SACRAMENTO -- For most of her childhood, Connie Vang had no idea why she was in America.
Then, at age 14, the Sanger High School student found out. She attended the filming of a documentary depicting the plight of the Hmong people, many of whom who came here after helping the United States fight communism in Laos and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.
"That was the first time I ever learned about the reason why the Hmong people are here," said Vang, now 18.
Fighting back tears, Vang shared the story with state lawmakers Wednesday as she successfully urged them to pass a bill that would require California to include Hmong history in school text books.
Assembly Bill 2064, by Assembly Member Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, would mandate teaching of the so-called "secret war" in Laos, the role of Southeast Asians in the war, and the "refugee/immigrant/new American experience."
As Vang told it, Hmong children living in California today know little about their heritage.
Their parents, many of whom are refugees, don't like to talk about their painful pasts. Children struggle with their identities.
"For the first 14 years of my life I was disconnected from my culture," Vang said. "I did not know anything about it."
The bill passed its first test Wednesday, clearing the Assembly Education Committee on a 6-0 vote. On hand were about 20 veterans of the secret war who live in Fresno and Sacramento. In full uniform, they stood to attention when asked whether they support the bill.
Fresno City Council President Blong Xiong, California's first Hmong city council member, spoke in favor, saying that the veterans' stories "need to be told."
The committee's three Republicans abstained. They worried the bill would encourage other groups to seek special recognition in textbooks, burdening schools.
"We're just trying to teach the basics to get our high school exit exams passed," said Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
Last year, lawmakers passed a bill, later vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, that would prohibit schools from using textbooks that disparage gays.
This year, Democrats have introduced a bill, AB 1863, that encourages schools to recognize the role of Italian Americans in California history.
Another bill, AB 2034, calls for instruction on American Indians and their "tribal and sovereign governments and their relationship with the California state government."
The governor has not taken a position on any of the bills.
The Hmong bill comes five years after lawmakers approved legislation to "encourage" teaching of Hmong history.
Arambula said the next step is to require such instruction so that all Californians are aware of the Hmong story.
"Many thousands of individuals ... lost their lives," he said. "Entire families were decimated in support of American policy."
Fresno Unified School District began teaching Hmong history this year, using handouts and the "Hmong Voices" film -- the documentary Vang watched being filmed four years ago.
Doua Vu, a Hmong refugee who works at Fresno Unified, developed the curriculum.
The project was launched in response to a series of Hmong teen suicides in the late 1990s that Vu partly blamed on the identify crisis suffered by many American-born Hmong.
Vu encouraged Arambula to introduce this year's bill to spread the teaching across the state.
"Other districts throughout California, they are missing out on this," she said.