Valerie Kaur, Filmmaker and Civil Rights Lawyer/Activist

Transcript – Log
Valerie Kaur – filmmaker talking about early South Asian immigration
Interview by Sara Kolbet
Date: 12/22/05
1 Disc, 61:03, 11 Tracks

TRACK 1 – 1:32


TRACK 2 – 1:24


TRACK 3 – 2:33

I am Valarie Kaur. My grandfather was Kehar Singh, one of the first pioneers from India to America. He left his village New Moon…He left his village called Chanama, or new Moon in 1911, he was 17 years old. And he followed his older brother to Manila and Shanghai. He worked in Shanghai for 2 years for Shell Oil. So in 1913 they went to San Francisco but could not enter because they didn’t’ have a $5 port fee. So they went to Manila to earn the money and came back in 1914. They worked as farmers down CA coast until they settle din Clovis, CA’s central valley.

They traveled by steamship by shanghai to CA. And once they arrived they worked their way down CA and worked on farms, they slept in barns at night. During the day they would work on the farms, picking oranges and pruning. Working on these farms for pennies, 11 cents an hour. Until they settled in Clovis near Fresno in CA’s central valley.

TRACK 4 – 18:24

They were paid 11 cents an hour and my grandfather was really proud because he had a shirt that coast 12 cents. Good pay was 15 cents. Because there was snakes in the barns they had to take out the grape trays and sleep on the grape trays to protect themselves. Due to the Asian Exclusion Acts my grandfather was not allowed to become a citizen, own land, leave the country be cause he could not come back. So he could not marry an Indian wife. So though peers married Mexican wives he wanted to marry a Punjabi woman. So he waited until 1946 to return to India and marry my grandfather. He was 55, she was 20. people discouraged my grandmother from marrying my grandfather. She came back to India to show them she had four children.

I have a feeling that my grandfather knew the families but lost touch as the generations went on. their children fell into Mexican culture rather than Punjabi culture but my grandfather felt it important to pass on Punjabi culture.

Because he couldn’t’ own land he would work for white farm owners. There was one ranch, Wawona ranch, my grandfather ran the farm for decades. Wilson who owned it lived somewhere else and he wanted to sell the land to my grandfather but he couldn’t’.

My grandfather was loved and respected by people from Clovis. They go on and on about what a gentleman my grandfather was. A tall man, polite, trusted in the community. And I think it was like that because everybody knew everybody in Clovis in those days. It was a small farming town with many different immigrant families, German, Irish, Italian, and they all supported each other.

Keeping ones hair long is an article of Sikh faith. Most men and some women keep their hair in a turban. Through history the turban has been targeted and it represented one’s identity as a Sikh. Even they were labeled as Hindus and were targets of race riots, he felt it was important for him to preserve his culture. And he felt if anywhere this was the place to preserve difference.

Many of the early Punjabi farmers who came to America were called Hindus but they were Sikh. Their turban and beard marked them as Sikh. Sikhism is the youngest of the world major religions. It grew in northern India in the 15th century to respond to the medieval oppressions in Hinduism and Islam. So Gudunaic, the founder of the faith, disappeared by the river and reappeared saying there is no Hindu or Muslim. The way Sikh’s show they are Sikhs is b y keeping these articles of faith. That’s why my grandfather felt it was so important to him to keep his faith in this country.

My grandfather was a member of the Gadhar party in CA in the 1920s. it was an organization of Indians outside of India who wanted to support India’s freedom in the British Empire. They wanted to overthrow the British and there was a crackdown and my grandfather feared for his life in early days and especially towards the end of his life…

In the 1920s my grandfather was a member of the Ghadar party in CA, Indians outside of India who wanted to free India from the British Empire. When the BE found out about this there were a series of assassinations to kill the freedom movement and my grandfather feared for his life. and in later days, when he fell into dementia, there were fears that his life was under attack.

