May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. Southwest Minnesota is home to thousands of people who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander (nearly 5,000 to be exact). Below are stories featuring a few community members in our region.
Galeasa Elias is a student at Lac qui Parle Valley High School and lives in Milan. She likes going to the lake and swimming, going to the park, camping and playing volleyball.
Half of Milan’s 428 residents are native Pacific Islanders or their children and hail from Micronesia, a region between the Philippines and Hawaii that encompasses more than 2,000 islands. Micronesians in Milan came to Minnesota from the island of Romanum in Chuuk State. Born in Chuuk, Galeasa has lived in Milan most her life. She feels connected to her native culture despite living an ocean away.
“There’s a lot of us out here in Milan. All my family members are here,” she said.
Galeasa was part of The Defrost Project in Milan, which used art to guide community members in exploring what it means to live in Milan, investigating what challenges Milan faces and imagining possible solutions. The project was funded by a grant from our affiliate, the Milan Community Foundation.
Hsa Mu is a Parent Student Connector at Marshall Public Schools. As a refugee who didn’t speak English at first, the help of caring adults was a big part of Hsa’s success. He tries to provide that for Karen students and families he works with.
“Some adults had to step up and take care of me when I was a kid. I relied on many adults, and I’m grateful I met so many adults in my life. I became who I am right now because of them,” Hsa said.
Hsa attended our virtual forum “The Power of One” featuring practical tips and an inspiring message: Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.
Hteh Rue is the co-owner of Chaw’s Asian Market in Willmar and a graduate of Elevate Community Business Academy, which provides hands-on training in business planning and management tailored to underserved entrepreneurs. Kandiyohi County & City of Willmar Economic Development Commission is offering the Elevate course at no cost to entrepreneurs in Kandiyohi County with funding from Southwest Initiative Foundation.
“I don’t speak English, so I think I’m not going. But it’s very good for business. So then, OK I try. This Elevate class is very useful for business (owners) who are starting business or owning business. We like it. We love it,” Hteh said.
Mark Vue purchased Bubai Foods grocery store in Walnut Grove – a staple in the community for nearly 20 years – with help from Southwest Initiative Foundation’s Microenterprise Loan Program in 2020.
“I saw the purchase of the grocery store as a learning opportunity. I felt like it would give me a chance to gain and hone the necessary skills to grow a successful business while having a relatively low risk of failure,” said Vue, who holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Southwest Minnesota State University. “The first few months have been both equally challenging and rewarding. Luckily, I had plenty of people to help mentor me through the process of starting the business. With their help and with the help of the previous owners, it was a smooth transition.”
Sean and Sao Yang own two businesses in southwest Minnesota, Sewn Edge in Walnut Grove and their new store in Willmar, Emporia Suits & Alterations.
Sean came to the United States from Laos with his family in 1989 when he was just 7 years old. His parents started several small businesses, finally settling on providing clothing alterations. Growing up, Sean spent a lot of time helping and working in their businesses.
Sao’s family believed in repairing and repurposing clothes, which is how she learned to sew.
“She’s really creative and experienced at sewing. I grew up on the business operations side, which is the part I love. We realized that those two things make a great combination,” Sean said.
Why is May Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month?
The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869 as the majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.
This month honors the influence, achievements and contributions to history and culture made by those who identify as Asian and Pacific Islander. The broad term “Asian/Pacific” encompasses:
- All of the Asian continent.
- The Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands).
- Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia).
- Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island).