Saint Paul Insider: Kathy Mouacheupao
Kathy Mouacheupao is all about community. As executive director of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC) and a Saint Paul Planning Commissioner, Kathy is deeply entrenched in the vibrant cultural assets of the Capital City.
What is your connection to Saint Paul?
I wish I could say I was born here, but I was born on the East Coast to refugee parents. My parents are Hmong refugees. Our family moved here when I was two so, although I wasn't born here, I had my first memories in Saint Paul. I went to Saint Paul public schools and Concordia University. I bought my first house in Saint Paul and I’ve had all my favorite jobs here. I'm deeply rooted, I would say.
What keeps you here?
First of all, it's got the highest concentration of Hmong people in the country. I've always felt really connected and safe because there is such a large community here. I've also been really fortunate to have great jobs here. I was the executive director of the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, then a program officer at the Local Initiative Support Corporation Twin Cities and now the executive director of MRAC.
What is the vibe in Saint Paul?
Depends on who you talk with. I've had relatives from other states and Canada who have come to the Twin Cities and are so pleasantly surprised by how many Hmong people they see on the streets. For some people, it feels really familiar because of the people here. For me, I think it’s safe and charming but also really exciting. I've been able to experience the arts as an expression of culture, and culture as an expression of the people in the communities that live here. The way the arts are lived out and created really connects you to the people and the culture.
What are the best ways to experience the various cultures of Saint Paul?
We have really great little neighborhoods and cultural nodes. There are places where cultural communities come together through community events, concentrations of businesses or cultural festivals. One way to experience a bunch of different cultures is to get on the Green Line and ride it all the way through. It’s 11 miles between Saint Paul and Minneapolis—it's not a super long ride, but you can experience Little Mekong, Little Africa, Rondo, the Creative Enterprise Zone. There are stops after stops after stops. I would recommend actually getting off the train and walking into the grocery stores or going into a restaurant or a local business.
Little Africa partnered with Midway Murals three years ago to bring together businesses and residents in Hamline-Midway with artists to dream up how to visually tell its story. All the way up and down Snelling between Minnehaha and University Avenue, there are these great murals. There's one mural on a building where many of the businesses are owned by African women. The mural is of the woman who owns the building and she's braiding hair because there's a braiding business inside. What I learned through that mural was, in some African cultures, different braids have different meanings. It’s actually very symbolic. Just learning those cultural lessons, even the way that hair is done can have different meanings. And I think that's really important when we're having cross-cultural experiences and learning from each other.
There are also great festivals. There’s the Little Mekong Night Market in July and the Little Africa Fest in August. In the last couple of years, Rondo has been one of the sites for Northern Spark—a festival that happens from dusk till dawn.
Where are some of your must-visit art spots in Saint Paul?
Can Can Wonderland is something we're really fortunate to have. Their business model of being a B Corporation and bringing attention to the vibrancy of the arts through miniature golf. It’s probably the most successful B Corp I've ever seen where—their revenue really pays for a lot of the nonprofit work they do. Being able to engage all different groups in the arts is really something Saint Paul can be proud of.
Indigenous Roots is one of my new favorite places in Saint Paul. The East Side is super fortunate, but I know people are coming from all over the Twin Cities to experience everything this place has. It's got a gallery space and a bodega in the back where a lot of different dance groups work. It's super multicultural and really welcoming all the time. It's got that eight to eighty vibe where there are children and elders all in the space together.
Another place is In Progress in the North End. It’s a really small little organization, but they do mostly media arts and work with really diverse youth. They have an open door policy—young people have access to enter and can use all their equipment. It’s really about young people finding their voices and being able to share their stories through media arts.
XiaArt is in Little Mekong. It's a store, but I love that it’s local Hmong artists and you can actually buy the art. Dreamland Arts is one of the most under the radar places. It’s 40 seats, so it's intimate. Zaraawar Misty, who owns the place, does this one man show that is just brilliant. I really appreciate the work Penumbra does—it’s really high quality and they've also been renting out the theater to smaller groups for projects.
