The immigrants who have come from India in the last century have been extremely diverse, because their nation of origin is so diverse. “India is a land of diversity.” (1) As historian Arthur Helweg stated, the “family histories and backgrounds [of Asian Indian immigrants] range [from]: the exploited indentured laborer, innovative entrepreneurs who went out to make fortunes, the uneducated worker in the industrial heartland, and the high educated, well-trained professional.” (2) Asian Indian Americans have played a vital role in the development of the United States since the early twentieth century.
History of Asian Indian immigration to the U.S.
Between 1902 and 1908 over 2000 Asian Indians arrived in the United States. A great majority of these early immigrants were Sikhs, a religious minority from the northwestern region of India called Punjab. They were usually young, uneducated men who were either single or had left their families in India in the hopes of attaining a small fortune and returning to their homeland. Some arrived as indentured servants, and most were driven to emigrate by the promise of work in California and Washington. Many worked on farms or as construction workers for the Western Pacific Railroad.
Unfortunately, the lives of these early immigrants were very quickly marked by racial prejudice and hostility. In 1907, Asian Indian immigrants became the victims of a racially motivated riot and were literally forced out of their homes in the town of Bellingham, Washington. (3) Political groups and organizations, such as the Asiatic Exclusion League in San Francisco, tried to turn public opinion against Asian Indian immigrants all along the western coast of the United States. Many laws were passed in years that followed that would prevent Asian Indian immigrants from truly experiencing the opportunities they believed the United States offered.
The most damaging law to Asian Indian populations was the Supreme Court Decision known as the “Thind Case,” which passed in 1923. This case not only made Asian Indians ineligible for citizenship, but many Asian Indians who had already become legally naturalized were stripped of their citizenship. (4) Thousands of acres of land were taken from Asian Indian immigrants and many were deported, or, disillusioned with the U.S., returned to India voluntarily.
In the midst of racial prejudice and hostility, the Asian Indian population developed successful, isolated, and cohesive communities to survive. Sikhs in California began to form labor groups, and soon organized agricultural and economic cooperatives in California. These isolated Sikh communities became very successful and were able to purchase land before 1913. In the early 1900s, Asian Indian communities purchased over 80,000 acres of land in California’s San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. (5) The early immigrants developed communal living and dining arrangements with other Asian Indian immigrants and thrived in the realm of agriculture. They were able to maintain their cultural and religious traditions in the face of discrimination and prejudice.
The movement for Indian Independence from British rule characterized the lives of many Asian Indian Americans. Political activity among Asian Indians in the United States began as early as 1908, when young, exiled Asian Indian revolutionaries arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum. These political refugees eventually established the Ghadar Party, which literally means “revolution” or “mutiny.” The Ghadar Party organized protests, distributed pamphlets, and published a newspaper to foster support for Asian Indian independence. Some leaders of the Party urged their countrymen to return to India and lead the fight against the British government, and it is estimated that as many as one hundred did. Many Asian Indian Americans actively participated in the independence movement by attending meetings and donating to the cause. (6)
On July 2, 1946, partly due to the assistance India provided to the Allied Forces in World War II, Congress passed the Luce-Celler Bill. This removed restrictions on Asian Indian immigration and gave India an annual immigration quota of one hundred. Most importantly, all Asian Indian immigrants now had naturalization rights. This caused a second wave of immigration, and between 1948 and 1964 over 6000 Asian Indians came to the United States. Another 1700 became American citizens. (7) Asian Indian men who had not seen their wives and children in over thirty years were now able to send for their families and build a new life in the United States. Families of Asian Indian men who already lived in the United States made up the majority of the “second-wave” immigrants from India.
Modern Asian Indian Immigration
In 1965, India was home to thousands of highly educated, unemployed or underemployed individuals. So when U.S. immigration laws changed to eliminate race-based immigration standards, the Asian Indian population in the United States increased dramatically. In 1970, about 7000 Asian Indians resided in the U.S.; only five years later that number increased to 175,000. (8) Today, the Asian Indian population in the United States exceeds well over two million.
These newer immigrants, in contrast to those from the earlier part of the century, were young, well-educated and mainly concentrated in professions, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. Education is highly valued in India, and trained professionals came to the United States in search of employment opportunities. They were more likely to be from urban parts of India and spoke English, in contrast to he early 1900s immigrants who came from small, rural villages and knew little to no English. Post 1965 immigrants benefited from the sixth preference of the Immigration Act, which allowed people with technical credentials and professional status to emigrate. Today, Asian Indian Americans fill the positions of highly trained and respected scholars in universities across the U.S..
Students also make up a large portion of the Asian Indian-American population, due to cross-cultural educational initiatives such as the Fulbright Program and the United States Educational Foundation in India. In this exchange program, Asian Indian and American scholars cross oceans to participate in research programs and professorships, in order to foster an appreciation for and understanding of the different cultures and nations. Asian Indian students come to the United States for different reasons; some want to get the type of education that is needed to exceed in India and return, while others plan to remain in the United States. Asian Indian Americans place a great emphasis on education and career success. Over 80 percent of Asian Indian men in the U.S. hold college degrees; five percent of all doctors in the United States received their primary education in India; and 65 percent of Asian Indians in the United States work as managers, or in the professional/technical category. (9)
Asian Indian Culture in New Mexico
The unique culture of India has enchanted Americans and the world for centuries. Asian Indian classical novels captured the attention of several renowned American writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Elliott, and Henry David Thoreau. (10) The art, dance, music, and storytelling of India can be found throughout New Mexico, thanks to the work of individuals and organizations that keep Asian Indian culture alive.