When WWII started…When Pearl Harbor happened in 1942 there was the Japanese Internment. Many Japanese American farmers in Fresno and Clovis were taken into camps. My grandfather was very good friends with these Japanese farmers and he looked over the property of several families, the Miramotos. The Takahashis have told me my grandfather was one of the few people who came to visit them in Arizona. He brought back a petrified rock which is on our fireplace. And my grandfather stood side by side with these Japanese internees and now their families are standing side by side with my people.

As soon as the laws permitted my grandfather to own land he bought 40 acres with his brother on Temperance and Bollard. He grew peaches and strawberries, there was no tractor, they used horses, and my father and I were born on this land. So this piece of land has been there a long time. And it’s still there. And in the last year the development in Clovis has expanded to include my family’s land.

So the same land that my grandfather had farmed back in the 1940s has been in my family all these decades. What’s painful to me is in the past year my family had to sell this land because development had expanded. So where there once was fields of strawberries now there are cookie cutter houses. And I’m saddened because I feel this part of my family’s history has been taken. But I remember the land before my father was here was owned by the Yokut Indians. And that no one really has ownership of land, it just falls into different hands. My family has kept preserved the house that my grandfather lived in so my children can learn about my history. While the rest of the land has been sold, my family’s house is still there, so we’ve moved his house into our backyard.

My grandmother, her name is Delip Kaur, and in 1949 when she met my grandfather, she was the only divorced woman in her village and at that point it was a huge taboo to be a divorced woman. When she saw my grandfather she saw a ticket to America. The told her you can’t marry this old man. But she was very strong willed, came to Clovis, and had four children. Their eldest son was my father, Judge Brar. And it’s so funny because when my father was born my grandfathers best friend was Judge Burke in Clovis. But instead of naming him Burke they named him Judge.

My father studied marine biology at Fresno state, and was probably the first Indian American marine biologist in America. When he had me and my brother he turned to landscape irrigation to support us.

My grandfather became a citizen in 1972 and on that day and afterwards he never missed an election. Voting was very important to him. Even when he couldn’t walk he’d have my father take him to the polls. And he always voted democrat, which I love, my father is a staunch republican. My grandfather was very proud of being an American. He owned a white ford all his life, he voted in every election, when the caterpillar tractor came out he was in the original advertisement.

There was no talk of going back to Punjabi. His identity as a Sikh was almost easier for him to be accepted in America.

Sikhs are a minority in India and since the founding of the faith there has been a history of persecution. As a small religious minority had to fight to survive. Sikhs had these articles of faith so they would never hide in the face of justice. That’s what the turban shows. When the British came, Sikhs had another chapter of fighting against an empire to survive.

TRACK 5 – 3:21

Recently, there’s been a series of religions persecution in Punjab, from 1947 to 1984 so that’s led to a wave of Sikh immigrants coming to America. In my grandfather’s time there were two reasons…

In my grandfather’s time I feel that because there were so many brothers the farming land was divided into smaller and smaller bits so the younger sons had to go elsewhere.

I can imagine there were two reasons to motivate my grandfather to move to America. At that time, the farms in India were being divided into smaller rand smaller bits. So my grandfather would have left to find a better economic fortune abroad.

TRACK 6 – 10:03

So my grandfather would have left to find a better economic fortune abroad. But at that time India was controlled by the British Empire and the idea of living his life in a free land appealed to him.

In the 1920s my grandfather was a member of the Ghadar party and the Ghadar movement was a group of Indians outside of India that mobilized against the British. So when the British found out there were crackdowns.

During prohibition my grandfather had learned from his German and Italian friends how to brew wine. So he would invite the mayor to come over to his basement and have wine during prohibition.

