My Dad the Mekong and Me the Mississippi: Hmong Choral Music

This is a big month for us. On February 28th at 7:00PM, Harding High School and Augsburg University are teaming up to premiere a bilingual work in Hmong and English titled "My Dad the Mekong/Love Forever".

It's been a fascinating experience to work on this piece. The work, composed by Elliot Z. Levine, features the work of two Hmong poets from the East Side of St. Paul, where Harding is located. Lee Her has written a beautiful poem in Hmong titled "Love Forever" which is paired with Peter Yang's powerful text "My Dad the Mekong and Me the Mississippi"*. I'd like to pause here and say that without the collaboration of Dr. Kristina Boerger at Augsburg, this would not be possible. She has been a fierce advocate and collaborator and I am thrilled that we are going to work together to bring this double choir piece to life.

When I told my students we were doing a piece in Hmong, they lit up. About 80% of my choir population is Hmong, and they didn't believe me when I told them we'd be singing in Hmong. One student came up to me after class and said: "Ms. Romero, this is a dream come true". That about broke my heart. I've been in those shoes - in undergrad we didn't sing in Spanish once. I think we might have done a piece in Spanish in high school, but it hasn't been a part of my professional singing life (until Border CrosSing, but that's a whole other story. Please go check us out though! It's the best singing experience I have ever had). I've been very disheartened that very, very little of the repertoire I've sung in my professional career had a direct connection to my heritage and upbringing. This commission was an opportunity to provide my students with that experience.

Linguistically, it's been a challenge for me to work on this piece. The Hmong transliteration is difficult and it's been a humbling experience to turn my classroom over to my students. The text in Hmong is written in Hmong Green, a dialect, and most of my students speak Hmong White. Lee Her, who is a poet, songwriter and educator, was kind enough to send me a recording of him speaking the text. It was a huge asset in learning enough to facilitate a conversation with my students. Additionally, Lee came in to work with us and run through the text with us. Having him in front of the classroom was really neat, it was a chance for the language to be shared by someone from the community who could answer nuanced questions that I couldn't. It also gave me a chance to demonstrate the EL strategies many students learn - repetition, written and spoken demonstration and practice. I had kids giggling while I tried to repeat a word Lee said until we were both pleased with the result. It was important to me that students saw me going through the struggle of the learning process.

It's been slow going for us but empowering to get to ask students to demonstrate and for me to try to imitate. I'll admit that it was a deeply vulnerable experience to have to sit back and say "ok, you say it and I'll try". There's been a lot of laughter and argument in the classroom about the pronunciation of several words, especially since there's different dialects spoken. We've also laughed a lot about how I write things on the board. In order for ALL of us to learn the piece - which includes my Karen (pronounced "Kah- Ren", emphasis on the second syllable), African-American, Caucasian, African and Indigenous students - we've had to write out the pronunciation on the board. Kids got a kick from me writing in spanglish. For example, one of the words in the piece is "nyob", pronounced "ñaw" (in my Spanglish brain) and kids loved that I wrote an ñ on the board. It brought around a good conversation about how they speak "hmonglish" with their friends and family, and how my sisters and I speak in spanglish.

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I think a lot about access and culturally relevant programming. When I program for the year, I try to find music that challenges my students, but will also have a foothold for them to connect to. I spend all summer picking rep that is written by composers who are queer, who are women, who are BIPOC, and better reflect my students and their experiences. That's why it's been so interesting to work on this piece - Peter Yang's poem is stunning. When I read it for the first time I was deeply moved. It immediately brought to mind my own parents and the struggles they had to bring us to this country and my struggle to make them proud as I pursued music - something that isn't done in my culture. It also highlights how challenging it can be to connect with immigrant parents: half the time, I feel like I'm straddling two worlds and finding a balance is challenging. I'm too American to be Colombian, but too Colombian to be American. It's an exhausting struggle, especially in Minnesota where to be Latinx, people expect you to look a certain way and will say (callously, it feels) "Oh, you don't look Hispanic!".

Even now, the final stanzas of Yang's poem leave me in tears:

“remember the past he says

I can't
I say
I was never meant to be there

join me here I say

I can't
he says
I was never meant to be here”

That line is at the heart of my relationship with my parents, because it brings up the question "where do I belong?".

This poem has been an avenue for us to talk about how we connect with our elders and the struggles we face by being people who have to codeswitch at school and at home. Being an immigrant and Latina musician is one of the great prides of my life, and it's something I draw upon often in my teaching. Yang's poem has been an excellent opportunity to talk about the dualities we face as multilingual learners, and people with multiple nationalities.

I prompted students: "Talk to a friend in the class about a time you had a hard time connecting with your parents or older family members." I gave the example that in high school, it was a battle for me to attend Homecoming or Prom. "Eso que es? Como asi que una fiesta en la escuela?" This was the American High School Experience™ and my parents did not understand. One student shared that her great-grandmother was very old and would often say to them she wanted to die because she was a burden. The student shared with us that it was really frustrating because they loved her and wanted her to know she was an important part of their life. Another student said she had a hard time communicating with her Karen parents - sometimes, she didn't have the language or ability to express what she thought. Other students shared that it was hard for their parents to understand their mental health or the realities of school pressures because it wasn't a part of their culture. Elliot's piece has allowed us all a chance to explore ourselves as intersectional people AND to sing a great piece of music.

I am so grateful that I've been able to live with this piece a few months. I have loved the opportunity to let my students be the experts in the classroom and to show them that I don't have all the answers. Even beyond that, it's been rewarding to learn to sing in this beautiful language and see my students light up when I do it correctly. It's brought us closer together, and I am grateful for the opportunity.

*For a full copy of Peter Yang's poem, I suggest purchasing "Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writings of Hmong Americans" edited by Mai Neng Moua.

Come join us.

February 28th, 2019
7:00PM at Harding High School (Auditorium)
1540 E. Sixth Street
St. Paul, MN 55106

EducationNatalia Romero