While India is home to many different religions, the majority of Asian Indian Americans are followers of Sikhism and Hinduism. The first Hindu Temple was built in San Francisco in 1906 and since then Hindu and Sikh Temples have been popping up in cities across the United States for the past five decades. Hindu Temples and Gurdwaras (Sikh Temples) serve important functions in the community. They are often the social, political and governing institutions of a community. The Temples serve not only religious purposes, but also as community centers, language schools, and offer classes in dance, religion, and culture.
In Albuquerque and throughout New Mexico, there are several Hindu Temples and Sikh Gurdwaras where one can learn more about the religion, culture, and people of India. The Albuquerque Sikh Gurdwara is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to maintain a Sikh Gurdwara (place of worship) in the Albuquerque area. In addition to holding Gurdwara services every Sunday, they hold campaigns to feed the homeless in Albuquerque. The Guru Nanak Gurdwara is also in Albuquerque, as is the Hindu Temple Society of New Mexico. The Hindu Temple Society of New Mexico hosts several events throughout the year to feature Asian Indian cultural celebrations.
In 1947, India won independence from British rule, and many Asian Indians throughout the United States commemorate this day, August 15, with special celebrations. The India Association of New Mexico commemorates Indian Independence Day with many cultural events and dances. (11)
In addition to this, Asian Indians in New Mexico celebrate several cultural holidays. One of the most widely celebrated Asian Indian holidays is Diwali. This is also commonly known as the “festival of lights,” and lasts for five days. During Diwali, people light small oil lamps or candles and place them in rows along the tops of temples and houses. Diwali lights are meant to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It is a time to visit friends, exchange gifts, and set off fireworks displays. It signifies the renewal of life and for many Hindus is also the New Year’s celebration.
Another popular celebration in India and among Asian Indian Americans is called Holi. This is also known as the “festival of colors,” and to some Asian Indian Americans it commemorates the arrival of spring. People from all over the world from all ethnicities and cultures enjoy Holi celebrations, as it is a time characterized by the loosening of social norms. Holi thus bridges social gaps and brings people together. Holi is celebrated with large public bonfires, dances, games, and the spraying of colored water on friends and family to commemorate the many colors of the arrival of spring.
There are several organizations in Albuquerque that promote the culture of India. One of which is the India Association of New Mexico, which sponsors events to celebrate Holi and India’s Independence Day. There are several Hindu and Sikh Temples and religious organizations that serve Albuquerque’s Asian Indian population, and provide opportunities for others to learn about the culture and religion. There are also several student organizations at the University of New Mexico, such as the India Student Association and the Bharath Student Association, which help newly arrived Asian Indian students at UNM, as well as educate the entire student body on Asian Indian culture and traditions.
These organizations and several Asian Indian Americans are very active in their communities. Dr. Rinita Mazumdar is a respected professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of New Mexico and is very active in the Asian Family Center. Dr. H.S. Ahluwalia is a Professor of Physics at the University of New Mexico and provides educational material for the public on Sikhism and Gurdwaras for the Albuquerque Sikh Gurdwara.
Another organization called PADMINI, or the Promotion of Arts, Dance, and Musical Instruments of India, is a non-profit organization based in Albuquerque. The goal of this group is “to enliven and extend the cultural scope of the region, offering opportunities for discovery, participation and enjoyment of a variety of art forms that reflect the rich cultural heritage of India.” (12)
Asian Indian food is very popular throughout the state of New Mexico. There are several restaurants in Albuquerque that serve authentic Asian Indian food, including Taj Mahal, India Palace, and Taj Palace. In addition, people in Albuquerque can enjoy Ayurvedic cuisine at Annapurna Ayurvedic Cuisine and Chai House. Ayurveda is an ancient Hindu system of healthcare that promotes a long life and a healthy lifestyle. Annapurna serves organic vegetarian and vegan dishes in the Ayurvedic tradition. It also features a gift shop with traditional Indian clothing and imported teas.
1. Arthur W. Helweg, Strangers in a Not-So-Strange Land: Indian-American Immigrants in the Global Age (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004) 106. 2. Helweg, 15-16.
3. Srirajasedhar Bobby Koritala. A Historical Perspective of Americans of Asian Indian Origin 1790-1997. http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/h_es/h_es_korit_histical.htm. Accessed July 18, 2008.
4. Juan L. Gonzales. “Asian Indian Immigration Patterns: The Origins of the Sikh Community in California.,” International Migration Review 20, no. 1 (1986): 45.
5. Gary R. Hess, “The Forgotten Asian Americans: The East Indian Community in the United States,” The Pacific Historical Review 43, no. 4 (1974): 504.
6. Koritala, 6.
7. Gonzales, 49.
8. Helweg, 60.
9. Helweg, 61.
10. Helweg, 52.
11. India Association of New Mexico information: http://www.abqindia.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=13&Itemid=28
12. Promotion of Arts, Dance, and Musical Instruments of India: http://padmini.org/