Sunday, May 18, 2014

127. Ethnic New York: Sherpas, Basques, Gypsies, Sikhs

     Immigrants are an integral part of New York City; we couldn’t do without them.  My partner Bob’s doctor is Norwegian, his home-care aides are Haitian and Russian, his Visiting Nurse is Cambodian, and her most recent substitute was Filipino.  And on Saturdays I buy bread, scones, and apples from Tibetans in the Abingdon Square Greenmarket.

     This post is about certain groups of immigrants, often ignored by the rest of us, who live here and contribute to the city’s patchwork of diversity.  Especially, it is about the most exotic, most alien groups, their customs and beliefs so different from mainstream America’s, and about how and why these peoples came to New York.


     Sherpas in New York City?  That very special ethnic group in Nepal who guide climbers to the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, sixteen of whom perished in a killer avalanche, causing some Sherpa guides to quit for the season and many to protest the conditions of their work?  Here, so far from the Himalayas?  Yes, here, a mere handful first coming in the mid-1980s and more thereafter, so that there are now some 2,500 or more of them, mostly in the ethnically diverse Elmhurst section of Queens, the biggest Sherpa community in the country.  And they are grieving for their comrades who died on the mountain.

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A Sherpa guide.  Wouldn't you rather drive a taxi?
Pem Dorjee Sherpa

     Why are they here?  Because some of them realized the risks of their traditional profession of guiding wealthy foreigners to dangerous mountaintops, so those intrepid thrill-seekers could bask in the glory of accomplishment and see their names in newspapers, followed laconically by “and six Sherpa guides.”  Because, if they renounced that profession, they could find no other work as lucrative in Nepal.  Because a lengthy civil war in Nepal scared mountain-climbing tourists away, depriving the guides of a livelihood.  Because they want to transition to another way of life.  Because in New York they can make good money.

    “Climbing was in my blood,” says one.  But after getting married and starting a family, he stopped climbing for his own safety.  And what does he do for a living here?  What many of them do: he drives a cab.  A “good, bad, ugly job,” he calls it, working twelve-hour shifts six nights a week.  His chief complaint: people having sex in his car. 

     Are the Sherpas here, good Buddhists for the most part, adapting to life in hectic America?  Perhaps it can best be summed up by two links posted on the United Sherpa Association website: “Nepal Sherpa Guide” and “Sherpa Computer Services.”  So it goes when one comes down from the mountains and plunges into the canyons and labyrinths of New York City.


     They first came to this country lured by the gold rush in California, taking the long trip by sea around the southern tip of South America into the Pacific and up to San Francisco, where so many dreams came to dust, though not the dust of the goldfields.  But who were they, coming such a long distance from the homeland where they had lived since prehistoric times?

    The Basques are a people living in north central Spain and southwestern  France, straddling the Pyrenees.  Their origins are a mystery, since their language is unrelated to Indo-European languages and probably predates the arrival in Europe of the Indo-European peoples.  Basque tribes are mentioned by Roman writers and were probably remnants of early inhabitants of Western Europe.  In recent times the Basques have been featured in the news because of their desire for greater autonomy in Spain, with the organization ETA advocating outright independence and committing acts of terrorism, but in 2010 the group declared a permanent ceasefire that is still in effect.

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A Basque festival in Spain.
     Today, reflecting their initial influx in the mid-nineteenth century, there are large Basque communities in the Western states.  In New York City the first Basques began arriving after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.  Departing from Bordeaux or Le Havre, some, having worked as dock workers, came to work in the harbor, whereas others planned to move on west by railroad, but ended up staying in New York, where they found work in the ports of New York and New Jersey.  For those from rural areas the city was overwhelming, but others were energized by it.  The first Basque community took hold at the foot of the Brooklyn bridge along Cherry and Water Streets in Manhattan.  There were Basque groceries and restaurants, Basque delivery services, and Basque wine and beer distributors, and most of the Basques attended Mass at the nearby Catholic churches, one of which even had a Basque priest.

     It was to this small but growing community that a young Basque named Valentín Aguirre came to work as a tugboat stoker in the harbor, and then on the city’s boats and ferries, before opening a Basque boardinghouse in 1917, the Casa Vizcaína on Cherry Street, that catered exclusively to Basques.  He married here, and his Basque wife helped run the boardinghouse.  When they were old enough to drive, he sent his young sons to meet incoming ships at the docks and call out, “Euskaldunak emen badira?” (“Are there any Basques here?”).  Arriving Basques would shout back in relief and joy, “Bai, bai!  Ni euskalduna naiz!”  Of course they lodged at the boardinghouse, by then renamed the Santa Lucia Hotel and located at 82 Bank Street in Greenwich Village, which functioned as a travel agency as well, getting train tickets and information about jobs for those bound for the West, and seeing them off with bundles of food for the long train trip ahead.

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A Basque magazine.

     In 1913 Valentín Aquirre and other Basques formed the Centro Vasco-Americano, originally as a mutual-aid society to help members financially if in need.  The organization continued through the years, and in 1973 it bought a building at 307 Eckford Street in Brooklyn, where, with the name in English of New York Basque Club, they are still located today, though the Basques in the city now are scattered throughout the five boroughs.  In October 2013 they celebrated their centennial with lectures, concerts, dancing and singing, plus participation in the annual Columbus Day Parade.  Among the many activities they offer are lessons in Euskara, the language of the Basques, the only one predating the Indo-Europeans that is still extant in Europe today: a reminder of the mysterious origins of this persisting people.

