, Mexico, and of indigenous Mixtec descent, her darkened complexion is evidence she has worked long, arduous hours under a burning sun.

The drudgery of farm work reminded Guillermina why she attended the Equal Voice for Americas Families campaign town hall held here in Californias Central Valley, with the goal of contributing to a national platform that reflects the needs and concerns of Americas families, and sends a message that will resonate in this pivotal election year.

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On June 12, more than 40 family delegates from all over the country gathered in Chicago to amend and ratify that national platform. The 20-page document reflected the struggles and aspirations of the hundreds of families who gathered at more than 60 town halls across the country over the past six months.

A look at the Fresno town hall, and the families who gathered there, offers a window into the tremendous the diversity of experience and the collective will to communicate that experience onto the national stage that went into compiling the platform.

Held at the Cornerstone Conference Center, the event brought together more than 200 locals from the Mixtec, Hmong, Mexican, Cambodian and other communities. The moderators encouraged the participants to talk about their needs and to suggest policy solutions that could be incorporated into the national platform.


Inside the childcare facility across the hall, children played while their parents participated in the Town Hall.

Education, employment and the struggle to put food on the table emerged as major areas of concern. These issues and concrete means for addressing them were clearly reflected in the draft version of the platform released in Chicago. For example, the platform calls for a hike in the federal and state minimum wages, and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit programs. The platform also calls for a review of the No Child Left Behind law, and a reallocation of state funds to lessen the gap between rich and poor school districts.

Changes like these could have a profound impact on Guillermina, a farm laborer who spoke through an interpreter.

With just one year of schooling, Guillermina does not know how to read or write. She feels stuck to the fields, where the weather is hot but you still have to be there. Like participants in town halls across the nation, Guillermina identified the education of her children as key concern. A good education, she said, is their only route to have better jobs...When we work in the fields, we are not even humans anymore. With the juices of the grapes and the wind that comes, its like we all have black makeup on our faces. I dont want my children to go through that.

equal voice

Participants talk at a table.

Next to Guillermina sat her daughter, 21-year-old Zenaida, whose amiable smile lit up every time she chuckled. The eldest of Guillerminas five children, Zenaida arrived in the United States years before her mother. She is taking an ESL and computer class, but recently had to quit her job at Wendys where she had worked for five years. Zenaida received a letter saying there was no match between her name and social security number. She resigned, and now has no choice but to return to working in the fields.

From January until about May, when there is no farm labor work, Guillerminas family relies on their small savings, never enough to make ends meet. The price for a bag of flour alone, to make tortillas, has gone up from $8.50 a bag to $13.

We might need to start depriving ourselves of some food, or eating less, said Guillermina. When the bills come, we have to pay them; they are priority and food is second. If we need to eat less, we will.

Already, the family is limiting how much they eat each day. When we eat beans, we split the beans so they can last us for two days, Guillermina said. Sometimes the kids say they want milk and cheese, but we have to lie to them that we have run out and will go to the store later. 

Chue Por Thao a 50-year-old Hmong refugee, who arrived in the United States in 1991 from impoverished refugee camps in Thailand has, like Guillermina, found it difficult, and sometimes dangerous, trying to support his wife and seven children in America.

When Chue worked graveyard shifts as a janitor in a crime-ridden area of town, he nearly lost his life one horrific night. From behind gold-rimmed glasses, Chue said his eyesight is too poor for him to drive in the dark, so he rode his bike to work. One night, as he arrived at his cleaning site, he was attacked. They threw me against the fence. I counted nine of them. I thought I was going to die and never see my wife and children again, he recalled, gesturing with his hands to demonstrate the assault. I saw them grab a rock. They hit my forehead with it hard; my hat fell off.

Then, suddenly, Chue reached into the waistline of his pants, searching for a familiar object. It was like God was trying to help me, he said. They must have thought it was a gun because they all hurried back into their car and took off. In fact, Chue had been reaching for the Bible he always carried with him.

Afterwards, fear of violence at his night job led Chue to employment on the production line of a poultry processing plant, but continued anxiety attacks forced him to take short breaks while working. His supervisor noticed and decided Chue was not fit to continue.

When you think about all the negative things, Chue said -- how people cant stand you, people can commit crimes against you, people can yell at you at work, it makes you sad inside.

I think about how hard life is. I cry about it. I think about how much stress we live under here. My eyesight is so bad, I cant even drive or work," Chue Confided.


An elderly Hmong woman stands in solidarity.

In America, Chue said, he has come to realize that only those with an education have a chance at getting ahead. For us older people, Chue says, we are not completely dumb, but we are not educated and smart either. We suffer because of that... This is a good country, but it is not good for us because we are uneducated.

Like Guillermina and the many others who contributed to making education a priority in the national platform Chue sees education as the route to a better life for the next generation. They become smart, independent, not like us older people who cant really support ourselves, he says of his children.

Another issue Chue has in common with Guillermina, and others across the country, is food security. The price of rice, his familys staple, has more than doubled from around $20 a bag to about $45 within a week. If we cant eat rice, we dont know what we will eat, Chue said. We need help. All the prices are going up but our income is not going up.

Also at the town hall was a table of elderly women proudly dressed in Hmong traditional clothing. One wife of a Hmong Vietnam War veteran spoke about how the daily struggles to secure housing, transportation, and health care can sometimes evoke suicidal thoughts. A Hmong youth talked about how the stress he feels over his parents poor health interferes with his studies.


Luis Magana, a community organizer from Stockton, speaks at his table.

Despite these serious concerns or perhaps because of the opportunity to share them the room was alive with chatter and smiles. After participants engaged in small group discussions, people from various tables gave quick reports. Zenaida, nervous but courageous, spoke in English about the importance of access to education for all people.

By meetings end, participants appeared inspired. For Chue and his wife, it was reaffirming to hear others voice concerns similar to those they struggle with each day. For Guillermina and Zenaida, the chance to share their stories and listen to others was a positive experience.

Only a few family delegates from each region would make it to the June 12 convening in Chicago, but the message from Fresno like the collective voices from the 60-plus town halls like it across the nation would be heard loud and clear.

Our families want a better future," event organizer Nayamin Martinez proclaimed as the lively day drew to a close "a future that as immigrants and refugees we dreamed of in our old countries.

Photo credits: Tudor Stanley. Video Credits: Min Lee

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