I was 6 when my grandfather died when he was 94. so I remember him sitting in an armchair and he couldn’t walk much. I would hug him and he would have wiry hair and it would be all in my face. And I would sit and listen to him talk and play with my building blocks. The day he died I remember feeling so guilty. I was only 6 but I felt so guilty that I’d paid more attention to my building blocks than him. The day he died the house was full of people and I walked into the kitchen and saw my father on the phone with tears in his eyes. I went outside and asked god why, it was my first experience with death. And I’ve tried to go back and piece together my grandfather’s life. and he was so respected and loved and believed so much in his children’s education that he would be proud of his grandchildren and be proud of how we’re preserving his history and the history of America.

When I was growing up in Clovis, I never felt part of the community at school. It was mostly white conservative Christians and most tried to pressure me to Christianity. But I couldn’t find solace in the Sikh temple either. My name was Valarie, my Punjabi was poor, they were second and first generation. So I never belonged in either place, I was in this third position. An d I think was formed my identity was my family and my family stories. So the story of my grandfather and a pioneer made me proud to be an American. When my other grandfather told me stories of the Sikh religion and what it meant to be Sikh, it made me proud to be Sikh as well. There’s an old saying that goes what the son forgets the grandson remembers. And in my case it’s what the son forges the granddaughter remembers. So much of my academic work focuses on what it means to be an American and to have roots in a different country and yet have that identity flourish in America alongside other identities.

I imagine my grandfather leaving his home village when he was 17 and taking a steamship to the sores of CA in 1913 when he was 20 and it must have been like going to the moon to take such a long journey and walk into the unknown. And I think that ideal of crossing the deepest of one’s fears in search of a dream resonated with me and I always remember when I’m faced with something that paralyzes me with fear. An example is sept. 11th. I was paralyzed with fear. And when a Sikh man was killed my fear turned into confusion and paralysis. And I had a choice. I could stay paralyzed in that fear and stay in my home or I could cross over that fear in order to find out why. So with my grandfather’s ideal in mind I got in the car with my cousin and gathered interviews with Sikh, Muslim, Americans for their ideas of being American. I was only 20 years old so in an effort to follow my grandfather’s footsteps

TRACK 7 – 0:59

when he was 20. to do something fearful and in confusion.

I am Valarie Kaur. In the aftermath of September 11th I was 20 ears old, I was a Sikh American and I gathered interviews with Sikh, south Asians, all kinds of Americans, to find out what it means to be America…

TRACK 8 – 10:00

I am Valarie Kaur. In the aftermath of September 11th I was 20 years old, a Sikh American, and four months after Sept 11th I went all over the country interviewing all kinds of Americans to find out what it means to be an American. ‘Divided We Fall’ focuses on the hate epidemic after 9/11 to find out what an American looks like, who is America. What we want to be.

The film takes you on a journey across American into and out of the lives of hundreds of people. When people hear these stories, see these faces, hear these voices, my goal is for them to share their stories with each other. There is redemption in storytelling. The idea that the problem of hate in America is not going to be solved by legislation on the social level, it will change on the ground level among us. If we can ask each other who we want to be, where we want to go, that would be the ultimate vision for this film.

The film began as a student project four years ago. Fast-forward four years and its’ become a feature-length documentary. Kodak and Panavision to the grassroots people who have given a lot. I’m working with Sharat Rodu and his production team to bring you ‘Divided We Fall.’

My grandfather arrived with his older brother in San Francisco in 1913 but the port authorities demanded a $5 port fee. My suspicion is there was racism there at the time and they made sure the passengers wouldn’t enter unless they had this exorbitant fee. So they turned my grandfather away and they went to manila where they worked for two years and returned.

My grandfather knew very little English and over the decades he learned more English so he could converse.

You have to remember that he first wave of immigrants were farmers and laborers. In the 1960s your doctors come from India, but in those days they were largely illiterate, leaving their whole life behind to find a new life in America.

