by Sharon H. Chang
It’s early morning when vans from eight different Hmong farms pull up to unload spring bouquets across King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Bins and boxes, filled with vibrant flowers wrapped in white paper, are placed on the ground or on tables. Gold and red tulips, cream and maroon peonies, blue violet irises and pink lupines. Volunteers move the flowers into the shade to avoid wilting, careful to keep the blooms brilliant for later, when they’ll be picked up by families and gifted to hundreds of beaming mothers in the area.
A bouquet drive called Solidarity Flowers raised over $26,000 dollars this Mother’s Day weekend to support Hmong and Mien farmers as well as people excluded from COVID-19 relief funds. Online ordering opened May 1 and closed May 7, and people across the greater Seattle area placed orders for more than 800 bouquets. On Saturday and Sunday, the bouquets were delivered to multiple pickup sites from eight Hmong and Mien farms: Yeng Gardens, True Garden, Cha Doua’s Garden, the Old Farmer, Jenny’s Garden, Cha Farms, Dao Lee Farm, and MeeGarden.
Solidarity Flowers was organized in two weeks by Stephanie Ung of Khmer Community of Seattle King County, Cynthia Yongvang of Hmong Association of Washington, Yolanda Quiroga of El Comité, and Rita Aronson, a White Center resident. The four organizers met volunteering on an immediate needs committee through the COVID-19 Community Response Alliance. In conversations about urgent community needs, one community came up repeatedly. Immigrants who are undocumented have so far been excluded from much-needed government relief during the pandemic, despite paying taxes and working jobs critical to the country. El Comité describes these families and individuals as “essential and excluded.”
“For people who are undocumented, there’s no relief,” said Quiroga. “There’s no stimulus package, unemployment, nothing.” Quiroga is president of El Comité, a grassroots organization that advocates for immigrant laborers in Western Washington. She said food and rent have become critical concerns for the undocumented community. There are families that have been unable to pay rent for months and owe up to $6,000. “But how can they ever pay rent if they don’t have jobs?” Quiroga said. “We are seeing that there are going to be a lot more homeless people.”
Quiroga’s advocacy for immigrants resonated with Ung, who notes there are undocumented members of the Khmer community also in need of help. Ung had just organized a flower drive in April for Khmer New Year to support Hmong and Mien farmers. She suggested another, larger flower drive to support both Hmong flower farmers and people being denied COVID-19 relief. “There are so many communities struggling, and this is a creative way to find where we can overlap and work together,” said Ung. “Solidarity feels like something necessary during this pandemic, and tying that with flowers felt powerful. Mother Earth’s gifts are so important right now.”
Hmong refugees began growing flowers in Washington in the 1980s as part of a resettlement program called the Indochinese Farm Project, funded in part by King County and the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority. The program was successful, and today Hmong farmers are well known at Pike Place Market, making up about 40% of flower vendors. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit King County in February of this year, flower sales were deemed nonessential business and the farmers’ stalls were closed in mid-March.
Normally, Hmong farmers sell the majority of their flowers at farmers markets, but those markets were closed for months due to coronavirus.
There are over 80 Hmong flower farms in Western Washington where 300–400 people work, said Yongvang. When the pandemic began, some farms were forced to compost their spring blooms or let them rot in fields. Since then, some have managed to sell flowers in other ways: through pop-up stands, partnerships, online orders and more deliveries. But it is a struggle. “That’s the reason why we step in to help them,” said Yongvang.
Half of the proceeds from Solidarity Flowers sales this weekend were used to pay the Hmong farmers market rate for their beautiful flowers. The other half went to El Comité for direct distribution to undocumented families and also to Khmer Community of Seattle King County.
Bouquets were delivered to nine pickup sites in Lynnwood, Ballard, Bellevue, South Park, White Center, Lakewood, Columbia City, North Renton and Renton Highlands. A few businesses volunteered, but most of the pickup sites were outside the homes of residents. Aronson volunteered her residence, a live-work space in White Center, as a pickup site. Aronson knew she wanted to be involved in the drive from the moment Ung suggested it. “I just wanted to help in any way I could.”
Yongvang and Quiroga said the best part of Solidarity Flowers was the tremendous outpouring of community support. It’s wonderful for Hmong farmers to see they are valued, said Yongvang, and to take pride in supporting other groups. It made Quiroga happy knowing the drive helped both Hmong farmers and people excluded from COVID-19 relief funds at the same time. Solidarity Flowers was such a beautiful action, and the bouquets were not only gorgeous but meaningful. It is important, Quiroga said, to give others the opportunity to help, even in a small way. “It was more than just flowers. It was buying flowers with purpose.”
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.
Featured image: Bouquet pickup at Renton City Councilmember Kim Khánh Vǎn’s home in Renton (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)