You know who is really great—FAWK, Funny Asian Women Kollective. They’ve been doing a cabaret series. It's Naomi Ko, May Lee-Yang, and Saymoukda Vongsay—they do it at Indigenous Roots. It’s great performance art that is really fresh and gets you outside of what traditional theater and performance is—it's comedy, it's spoken word, all of that.
What does it mean for Saint Paul to have The M (Minnesota Museum of American Art) settled into their new space?
The relationship and inquiry around what makes American art—that’s something The M has been kind of exploring in the last couple of years. I've been able to witness their thoughtfulness around the exploration of what those things can mean and how they can work more closely with communities that historically have not had any representation in the museum to make them more visible. I'm really excited about what they have in store. They have this new Josephine Adele Ford Center for Creativity. They’re not just a museum that you go to look at things, they're a museum you go to experience and make things. They’re a museum that has more and more representation now of what the local community here looks like. They’re right off the Green Line, too, so you take the green line there and jump right off. I'm super excited about the possibilities of what The M can and will mean in terms of what people experience there and how they can connect with the community.
What are your must eats?
Really depends how you're feeling—what kind of day you've had, what the weather is like. The great thing is there's something for all the different kinds of needs and wants. If you're looking for something hardy and homey, get Ethiopian at Demera on University. If you're looking for Thai food, I would suggest Thai Cafe or On’s Kitchen—there are so many different restaurants along University Avenue.
Something kind of new to me is Salvadorian food from Mañana on the East Side. They’ve got a brand new location and they have pupusas which are—I don't even know how to explain it—you just have to eat it to really know. It’s the delight that happens when you have carbs and cheese and meat and beans, all of those things, and then there's a pickle relish you can put on it.
When I really want something that feels like home cooking for me, I go to Hmongtown Marketplace. There’s a stall all the way on the end to the left. It's these grandmothers and aunties who make the most authentic Hmong food. It's mostly stews and soups—really, really good after a hard day.
Where else would you take visitors?
I would take them to Hmong Village because there's a food court with all these different places to eat. It’s very Hmong specific, but anybody can have a good time there. Can Can Wonderland because children love it, adults love it. It's kind of a spectacle, but in the best way possible. We would probably go to Keg & Case—it's the mainstream version of Hmong village, so people can get a sense of these different kinds of food halls which is kind of “the now” of how people experience food options and places where people can come together.
We would have to eat pho—there's a lot of options. iPho by Saigon is always safe, there's something there for everybody. Pho Ca Dao is just phos. I've also really been liking Indochin on Grand Avenue. They have these really amazing earthen pot dishes. If we're going out really late, Peking Garden because that’s the best for really good tasting food at the end of the night.
I love Indigenous Roots because they have events all the time. Whether it's specific to one of the dance groups or it’s a fundraiser filled with different vendors.
What is your insider tip?
People in Saint Paul are really helpful and kind. If you're lost or looking for a place, just ask somebody on the street. When I was on the east coast, I’d say hi to people walking down the street and they'd be so suspicious. You can feel comfortable talking to strangers and I think that's something really unique in Saint Paul. If you need suggestions, ask somebody.
Another insider tip is this way under the radar place, the Western Sculpture Park on Marion Street. There are these huge, larger than life sculptures designed and created by artists from all over the place. It’s curated and maintained through Public Art Saint Paul. It’s a fantastical place. You can go with children, adults—it doesn't matter. You can have a picnic out there and be amongst all these large sculptures. It’s such a great place that is way underutilized—a secret gem in Saint Paul for sure.
What does Saint Paul mean to you?
Saint Paul is home, and home is so many different things. It’s a place that brings comfort, a place that is exciting, a place that always has new things to discover. It's a place with good food, a place I've found a lot of security in and has jobs that are exciting. It's a place where I've been able to experience art as an expression of culture and culture as an expression of people—Saint Paul, to me, is the greatest community to live in. You can get everything you would want from a big city, but there's also a lot of places to just relax and be with people that you care about—or to get to know people. It's affordable, but exciting. It’s so different than most other cities I've been to. There's art here, there's culture, there's good food. I think there's a little bit of everything for anybody.