A Century of Sikhs in California by Bruce La Brack
From the Periphery to the Center
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me say first that I very much appreciate the invitation to address this audience and to join with you in celebrating the Centenary of the first gurdwara in North America. Since I live in Stockton, California, where the second North American gurdwara was established one year later…and where it remained the only Sikh gurdwara not only in California, but in the nation, until the end of the Second World War, I feel an affinity with such pioneer institutions because I know how important they were to the Punjabi’s in their early struggles to survive in a new and often hostile environment.
I hope you will permit me a moment of personal reflection before I begin to outline my broader thoughts on California Sikhs’ historical trajectory. January 2011 marked thirty-six years since first I arrived in Yuba City, California, to commence eighteen months of dissertation fieldwork in a then almost unknown segment of the Sikh Diaspora. I had driven from Syracuse University, in upstate New York, in a U-Haul van that contained all my possessions. My first stop in Yuba City was the recently constructed Sikh temple on Tierra Buena road, where the granthi graciously welcomed me, and where I was a guest of the community for nearly two weeks. Over a third of a century later, I remain involved with the community– and am still intrigued by what I continue to learn about the Sikhs' past struggles.
The degree of current Sikh accomplishments tends to overwhelm considerations of earlier formative events, particularly when there were so few written records produced by the community itself. The consideration of early Punjabi migration could be seen as a sub-set of Subaltern studies whose main actors are gone, and who left relatively little literature and few documents behind.
Further, considering the scope of some of the vast tragedies within India in the second half of the 20th century, such traumatic events as the Partition and Operation Blue Star and a decade of civil war in Punjab, or more recent events in the United States such as 9/11 and its aftermath for Sikhs, the early Sikh travails in America may seem less compelling to some. I would argue an opposite position, that Pioneer Sikh history, in both Canada and California, was a formative period that is worthy of serious consideration because it exemplifies, in a microcosm, the beginnings of such currently trendy topics as: world-wide transnational emigration; the inexorable internationalization of regional politics; the migration of labor and globalization of markets; the emergence of complex, multiple identity issues; consideration of periphery and center relationships; and even worldwide remittance flows and philanthropy.
In North America, the 20th century has been literally the “best of times and the worst of times” for Punjabis. For almost one-third of that period, I have been privileged to witness first-hand the consequences of these events for Northern California Sikhs, and to record their reactions. To the California Sikh community, I would like to publicly acknowledge my thanks for their friendship, hospitality, and for offering, often vociferously, their knowledge, opinions, perceptions, and analysis of their rich history and culture. If I were to offer any friendly advice to future researchers, it would be “If you do not want to know what the Sikhs think, do not ask them!” I, for one, always appreciated their willingness to be candid and to share their views. They have survived much over the last century, least of which was a pesky anthropologist.
A Half-Century of Decline and A Half-Century of Growth
Socially speaking, for the first half of the 20th century, it seemed unlikely that Sikhs could survive as more than a minuscule encapsulated minority within American society. All early economic and political indicators made it seem ever more doubtful that they would ever thrive so far from home. Why?
Significant South Asian immigration to North America did not commence until the first decade of the 20th century. By that time, Canada and America were but two of many destinations in a worldwide diaspora that saw South Asians spreading across the globe to East and South Africa, the Caribbean, East and Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and the South Pacific.
The first immigrants to North America were overwhelmingly Punjabi male peasant farmers from the northwest of British-controlled India: eighty-five to ninety percent of whom identified themselves as Sikhs (most of whom were from Jat agricultural backgrounds); ten to twelve percent were Punjabi Muslims; with the remainder Punjabi Hindus. There were no South Asian women on the West coast in the first decade of immigration, and perhaps no more than one hundred ever entered the US prior to 1945, most of those as wives or daughters of businessmen not intending to settle here. The Sikhs, in their first half-century, illustrate how the history of South Asian immigration to the United States both reflects, and is a product of, major American cultural attitudes, economic conditions, and legal circumstances, as well as socio-political conditions in the Indian subcontinent.
