Do you know a Sikh? Perhaps you’ve crossed paths with someone of the faith? The probability of bumping into a Sikh in San Antonio is about one in 1,400 so, the chances of seeing a Sikh on the street is pretty low. But, if you have seen us Sikhs, you probably remember us by our long hair, long beard, or turban, all of which signify our commitment to our faith. In fact, 99% of the people who wear turbans in the United States are Sikhs. Not many people know about the Sikh religion, despite the fact that Sikhs have been a part of the Texas community since 1909 and part of the American fabric since the 1800s.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that originated from Punjab region of India and Pakistan in the 1400s. We believe the purpose of life is to merge with the Divine by loving all of creation through meditation, community service, and living honestly. Many Sikhs find it easy to practice their faith in the U.S. because the values of the two cultures are so similar. Many say Sikh values are American values. Sikhs, like Americans, believe in equality among all, freedom of religion, and social justice. Today, there are about 700,000 Sikhs in the U.S., and about 25 million world wide, making it the fifth largest independent religion in the world.
Sikhs have been American for more than 130 years. Starting in the 1800s, Sikhs immigrated to the United States (primarily from Punjab) and like other immigrants, were in search of a better life in the land of opportunity. At the time, economic conditions in Punjab had become dismal because of extreme exploitation by the British, which caused severe famine and impoverished many farmers. To support themselves, the youngest sons of Sikh families were encouraged to emigrate to find work to supplement the family income.
Many Sikhs started their American lives in California, the Pacific Northwest, and New York where they worked in lumber mills, on farms, in mines, and on railroads. Despite institutional racism, discriminatory laws, and violence designed to keep Sikhs from making the U.S. their home, in 1912 the first gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) was established in Stockton, California, and it continues to operate today.
In 1918 new quotas severely limited Asian arrivals and a 1790 law requiring those naturalized to be racial “white” was resurrected. Whether Punjabi Sikhs could be classified as “white” was debated in the Supreme Court in 1923. Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh American WWI veteran was granted citizenship in 1918 but had it revoked when an Immigration & Naturalization Officer challenged his race. His defense argued that Punjabi Sikhs were Aryans and therefore “white” but, the court declared the Aryan theory unscientific and therefore Punjabi Sikhs to be non-white. Legislation in 1924 banned the immigration of anyone ineligible for naturalization. But in 1946 restriction eased and finally in 1965, reform opened the door to new Asian immigration.
The earliest known Sikh in Texas was Bishen Singh, an importer of herbs, who was living in Dallas by 1909. Most early arrivals however, settle around El Paso and worked in agriculture or business. By 1920, many Sikh men had married local Mexican or Mexican-American women. This pattern was partly due to perceived cultural similarities between Punjabis and Mexicans and there were many available Mexican women in El Paso, who recently arrived as refugees from the Mexican Revolution. It was also socially easier to marry Mexican women, since the two groups were often considered racially comparable. Furthermore, because of strict immigration laws, (making the immigration of non-whites into America illegal), many Sikh women were unable to make the trip to America to join their male relatives. It also made it impossible for single Sikh men to marry in India and bring their wives to the Untied States with them.
Most first generation Sikhs maintained their faith, though some slowly discounted wearing the turban or keeping a beard. Lacking local gurdwaras, some would return to Stockton, Calif. to worship several times during their life. Their Mexican wives however, remained Catholic. By 1930, a unique generation of culturally blended Sikh-Mexican Texans had emerged. While children generally followed the mother’s religion of Catholicism, their father’s Sikh heritage continued to influence the community for several generations.
In the 1930 census, fewer than 50 Indian-Texans were born in India. In 1960, Indian born Texans was less than 1,000. By 1980, the population increased to 22,000, though what percentage was Sikh is unknown. In 2010, 246,000 Texans were Indian-born (up 90% from 2000). No firm data exists on how many Texans today are Sikh but estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000. Today, there are about 300 Sikh families living in San Antonio representing some 1,000 members of the community.
In 1979, my father-in-law, Dr. GP Singh became the first turbaned Sikh to move to San Antonio.
“At 26 years old, San Antonio felt like a great place to settle down — I loved its diverse culture, the missions and the spirituality they represented, the weather, and of course, the food,” he said. He often jokes that it has three things that he likes: “Hot food, hot weather and hot people.”
Initially, Dr. Singh wondered what it would be like to live in Texas and raise Sikh children in San Antonio.
“Our unique identity, one with turbans and beards, can cause difficulty anywhere,” he said. “But in San Antonio it would be supremely challenging, since there was no family, no Sikh friends, and no congregation.”
But after having lived in San Antonio for more than 35 years, Dr. Singh and his wife, Winkey Kaur have come to love the city and could not imagine calling any other place “home.” Each of their four sons (Harpreet, Simran, Darsh, and Raj) have strong San Antonio roots; they were born and raised in San Antonio, attended Northside Independent School District schools, received bachelor’s degrees locally at UTSA and Trinity, and are die-hard Spurs fans.
“My children were born here. They got educated here. I ran a business here. I employed over 400 people here. So, I am defined by San Antonio,” Singh told Joel Williams in an op-ed published in the Express-News.
Though the Singh and Kaur family never faced any horrific hate crimes, they did (and still do) encounter bullying and racism. Being called “rag head” or “Osama” or being told to “Go back to your country” are common refrains. On several occasions, the Singh boys faced institutional discrimination and were not allowed to participate in sports because of UIL, FIFA, and NCAA restrictions on headgear such as turbans. But for every story of discrimination, there is a counter story of support, of the San Antonio community – parents, teachers, coaches, administrators, and friends – standing up for the family. Dr. Singh attributes that to San Antonio’s rich cultural history and a belief that being American means being diverse, sharing unique stories, and expressing faith.
For some time in San Antonio, local Sikhs would hold divan (worship sessions) at private homes but that finally changed in 2001 when San Antonio Sikhs pooled their resources to build a gurdwara called the San Antonio Sikh Center. Today, the Sikh population has increased and Dr. Singh and Mrs. Kaur are helping construct a new gurdwara to meet growing community needs. They are calling it the Sikh Dharamsal and unlike most Sikh congregations, this one got together to craft their purpose, outline their values, and develop their goals, which they refer to any time they put on programming.
“We want to build a Gurdwara that serves … kids in the community and humanity at large,” Dr. Singh said. Upon its completion in the Summer of 2015, the Sikh Dharmsal will be hosting open houses and outreach seminars for the public.
To learn more about Sikh history and Sikhs in Texas, check out the Institute of Texan Cultures exhibit “Sikhs: Legacy of Punjab” on display until Jan. 3, 2016. It’s a traveling exhibit, developed by the Smithsonian Institution and sponsored by the Sikh Heritage Foundation, the Sikh DharamSal and Sikh Spirit Foundation. The exhibit features a collection of traditional Sikh art, information on our culture’s history and beliefs, artifacts such as ceremonial weapons and armor, and a model of the Golden Temple, one of the sacred sites of the Sikh religion.
The Sikh community in San Antonio and its leaders have been working with the museum to continue educating others about the Sikh culture, which has experienced discrimination and suspicion in a post-9/11 society. The hope is, with more awareness about the faith, the more accepting and friendly the San Antonio community can be towards all minorities. With outreach programs such as this one, we can bridge gaps of misunderstanding and move towards becoming a better nation — one that represents the Sikh and American values of freedom, justice, and equality.
*Featured/top image: Friends and family celebrate Vaisakhi at Sikh Dharamsal. The festival celebrates the founding of the Sikh community every April 14. Photo courtesy of Sikh Dharamsal.