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Punjabi wave boosts Cali town

Cultural, political influence on the rise in Kerman

Kerman, California: Despite a flagging housing market and slowing population growth in California, people are still flocking to inland regions like the Central Valley. The town of Kerman, just west of Fresno, has grown by some 60 percent over the last decade. That’s fuelled in part by a wave of Punjabi immigrants, whose cultural and political influence is reshaping a town that’s still largely Latino.

Inside the Kerman Food Mart, huge sacks of basmati rice and spice jars of turmeric are stacked across from the counter where Kulwant Brar sells hot tacos and burritos. Brar is one of several Punjabi merchants who run Mexican grocery stores here. He says he never imagined selling cow-tongue tacos when he lived in his village in India. But it’s part of adapting to Kerman’s largely Mexican clientele.

“I like Mexican food, too,” Brar says. “I love it.”

But Brar and other Punjabi Sikhs here have kept their homeland traditions, too. The town’s Sikh temple sits on a former vineyard at the edge of Kerman. It’s the Punjabi community’s hub. Kaldip Singh Kaleka, a peach farmer was one of the first Punjabis to come to Kerman, back in 1975.

“It’s a neat and clean and quiet town, no crime, and good schools,” Kaleka says.

He found a sprawling farm on the San Joaquin River, and decided to move here from Los Angeles.

Kerman’s a town of about 13,000, small enough that most families seem to know each other. And the climate seems most familiar, with its sweltering summers and foggy, damp winters. Plus, there’s plenty of flat, rich farmland. Just like in Punjab, a largely agricultural state in northwest India.

Kerman has become such a popular destination for Punjabi immigrants that a newspaper editor from Punjab’s capital, Chandigarh, came here to profile the town.

Kaleka says, “You know what he named Kerman? Swark Dito Nice Baskayika, Sheher Kerman.”

Translation? Kerman — nucleus of heaven for Punjabis.

Hundreds of Punjabi families have moved to Kerman over the last two decades. They’ve made their homes next door to Mexicans, and work alongside them, farming or driving trucks to haul Central Valley produce.  And their kids study together, too. The Indian community here lobbied to have Punjabi taught as a foreign language at the high school, one of just a handful of California school districts to do so.

At Kerman High, half the students in the intro class are native Spanish speakers.

“Most of my friends are Punjabi, and since I go to their house a lot, I’d like to speak to their parents in Punjabi too,” says 10th grader Penelope Castaritas. “It’s pretty fun, because I can talk in Punjabi without my parents knowing what I’m saying.”

Even though they make up just 12 percent of the population here, Punjabis are leaving a much bigger cultural and political footprint. In fact, the tiny Kerman public library claims it holds the largest collection of Punjabi books of any public library in the nation.

And Punjabis hold two out of five seats on the city council. Local leaders here estimate that in most elections, 80 to 90 percent of Kerman’s Punjabis turn out to vote. Kaldip Kaleka says the founder of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh, preached the importance of democracy.

“This is our culture, take part, “Kaleka says. “Unless you vote, you will not be heard.”

Trinidad Rodriguez is the former mayor of Kerman, the only Latino mayor in the city’s nearly 70-year history. Now, there isn’t a single Latino on the city council, despite the fact that they make up almost two-thirds of the population here.

“It’s a shame, actually, because being such a largely Hispanic community in itself, that we don’t really truly get involved as much as we should,” Rodriguez says.

Of course, since most Punjabi families attend the town’s one temple, it’s easier for them to organize politically. And it’s not as hard to get a visa to come to the U.S. from India as it is from Mexico. So Punjabi immigrants have a more direct path to citizenship and the right to vote. Their kids are also more likely to go to college, and leave the farm to become professionals.
Officer Manpreet Tiwana is part of that new generation. Patrolling Kerman in her police cruiser, she’s breaking the mould, especially when it comes to careers for Punjabi women:

“I like working nights. Graveyard is kind of fun. That’s where all the good stuff happens,” she says.

She says back in India, women like her mother would never dream of tracking down car thieves in the middle of the night. But the 24-year-old Tiwana, who has a degree in dentistry and a master’s in business, is one of the Kerman police department’s latest hires. The city’s making a big effort to bring on Punjabi speakers to reach the newest immigrants:

“They want to tell me everything,” Tiwana says. “It’s not just that particular call. They found somebody who can communicate with them, and they can tell their issues to. They want to lay it out and tell me all the problems.”

Officer Tiwana’s next challenge is trying to learn Spanish, so she can better serve Kerman’s Mexican community when she’s out on patrol.

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