Sikh immigration history in California is profoundly dichotomous and can be divided into two general, extremely contrasting periods. The first extended from the turn-of-the-century until 1965, characterized by an initial decade of open immigration (1900-1910) shaped by four interrelated but fluid forces. They are (1) persistent and blatant legal governmental discrimination in the form of a series of exclusionary acts, (2) extreme social isolation and prejudice, (3) the illegal immigration of perhaps an additional 3000 Punjabis in the inter-war years, and (4) a precipitous, continuous population decline, which was reversed only in the post-World War II era. This is what I once characterized as the “Peaches and Punjabis” phase of early Sikh adaptation to California because the economic loci of the community were fruit and nut orchards.
These time periods reflect stark differences in South Asian immigrant experiences. Between their initial influx to North America and today's California Sikh population, there lies nearly one hundred and ten years of turmoil and change. Initially, their darker complexion, distinctive turbans, non-Christian faiths, food preferences, and cultural traditions marked them as strangers and foreigners. Whatever the reality of their situations, they were openly and actively discriminated against, and broadly stereotyped by the media. They were widely held to be culturally unassimilable and socially undesirable as citizens. In 1912, an Immigration Commission estimated that between one-half and three-fifths of the South Asian immigrants of that period could neither read nor write in any language.
Concentrated on the West Coast, there were never more than six or seven thousand legal South Asians; fewer ten thousand ever came to the United States in the first half of the 20th century, and only sixteen percent of those remained by mid-century. It is hard to believe, but at mid-century there were fewer than 1600 Indians, mostly Sikhs, remaining in the entire United States. The northern California nucleus, which was founded around the ten-to-thirty acre peach, prune, almond, or walnut farms in the Yuba City-Marysville area, was to endure through the difficult 1920-1940 period, when the South Asian population there dwindled from perhaps 800 to around 350-400 persons owning less than 1,000 acres by 1946. Hess describes the dire situation in California at the end of World War II thus:
“Although the preponderance (sixty percent) of the East Indians in 1940 still lived in California, their numbers had declined by forty-six percent since 1910…The status of the small community had not improved over the years. By 1940 only a handful (four persons) were professionals, nearly half were farm laborers, fifteen percent were farmers or farm managers, and an additional twenty percent were engaged in non-farm labor…(O)f the 1,600 east indians over age twenty-five, more than a third had not completed even a year of schooling. The median school years completed among east indians were 3.7…. Moreover, the East Indians now constituted an aging community; fifty-six percent were over age forty, thirty-two percent over fifty, and nine percent over sixty” Hess, 1974, 590-591
Given this profile, they easily could have disappeared without a trace. Already at the periphery of Sikh life, they seemed to be moving towards extinction.
This grim situation was slowly offset through the reopening of immigration from India after Independence, family reunification programs, and the ability to sponsor more distant relatives. This resulted in the Yuba City/Marysville Sikhs becoming the largest Sikh agricultural community outside India, with well over 10,000 Sikhs making their homes there today. Small pockets of earlier Punjabi immigrants in rural Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and even along the northern Mexican border endured, but they were relatively minuscule and never became significant immigration destinations for Sikhs, although from the 1970s onward they would continue to attract some of the new arrivals.
The second period of Sikh immigration (1965 – present) is different in every respect. Whereas single, uneducated, poor, male Punjabi sojourners from largely rural backgrounds characterized the first fifty years of immigration, the “new” Sikhs often arrive as families and are highly educated, financially secure, urban based, and represent a socially and religiously diverse group. Marked by exponential growth in both the numbers and variety of Sikhs immigrating to America, this dramatic reversal of earlier trends was made possible by the Independence of India (1947). This set in motion sweeping changes in US Immigration and Naturalization laws, which, by 1965, had reversed the anti-Oriental bias of previous legislation and positively evolved, eventually creating immigration preferences for skilled South Asians.
