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AFC’s Community Collections Grants: Documenting Lao New Year in Iberia Parish, Louisiana

Below is an excerpt of a guest post on the Library’s Of the People blog comprised of notes, observations, and an interview by Sami Haggood (Project Assistant Director) with Phanat Xanamane (Project Director) on their project, the Louisiana Lao New Year Archive, as part of a blog series featuring the 2022 awardees of the AFC’s Community Collections Grants program. The project focuses on cultural documentation of a Lao-Buddhist immigrant community’s New Year’s celebration on Easter weekend in April 2022.

Louisiana Lao New Year Festival at Wat Thammarattanaram. A Lao Buddhist temple located in Broussard, Louisiana.

Louisiana Lao New Year Festival at Wat Thammarattanaram, a Lao Buddhist temple located in Broussard, Louisiana. Photo by Phanat Xanamane.

Introduction by Sami Haggood

Imagine you’re going about your last day of the year getting ready for New Year’s Eve and all the partying you will do to celebrate the new year. Your outfits are ready, you know exactly which places you’re going to get food from, and you have family and friends over to either make food or bring drinks. Now imagine someone shows up to your house with a film camera and a laptop and tells you: “Hello! We’re representing the Library of Congress and have come here to document your culture’s way of life. It’s because your personal history is in danger. Did you know that? Because it is. And this is our way of rescuing what makes your journey special!” What would you say to that? Do you believe there’s anything that special about how you were raised, or who you are for this level of effort to be put into this? Do you let them in? Do you tell them your story? Will I do a disservice if I answer questions the wrong way or I’m not blank enough to preserve anything important?

This hypothetical situation, while a little melodramatic, are the stakes for a small yet notably distinct Laotian population nestled in the heart of America’s Cajun country. But of all the states, why Louisiana? And why was this so important? These were some of the questions and concerns that prompted Phanat Xanamane, a 1st-generation member of the Louisiana Lao community and community activist in that area, to apply for the AFC’s Community Collections Grant.

Where and how do you start documenting a culture? The answer: with a focus. Our focus was tracing generational narratives revolving around the significant cultural phenomenon that is the Louisiana Lao New Year Festival. We further focused on the festival through the lens of six primary themes: Immigration Settlement, Religion, Food, Music & Dance, Fashion Costumes, and Kinship Ties.

Louisiana Lao New Year Archive Team Members from left: Badar Hamdani (videographer), Phanat Xanamane (Project Director), Sami Haggood (Assistant Director), documenting the Louisiana Lao New Year Festival at Wat Thammarattanaram.

Louisiana Lao New Year Archive Team Members from left: Badar Hamdani (videographer), Phanat Xanamane (Project Director), Sami Haggood (Assistant Director), documenting the Louisiana Lao New Year Festival at Wat Thammarattanaram. Photo by Connor Lee.

Here, I interview Xanamane about some of our ongoing research surrounding the festival and its community.

Haggood: What are the stakes here? Is the Louisiana Lao New Year Archive in danger? Is the culture endangered? Why did you need the help of the Library of Congress? What facets of the culture are most at risk?

Xanamane: My unique position coming to the U.S. as a very young 1st-generation immigrant allowed me to be close to some of the Lao culture and traditions while also being educated to navigate the American mainstream culture. I consider myself a 1.5-generation immigrant because having been born in a refugee camp in Thailand, I don’t have any memory our homeland, Laos. And because all of my upbringing was in the U.S., I adopted American culture more. I now see 2nd and 3rd-generations moving even further, progressively assimilating to the mainstream with very little to no connection to Lao traditions and social ties. One major loss is the use of the Lao language, as it’s becoming less common between generations, which creates a difficult barrier for new generations to understand the traditions of the first. When language breaks down, so too does meaning and the understanding of important religious chanting rituals, music, and general social exchanges and references between people of Lao ethnicities.

Our project, Louisiana Lao New Year Archive, begins to remedy this disjuncture between generations and repair riffs between traditional and mainstream culture so that younger generations may have a better point of access to understand their own heritage. Through the lens of the festival we explore cultural facets such as religion, immigrant history, food, music, fashion, and kinship ties and family values. The documentation work emerged as a collection of interviews and historic footage and photos that brings together multi-generational perspectives within Louisiana’s Lao community. The project is timely, at this urgent stage in the community’s development and growth. I hope it will ensure the cultural preservation necessary for future generations to know and celebrate the achievement of their ancestors…

Click on through to the Library’s Of the People blog to read the full interview!

The AFC’s Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities for more Americans to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story. 

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