On a cold, foggy day just days before the traditional Christmas holiday, thousands of Hmong gathered at the Merced County Fairgrounds to celebrate the Hmong New Year.
About 3,000 people were on the grounds by noon, according to officials at the event.
Near the 11th Street entrance of the fairgrounds, Nou Her, 19, of Livingston and Za Yang, 23, of Merced, were tossing a ball back and forth.
Her said tossing a ball, or pov pob, is a way for young people to get to know each other.
"It's just for fun, it helps us meet new people," Her said.
The Hmong New Year celebration is a cultural tradition that is held annually in towns where a large population of Hmong live. There are about 8,000 Hmong living in Merced County. During the New Year's celebration, Hmong dress in traditional clothing and eat food that is native to their culture.
Thou Vang of Merced has been cooking for the Hmong New Year since 1992, when he was just a little boy. Vang's family was cooking big slabs of pork on big barbecues Friday.
"The New Year celebration is important because it's our culture," Vang said. "It's a chance to get rid of the bad luck."
Fancy Hmong costumes were everywhere Friday, with toddlers jingling in their tiny costumes adorned with fake coins, and older people wearing sequins and intricately sewn clothing.
Seng Thao came from Wisconsin to sell her Hmong clothing. She said she has been doing it for five years, and explained that there are two different types of costumes, for either White Hmong or Green Hmong.
"My clothes are for Green Hmong," Thao said. The difference between Green Hmong and White Hmong is a slight difference in the way they talk. The White and Green Hmong lived together in the past, and still do.
"My clothes tell people whether you are a White Hmong or a Green Hmong," Thao said.
The guest of honor at Friday's celebration was Gen. Vang Pao. He is a former major general in the Royal Lao Army, and a leader of the Hmong American community in the United States.
The general was arrested in 2007, accused of plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos. The United States government dropped all charges against Vang in September of this year.
The general spoke before a rapt audience, many of whom taped his speech. He was surrounded by security.
One of the speakers who spoke at the same ceremony as Vang was Col. Bill Lair. He was with the Thai Border Patrol Police, sent to Laos by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War.
"We knew the Hmong would fight the communists," Lair said. "The Hmong have always lived free, in the mountains, and they fought to keep their life the same."
Coming to the Hmong New Year was an honor for Lair. He said he took the invitation to attend seriously.
"The Hmong still believe I am one person who helped them through a terrible time," Lair said.
The officials at the New Year celebration said they expect about 7,000 people to attend the event during the weekend.
Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.