Tens of thousands of people will again be making their way to the Como Park neighborhood for the 33rd annual Hmong Freedom Celebration and Sports Festival July 6 and 7 at McMurray Field in Como Park.
Commonly known as J4, due to its overlap with the Fourth of July weekend, the two-day event is regarded as one of the largest annual gatherings in the global Hmong community. It draws attendees from all over the world, but you don’t have to cross an ocean or be of Hmong heritage to be welcome at the celebration.
This year, event organizers are making a point of welcoming non-Hmong community members to partake in the festivities—especially neighbors in the Como neighborhood.
“I would personally like to invite all the neighbors to come join us and see what we’re doing,” said spokesperson Janelle Vang.
There will be no shortage of things to see, including hundreds of booths offering artisanal textiles, crafts and other goods, and an abundance of vendors offering authentic Hmong cuisine.
Perhaps the biggest draw for the festival is the sporting events. Athletes are brought in from all over the world to compete for cash prizes in men’s and women’s divisions of soccer, football and volleyball. There is even a senior’s division of soccer for contestants more than 40 years old.
Some less familiar sports to those outside the Hmong community will also draw spectators. Kato is a traditional Hmong sport similar to volleyball where players hit a small woven ball over a net, using nearly every part of their body except their hands. Top spinning is a traditional sport that involves hurling large wooden tops.
Organizers are also hoping to host the second annual Miss Hmong Teen pageant this year if they can get enough contestants, Vang said.
There will be a stage with live music where participants can also showcase their singing and dancing talents.
Organizers are still working with the city to get permits for fireworks, as well.
With the second largest Hmong community in the country, Minnesota is a natural destination for a global event like this, Vang says. Of the more than 60,000 Hmong residents of the state, almost half reside in St. Paul.
Event organizers are expecting 20,000 to 40,000 people, Vang said. Last year the event drew 50,000—the largest crowds since the festival began in 1980.
The potential for complications that may arise from such a large influx of people to a residential area are evident, and the event has caused some tension in the Como Park neighborhood in past years.
“I think a lot of folks who live in the neighborhood think it’s a great [event] and they are really happy to have it here, but that’s a huge number of people to drop in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” District 10 administrator Ted Blank said.
Residents have raised concerns about traffic, noise, parking and garbage, according to Blank.
ecognizing the challenges that accompany hosting an event of this size in a residential area, organizers have worked to allay some of the concerns.
To help alleviate parking congestion in the neighborhood, festival-goers are encouraged to park in one of the State Fairground lots, where they can take a shuttle to the grounds.
A community meeting was hosted this year to get feedback from the neighborhood, but no one showed up with any questions, Blank said. “It seems like most of the neighborhood concerns that were raised in past years have been mitigated.”
Facilities at Como Park will be open as usual, according to Blank, though finding parking may be a trick.
The festival is also a chance for people outside the Hmong community to get to know a culture they may not be familiar with, Blank says.
“It’s for other cultures to learn about the Hmong culture,” Vang said. “When you are there, everyone is friendly and everyone wants to get to know everybody.”
The festival has come a long way since its humble beginnings on Harriet Island more than 30 years ago. The Lao Family Community of Minnesota Inc., who continues to organize J4 today, was created by a small group of immigrants to help Vietnam War refugees adapt to life in the United States by offering services such as translating, transportation, English training and job placement.
As the Hmong community has continued to grow, so have the services offered by Lao Family. The group now also provides extensive youth training services that deal with things like tobacco use and pregnancy prevention.
The celebration has become an economic boon for the city of St. Paul too, Vang says. Many attendees who travel large distances for the event will often stay a week or two before and after to visit the city and their family.
Admission to the festival is $5 per person at the gate. Seniors over 65 and children under 3 get in free.
Kyle Mianulli is a freelance journalist in the Twin Cities.