He would have eaten Punjabi food. The rotis, lentils, the vegetable concoctions, with all the spices . and I know his older brother was a great cook so he cooked for him. A lot of his peers who married Mexican wives tried to teach the Mexican wives how to cook Punjabi dishes, which reflected the mix of cultures. He would have conversed in Punjabi with fellow laborers. I know until 1915 there were 6000 Punjabi laborers in CA. It was decades later when my grandmother came they were responsible for brining many other Indians from India. If you go back to Punjab and back to his home village there is a memorial my grandfather built for his brother. So when I go back to that village and see that memorial I always see these children who come to see their cousin.

He was one of four brothers. And so the other brothers who are still in Punjab their families are still in the small village. So when we go back to India we can meet the descendants of his brothers. I think there’s; a great deal of admiration and respect and appreciation because my grandfather would send back money to support the village and families.

I think of Clovis in those early days and I think of small community, a farming town where everybody knew everyone else. You took care of your neighbor. Everyone I’ve run into from those days talks with great respect about my grandfather. They talk about him in their lives

TRACK 9 – 7:01

in these public spaces where people would meet and gather and support each other. I think of Clovis now and this farming town turned into strip malls and people don’t know each other as well anymore . so when you don’t know a person face to face there is much more opportunity to make judgments about each other. Even in a place like Clovis where such respect once existed there is enough misunderstanding that comes up in different ways.

When I was on the road in the aftermath of September 11th I heard story after story of violence and hate and intolerance. When I went to India I looked for the widow of the first man who was killed in the aftermath of September 11th. She was in white with dark circles under her eyes. I had one question for her, what do you want to tell the people of America. I was expecting bitterness and resentment. And she looked at me and said thank you, tell them thank you.

But this is what she said. She looked at me and she said tell them thank you. when I came to America for my husbands funeral they came in the thousands and cried with me. and I realized there are few people whose faces are so hardened by hate they aren’t;’ changed by stories. People in Arizona came out for his funeral because they saw his face, they heard his story, they saw his widows’ heart was broken. And because his story was told they came out and stood side by side with his widow. This gives me hope. It makes me…

This widow who had lost more than anyone else gave me hope. T he fact that she could find hope in the solidarity she experienced with other Americans made me realize no matter how much violence happens there are ways to sand with each other. In this we remember what I so good about America. It’s a place of freedom. I think of my grandfather’s choice to have a new life in America and the widow’s sense of forgiveness. And I hope I can do my part to bring this country away from violence and toward hope.

‘Divided We Fall’ is a documentary film that follows my journey across the country talking with legislators, scholars, all across the country discussing what it means to be American. In the end I find the heart of America half way across the world in India..

TRACK 10 – 0:44

my grandfather’s stories are included in a film I’m making called ‘Divided we fall,’ a documentary that focuses on…in perusing the question who are we, as Americans, and in doing so I realized so many of the answers to that question were found in my family history and my grandfather’s own life.

TRACK 11 – 4:55

in the 1970s during the Iran hostage crisis the picture of the ayatollah Khomeini was shown on the TV every night. In the 1970s during the Iran Hostage crisis the picture of the ayatollah Khomeini was on the news every night. At that time my grandfather was very old and he was riding in a car with my father. He was stopped at a stoplight with my father when a group of boy stopped in a car next to him and started yelling and making lewd gestures. And my father noticed and it broke his heart. He said his father was probably more American than those kids. And I thought of the waves of…

Even after the laws that barred my grandfather from owning land, from becoming a citizen, became lifted in the 1940s, there have still been movements in our American history that have made my grandfather and people in our community targets. And today the face of Bin Laden flashing over and over again propped up the face of the enemy in American consciousness. So that the un-American, non-human looks this way. And anyone who looks this way deserves our vengeance. And these people have been seen as less than human. Laws only get us so far. What is required is a change in the culture itself to expand the picture of who looks like an American so that Japanese, Sikhs, south Asians can be a part of the American fabric. And the fact that my grandfather has been an American since the early 1900s we have to get the stories of what America really is to make a story of solidarity and strength.