By Lakshmi Gandhi

A Laotian American community organization wants to add a new chapter into California's newly revamped history curriculum: Laotian history.

The group Lao Advocacy Organization San Diego, better known as LaoSD, was formed in 2018 after then-California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill adding sections on the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese refugee experience to history books. That bill also added lessons on the Cambodian genocide and on the Hmong history, but LaoSD says those lessons lack mention of the contributions of Laotians and the history of Laos during the Vietnam War.

“Laotians being left out of that curricula makes the bill incomplete,” Pida Kongphouthone, a member of LaoSD’s organizing committee, said.

The move to include the story of Laotian Americans into textbooks is a personal one for Kongphouthone and other members of LaoSD. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, he came to the United States at the age of two in 1980 with his family.

“We went through that process of being children of immigrants, of refugees,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to communicate to our fellow Americans why Laotian Americans are here.”

California has one of the largest Laotian American populations in the United States, with about 82,000 people of Laotian descent living in the state — 8,000 of them in San Diego County according to the Census Bureau estimates.

But Kongphouthone said there is a concern that younger members of the Laotian community do not fully understand the history of Laos in the 1970s and the subsequent wave of immigration that followed because the Vietnam War has been too traumatic for older community members to discuss with younger generations.

“Our elders, our parents our grandparents have [post-traumatic stress disorder] from their journey from escaping the war, from fleeing violence,” he said. “We are just beginning to talk about it.”

In order to fill the gaps in terms of including Laotian history into the curriculum, LaoSD is lobbying members of the California Legislature to support Assembly Bill 1393, which was introduced in late February by San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber.

Members of LaoSD with California Assemblymember Shirley Weber, who authored a bill requiring Laotian-American history and cultural studies be included in California schools.Courtesy of LaoSD

The bill would require the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which develops and recommends curricula to the state Board of Education, to develop and submit a curriculum that incorporates the history of Laotian refugees. If the bill passes the Assembly, the group will then work to get it passed in the state Senate and get signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Ultimately, Kongphouthone said he and other organizers want California’s textbooks to reflect the full history of all Southeast Asian Americans.

“Americans of Laotian descent are part of the American social fabric. We serve in the military, we work in entertainment and business, we volunteer, we are your neighbors, we are business owners,” he said. “That’s why it is important that not only is the history complete, but also to highlight the immigrant story of fellow Americans.”

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