Moreover, throughout the 1990s, as India herself became a world-class training ground for computer engineers and a leader in software production, the heady atmosphere of American ‘dot.coms’, internet startups, and research centers drew an entirely new group of South Asians to our shores. They were not only conversant with cutting-edge technology, but skilled project managers as well. Many had entrepreneurial ambitions and opportunities that earlier immigrants could not have imagined in their most optimistic fantasies. Even twenty years ago, who would have seriously predicted that Sikhs and other South Asians would become heavily recruited and highly valued by America’s largest multi-national companies and constitute the core of some of the most innovative and respected high tech firms in the nation. They also occupy University teaching posts and chairs throughout American academia, including their most prestigious research laboratories. Thus, we arrived at what I have termed the “Silicon Sikhs” phase, with California moving from a peripheral status in the Sikh imagination to a much more central place economically, politically, and even culturally.
This has not replaced the Sikhs of the agricultural communities; and according to a recent California state census they constitute at least nine percent of the entire eighty thousand-person population of Sutter County. Thousands more reside in neighboring Northern Sacramento Valley counties. After 1965, these rural enclaves were to experience growth rates of up to thirty percent a year as extended families were reunited and sponsorship of more distant relatives became feasible. For decades Sikh family farms provided a relatively expandable employment base that could always use new labor to cut production costs. However, this trend is leveling out because there is little new agricultural land available for farming. Agriculture is close to reaching its potential limit. There remains little chance for significant future agricultural expansion in the Yuba-Sutter regions of the northern Sacramento Valley. What arable land that remains have become more expensive while at the same time financing and associated costs are simultaneously rising.
In contrast, the urban centers of the US, which had always had a small core of professional Indians and students, became the major immigration destinations for a broad spectrum of highly educated Sikhs. This trend continues and will undoubtedly expand exponentially into the future. But, before we discuss contemporary circumstances and, because the focus of this Centenary Celebration is the establishment of the first Sikh Gurdwara not just in Canada, but in the whole of North America, I would like to take a few minutes to discuss the crucial role that the Stockton, California, Sikh Temple played in Sikh life in the first half century of the 20th century. The Sikhs of California will be celebrating their Centenary of the founding of the Stockton Sikh Temple in 2012.
The Stockton Gurdwara
Just as it is difficult to overestimate the role that gurdwaras play in the contemporary social and political life of the Sikh majority, it has been so since the formation of the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society in 1912, and the building of the first gurdwara in the United States in Stockton, California, in 1915. Since that time, the socio-political concerns that face the Sikh community have been inextricably intertwined with religious issues. The Stockton gurdwara gave a focal point to Punjabi life on the West Coast; it served as a combination church, dining hall, rest home, employment information center, meeting place, political forum, and sanctuary where Punjabi culture and language were understood. The Stockton facility was a hub of social, religious, and political life for all Sikhs and many other Punjabis in California between 1915 and the late 1970s. It performed the same vital role that other contemporary Sikh worship centers worldwide continue to perform, however, the Stockton gurdwara remained the only Sikh worship center in the United States until 1947.
Thereafter, additional gurdwaras began to be built throughout the United States, including the second gurdwara acquired in California at El Centro in 1948. In a bit of historical irony, the building that was to serve as the El Centro gurdwara was originally built as a Buddhist Temple by the local Japanese community, who were also farmers. However, following the Japanese Relocation Act (Executive Order 9066) of 1942 and the subsequent internment of West Coast Japanese in isolated camps until the end of World War II, the majority of Japanese involved choose not to return to the area. They subsequently sold the building to Sikhs who rededicated it as a gurdwara!
