Chenue Her gives voice to the voiceless

May 11, 2023

Chenue Her proudly wearing a Hmong inspired jacket while anchoring Good Morning Iowa.

Storytelling runs in Chenue Her’s blood. 

“Our family history—tracing our roots from generation to generation—that was always done through oral storytelling,” Chenue said. “The Hmong culture didn’t have a written language until very recently. Storytelling is a huge part of our culture and who we are.” 

Hmong people are an indigenous agricultural group from East and Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The culture originated in China and settled across the region after they experienced widespread persecution from the Qing dynasty in the 19th century. During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmong people to fight “a secret war” against communists in North Vietnam and Laos. When the communists took power, they imposed deadly oppression on the Hmong people for working with the U.S. Military, and the Hmong were forced to flee, with their stories often the only thing connecting them with home. 

These circumstances brought Chenue and his family from Laos to the Twin Cities in the post-Vietnam War era. Since immigrating, the family worked to honor their culture while making a home in America, sharing family recipes and old folktales passed down through generations. The centering of Hmong stories in his household reinforced the beauty of his culture and showed Chenue the power his voice can have in shaping the world.

Chenue has since continued to use his voice to give power to stories that might otherwise go unheard. He made history as the first male Hmong news anchor in the country when he moved to Des Moines in 2021 to anchor “Good Morning Iowa” on Local 5 News (ABC). Now, Chenue’s love for storytelling is more than just a way for him to pass on his culture. It’s his way of offering a listening ear to those who feel unheard. He’s able to provide a seat at the table to new voices, help build a community that celebrates difference, and encourage Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people in Iowa, and around the world, to see the value in their stories. 

Growing Up Hmong

People often assume that Chenue is of Filipino or Chinese descent. When he explains that he is Hmong, their minds often jump to Mongolian, he said. He’s found that not many Americans have an understanding of who the Hmong are, except in areas like the Twin Cities, California, and Wisconsin, where large populations of Hmong people settled. 

Chenue’s family lived within a large Hmong population in the Twin Cities. Growing up in this diverse area, Chenue felt protected against some of the discrimination Hmong people experienced in other places. 

“I grew up going to pretty diverse schools. We had a lot of African immigrants and lived near neighborhoods that were predominantly Latino,” Chenue said. “I saw the community’s efforts to include us. Did they always get it right? No. But I was fortunate to grow up in a time where they made those efforts.”

Chenue recently visited the elementary school he attended in St. Paul. It's now a Hmong immersion school, and his first grade teacher still works there.

While the community around them felt welcoming and kind, the refugee legal system caused the family to struggle financially. Chenue and his three siblings, along with his parents and an aunt, shared a two-bedroom apartment with little disposable income. They couldn’t afford VHS tapes or cable, so they gathered around the TV every night to enjoy the one form of entertainment they could access: the nightly news. 

The Continuity of Language

Hmong language was primarily an oral language until the mid-20th century when missionaries working with Hmong advisors wrote the language in the Roman Popular Alphabet. A Hmong peasant developed a lesser used dialect, Pahawh Hmong, around the same time. 

Until then, oral storytelling was the main medium by which Hmong people passed on their stories and traditions. Chenue’s mother connected with her children in the same way, orally passing on her recipes that had already been passed down from mother to child across generations. 

“I don’t have a written recipe anywhere,” Chenue said. 

The family continued to value oral storytelling as they settled into life in America. The nightly news offered a connection to the familiar tradition whenever the new culture grew difficult to understand. 

“They’d always rave about how the anchors were so smart and so well spoken. To me, that became my vision of success,” Chenue said. He constantly had his nose in a book or a pen in his hand as a child, and this introduction to broadcast news uncovered how he could turn his love of reading and writing into a career. 

He reached out to a female Hmong news anchor working in Wisconsin, who helped him to see how his voice could make history. 

“When I was getting into TV, there was no Hmong guy on TV. But I had mentors who were Hmong women in the business who brought me in and showed me the ropes,” Chenue said. “They really pushed me to break that barrier.” 

One Voice Leads to More

“In journalism, there are times where the people around you want to mold you into something that’s not genuine to you, or they want to put you in this box,” Chenue said. “But if you know who you are, you can walk into a room and no one can tell you otherwise.” 

Chenue has encountered discrimination in his career. He’s interviewed at stations that he knew wouldn’t hire him because they already had an Asian reporter on staff. He’s received job offers contingent on whether or not he would change his name. 

“I was willing to do a lot of things, but I was not willing to compromise my identity,” he said. 

Chenue’s identity directly informs the stories he chooses to cover. Growing up as a child of refugees in a lower socioeconomic status, he understands the powerlessness of someone silencing your voice. It’s why he cares so much about visibility.

One poignant story in regard to his identity occurred while working as a reporter in Atlanta, Georgia. A Hmong family contacted Chenue about an incident at their son’s elementary school. A photo had made it into the yearbook with children slanting their eyes in a racist gesture. The family reached out to the school administration but received no response.

Chenue interviewed the parents and requested comment from the school’s administration, receiving responses within an hour.

“The parents said to me: ‘We never envisioned that our voice could actually make a change like that to the point where the district would come out and apologize publicly,’” he said. “I’d like to think they would have felt comfortable going to any journalist in the market, but I was Hmong, and they were Hmong, and we connected. It showed me just how important it is for people who look like me to have a voice and be seen.” 

Proud Hmong News Anchor

The Local 5 News promo for May honors AAPI Heritage Month. It features an image of Chenue by the Des Moines River, a temple framing his wide smile and downtown Des Moines sprawling in the background. Under his name in the place that usually lists his title as “Anchor,” it says “Proud Hmong.” 

Recent promotional ads for Local 5

“Growing up, we never saw ‘Hmong’ on TV. I wanted to make sure we did it for these promos,” Chenue wrote in a LinkedIn post. 

Chenue never knew if he would even reach his goal of becoming an anchor, let alone be able to promote his culture on a large stage. Now, he’s able to focus on his next dream: ensuring there is space for more Hmong journalists after him.

“Hopefully the next generation of journalists who are Hmong can see that I’m making it as this super Hmong guy in TV news and understand how important our identity is to what we do,” he said.

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.