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December 12, 2011
In the west Arkansas town of Magazine, one sure way for boys from the immigrant Hmong community to assimilate is to put on helmets, cleats and shoulder pads
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December 12, 2011

How To Become An American

In the west Arkansas town of Magazine, one sure way for boys from the immigrant Hmong community to assimilate is to put on helmets, cleats and shoulder pads

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Billy Yang is not much bigger than his brothers, but both Jones and Powell see him as the heir to what has now become a tradition at Magazine. His arms and shoulders are thickly cabled with muscle. He is fast and, because of that, he hits with an impact disproportionate to his size. Isaac Newton would footnote the kid's game on sight. Jones and Powell see Billy as a fullback and a linebacker. "He could be the best one of them all," Jones says.

"I see myself as a fullback, mostly," Billy says. "I came down here from Minnesota when I was six because my dad got a job down here, and I got involved with little league football because my brothers played, and my cousins Charly and Bobby."

As for relations with their non-Asian teammates, "You'd think there'd be all kinds of problems, but it's almost the opposite," says Jones, who's been coaching at Magazine since 2005. The Hmong have been central to the coach's general reclamation project. The high school is so small (about 250 students) that it didn't even have football for about a half century, until 1995. Jones brought along Powell, an old high school teammate and longtime assistant from nearby Booneville. Seven players showed up on the first day of practice. The football facility didn't even have lockers. The Rattlers went 0--10 that year, and they were 5--26 in Jones's first three seasons. Powell had to talk Jones into staying.

The two men have been together so long that they finish each other's sentences. Jones is the straight man of the pair; an officer in the Arkansas Air National Guard, he has done tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he runs beagles competitively. Powell is the blustery comic relief. It's he who's closest to the players, in the manner of every assistant football coach who ever lived.

Don't worry, he told Jones. There's a lot of talent in junior high. Powell had spotted the Hmong kids coming along. They were small but superbly conditioned and very quick. Stick around, Powell said. There's something here.

One day in 1972, government troops came to Thong Moua's village, Long Tieng, and told him he was a soldier. He was 13. He fought for three years in a stubborn, brave guerrilla action for which his people paid an almost unimaginable price. Some 35,000 Hmong soldiers died in battle, according to Keith Quincy, whose book Harvesting Pa Chay's Wheat is the best account of the war the Hmong waged on behalf of the U.S. That toll, Quincy points out, would be "comparable to America's having lost 16.5 million men in combat."

In 1975, when their forces were finally routed by the North Vietnamese, the Hmong fled into the hills and jungles, where almost a third of them died of starvation and disease. One of those refugees was Thong Moua, who spent nearly four years on the run until finally crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. "You stay in the jungle," he recalls, "because if they know you're a soldier, they kill you. If you go back home, they kill you."

Moua lived for a year in a refugee camp in Thailand. The Hmong fighters had been promised that if the war went sour, they'd be repatriated to the U.S. Like so many things about that time, that promise had a sell-by date. Only a few thousand Hmong were repatriated. The rest stayed in the camps, and life in the camps was nightmarish, in part because the Thai government didn't want the Hmong there, but also because some Hmong leaders involved themselves in the drug trade. Fortunately, charitable organizations, especially church groups, stepped in and sponsored the movement of thousands of other Hmong to the U.S.

A church group placed Moua in Rhode Island, and then he moved to Massachusetts, where he worked factory jobs and where Charly was born. Moua stayed there until he heard from his uncle that Tyson was offering land and farms for the Hmong to work in Arkansas. The Hmong were farmers, and chickens had a special place in their culture dating back through the millennia. (An ancient Hmong legend credits a rooster with having saved the world.) Moua moved his family to Magazine six years ago and set up his chicken houses. His sons enrolled in school, and they began to play football, the way other Hmong children had before them.

What Jones and Powell were seeing in Magazine was the impact of the second wave of Hmong immigrants to Arkansas. The first had come in the early '80s, when nearly 300 Hmong were resettled in and around Fort Smith. Most of them found low-paying manufacturing jobs, including work in chicken-processing plants. They were vehemently opposed to the concept of welfare; according to a 1984 report sponsored by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Hmong phrase for welfare was "no arms, no legs." Consequently, when word got around Hmong communities in the U.S. in 2004 that Tyson was offering them the opportunity to run their own poultry farms in Arkansas, many jumped at the chance to live their own lives on their own land in a place where many of them already had relatives living for more than 20 years.

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