As of 2010, Sikhs have founded nearly fifty gurdwaras in California, although the Los Angeles Times published an article just last week that claimed there were some fifty gurdwaras in the Los Angeles area alone, but I believe this is a serious overestimation. Nationally, Sikhs support something approaching 150 gurdwaras in the continental US. Nevertheless, the Stockton gurdwara remains a place of special significance for Sikhs on the West Coast, as does the Sikh Temple National Historic Site here in Abbotsford for Canadian Sikhs.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the agricultural population center for Sikhs in Northern California shifted to Yuba City, symbolized by the establishment of new Sikh gurdwara in 1969 at Tierra Buena Road, and the subsequent building of several additional gurdwaras in the area.
Incidentally, in November 2010, the Yuba City Sikhs celebrated the thirty-first Nagar Kirtan and Sikh Day Parade. It drew at least 80,000 participants, perhaps as many as 50,000 being Sikhs. With fifty floats stretching almost four-and-a-half miles, it is one of the largest such events in the United States.
However, the urban center of the social, economic, and religious core in Northern California is the San Francisco Bay area, where Sikhs have built major gurdwaras in Fremont, Milpitas, El Sobrante, and San Jose. The biggest Sikh house of worship in the United States, the San Jose Gurdwara Sahib, was recently completed at a cost of over $20 million dollars.
But of much greater importance than religious architecture is the sheer volume of qualitative changes in the social and occupational backgrounds of these new immigrants. With the exception of small communities found mostly in rural California, where a high percentage of the immigrant populations were, and continue to be, from agrarian backgrounds, all studies of the so-called “new” Sikh immigrants indicate significant levels of educational and occupational achievement.
The urban newcomers are generally a relatively affluent group, from the middle and upper-middle classes of urban Indian society. A high percentage are professionals with extensive university and graduate training and include lawyers, nurses, accountants, engineers, college professors, physicians, and research scientists conducting basic inquiry in a wide variety of disciplines ranging from physics to medicine. Although there remain pockets of poverty and chronically disadvantaged Sikh populations in many US cities, the overall picture is very positive, particularly in the high-tech centers, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Santa Clara and south San Francisco Bay Area region.
Based on the count of the 2010 Census, there are roughly 2.5 million people in the US who identify themselves as Asian Indians or Indian Americans. Since Sikhs were not currently designated as a US census category, their exact numbers are difficult to estimate. Contemporary estimates claim there are, perhaps, 650,000 Sikhs in the United States and 250,000 in California. These figures are probably inflated, but it is difficult to know by how much. More conservatively, in mid-2005, the Harvard Religious Diversity Project estimated that as many as 234,00-250,000, perhaps more, of the then 1.7 million Asian Indians, were followers of Sikhism. If accurate, even this very low figure still represents nearly seven percent of the total U.S. South Asian American population. This means that the ratio of Sikhs, as a percentage of the total U.S. South Asian population, may be nearly three times greater than the approximately two percent (or twenty-million+) they represent of the one billion plus population of contemporary India! Moreover, there are now fourth generation U.S.-born Sikhs!
Turning to the relationship between national technology needs and immigration preferences, South Asian Indians have accounted for a significant percentage (sometimes as high as forty percent) of all the yearly H-1B visas granted in the US over the past two decades, according to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 2005 twenty-five percent of all H-1B visas listed India as the country of origin and India (along with China) continues to rank among the top sending destinations. Roughly half of those H-1B visas have gone to people in computer-related jobs. It is estimated that four percent of the entire Silicon Valley population is from South Asia. Santa Clara County alone is home to some 70-80,000 people of Indian derivation, making it the county with the third-highest number of Indians in the nation, after Queens County in New York City, and Cook County, Illinois.
Since there is no reliable breakdown by ethnicity I am aware of, it is difficult to tell exactly how many of these are Sikhs, but informed estimates put the number at perhaps five percent. Even at half that percentage, the number of Sikh engineers alone who currently live within a twenty-mile radius of Silicon Valley is certainly more than the total of all the South Asians that ever lived in the United States during the first half of the 20th century! This remains true even after the high tech bubble burst in 2000, and in spite of the economic retrenchment post-2008. Dr. Narinder Kapany noted, in his opening plenary address at this conference, that there are currently at least fifty Sikhs who are CEO’s of high tech companies in Silicon Valley. This represents an achievement that is one of the most remarkable transformations any immigrant community has ever achieved in America. Microcosmically, it illustrates the movement of Sikh populations from the periphery to the center economically, educationally, and politically, as well.
The early immigrants were severely restricted for fifty years in their choices of occupation, marriage partners, freedom to travel abroad, land-ownership, and mainstream political participation, but they reacted with remarkable endeavor and ingenuity. They eventually formed a loosely knit society of bi-cultural families and unmarried Punjabi compatriots, largely in northern California. These men exhibited respect for each other, and a stoic personal dignity in the face of persistently hostile forces. After Indian Independence, many reestablished ties in South Asia that would lead, in time, to a resurgence in the United States far beyond anything they might have then imagined. The new Sikh Immigrants constitute an important and integral component of American society, and are further recognized abroad as a valuable and successful resource by the governments of their former homelands. This is a complete reversal of the circumstances prevalent in the early phases of South Asians in America.
This renewal is not an abstract event but an ongoing reality. Now is a different time and place for contemporary Sikhs in California, and their challenges will likely require creativity and somewhat different, perhaps even novel, solutions. While one can speak abstractly of “transnational cultures” and “transactional identities,” the external context of most US Sikhs' daily lives is increasingly American, especially for children interacting with the larger world outside the family.
Every Sikh’s historical heritage includes the chapters those Pioneer Punjabis began to create following their arrival in California over a century ago. Some might look back and, retrospectively, judge them harshly because of how far their early adaptation patterns may have diverged from the contemporary Sikh cultural standards, or those that prevailed in the Punjab at that time. Others will understand more sympathetically the circumstances they faced, and admire their courage, tenacity, and endurance. The ecumenical tolerance of the Punjabi Pioneers was, in my opinion, was a strength, not a weakness.
As contemporary Sikhs struggle to construct their identities, practice their religion, and transmit their traditions, they could do worse than emulate the spirit of those men. I would hope that all South Asian Americans, regardless of their personal religious traditions, would choose to encourage their children to take pride in, and lay claim to, the early history of those who preceded them. Those hardy sojourners made America their home against great odds and, frequently, with a quiet grace. I am thankful I had the privilege to meet and learn from some of that older generation three decades ago, because they are all gone now.
If the past is any guide, the incremental adjustment process begun a century ago will continue, spanning multiple generations and shaped by a combination of ancient primordial loyalties, recent historical memory, and future events yet unknown. Nevertheless, I suggest that the experience will not result in a loss of distinctive Sikh identity, but rather produce new, adaptive reformulations and redefinitions—just as have been occurring for over 500 years on the Indian sub-Continent and for 100 years in Sikh immigrant communities in North America, including California.
The emergence of unique, syncretic Sikh-American and Sikh-Canadian identities might, eventually, become a source of pride and celebration for succeeding generations. And, as always, the local gurdwaras will continue to play a crucial role as a social nexus, a source of support, and a site of religious expression and spiritual comfort. They remain a vital and tangible reminder of where Sikhs have come from, their beliefs and values, and, most importantly, where they daily enact their hopes for the future. That has been true in the historical past, and it most assuredly will continue throughout Sikh communities in Canada and California, and in gurdwaras everywhere.
Dr. Bruce La Brack, a cultural anthropologist and South Asian specialist, has traveled to over 85 countries and has lived and conducted research in India, England, Uganda, and Japan. For three decades he taught at the University of the Pacific, Stockton, California, where he designed and conducted their integrated orientation and reentry programs for study abroad. He was the director of Pacific’s Institute for Cross Cultural Training and chair of their Master of Arts in Intercultural Relations program, and is now a Professor Emeritus.