Romani or Gypsies

      In France they have been accused of shocking living standards, exploitation of children for begging, criminal acts and rioting, and prostitution, and thousands have been expelled and their illegal camps dismantled; one camp was even set on fire by a mob.  Greek and Irish authorities have suspected them of abducting children.  Italy has announced a “nomad problem” and initiated forced evictions.  A Czech town tried to build a wall between its wealthy neighborhood and their ghetto, and some  schools in Eastern Europe have posted signs “WHITES  ONLY.”  Many of these people are unemployed, most live in poverty, and the temptation to crime is admittedly strong.

     Such is the plight of the Gypsies, also called Romani or Rom or Roma, in Europe today.  Is it any wonder that they want to come over here, where the prejudice against them, however strong, is less than in the Old World where they have lived for centuries?  But just as with the Basques, one has to ask, Who are they?

     A people presumably of Indian origin who arrived in Europe at least a thousand years ago, the Romani are widely dispersed, many living in various parts of Europe and, since the nineteenth century, in the Americas, with a million now in the U.S.  The name “gypsy” derives from “Egyptian,” reflecting the common medieval belief that the Romani, with their swarthy complexion, had come from Egypt.  Their language, Romani, is Indo-European, but variations of it are so different that seven of them are considered separate languages.

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Croatian Gypsy women with their children, 1941.  Just the kind of image that reinforced
European prejudice against them.
German Federal Archives

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An old print showing Gypsies
kidnapping a child.
     Over the centuries the Romani have been persecuted in Europe as unassimilated, rootless nomads, allegedly ungodly, lazy, and given to petty theft and the kidnapping of children.  Viewed by the Nazis as an inferior race, between 500,000 and 1.5 million died in the holocaust.  Yet in literature and art they have often been romanticized as well, with supposed powers of fortunetelling, a passionate temperament, and a love of freedom.  (Think of Bizet’s Carmen.

     Romani from Serbia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia began emigrating to the U.S. in the 1880s, until the outbreak of war in 1914 and the tightening of immigration restrictions in 1917 halted this early influx.  Some were coppersmiths, others were fortunetellers.  Musicians and singers from Russia settled in New York, and in 1904 a group recently arrived from England were living in a camp of wagons with curtained windows in a meadow near Broadway and 211th Street in Manhattan, and making their living as horse traders and fortunetellers.  Other Romani from Bosnia who worked as animal trainers and showmen settled in a village of homemade shacks in the Maspeth section of Queens from about 1925 to 1939, when their shacks were razed. 

     The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 led to a renewed flow of Romani emigration to the U.S.  Here in New York City they often live in small communities in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens that keep to themselves.  They are by no means homogeneous; those from Hungary may have little in common with those from Slovakia; some may be Christian and others Muslim; some speak one dialect of the Romani language, while others  speak another.  In the neighborhood north of Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, some 350 families of Macedonian Romani live in a tight-knit Muslim community content to be viewed by others as Italian or Greek.  Why did they come here?  To find work for themselves and educational opportunities for their children that they couldn’t find in Europe.

     In this country the Romani have escaped the overt persecution that still plagues them in Europe, but not the stereotypical image of them as irresponsible migrants and cunning thieves, an image reinforced by their tendency to hold themselves apart so as to avoid contamination by the larger society surrounding them.  Yet today they are in many ways assimilated into the mainstream culture, while clinging to their traditional customs.  They may speak to ghosts, but gobble hamburgers at McDonalds.  They marry their daughters off in arranged marriages in their early teens, but work as car salesmen or jazz musicians, and one is an electrician who coaches soccer for Romani boys.  But once they achieve a degree of success, to escape any chance of prejudice they often stop referring to themselves as Romani and identify themselves as Slovakian or Romanian or whatever their country of origin may be.  Many of the most recent arrivals are undocumented, have no English, and consequently have trouble finding work.  

     Often preferring to be invisible, and with many differences – cultural, linguistic, and religious – among them, Romani communities here, unlike many immigrant groups, have failed to create statewide or nationwide organizations to promote and defend their culture.  But recently this has begun to change.  In September and October 2013 the Ninth Annual New York Gypsy Festival was held in New York, with jazz, swing, folk, hip-hop, and funk concerts by performers from India, Turkey, Macedonia, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and the U.S.  Here, finally, was a bold attempt to publicize the Romani culture through music both traditional and modern, and to break down age-old prejudices and celebrate “the Gypsy spirit.”   A tenth festival is planned for 2014.

     Who has been the most famous Romani?  Would you guess Charlie Chaplin?  Chaplin always claimed to have been born in London, but had no birth certificate to confirm it.  In 2011 it was reported that a letter written to him in 1971 and only recently discovered states that he was born in a caravan in a gypsy community in the West Midlands that was ruled by a gypsy queen, the writer’s aunt.  Perhaps wanting to conceal his gypsy origins, Chaplin kept the letter locked in a writing desk in his bedroom.  The desk was inherited by his daughter Victoria, who, finding this one drawer locked, hired a locksmith to force the drawer open.  Now his family is trying to confirm the story.


Prabhjot Singh was attacked by teens
Dr. Prabhjot Singh
     On the evening of September 21, 2013, Columbia University professor Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a practicing physician, was attacked by a gang of 25 to 30 black youths near 110th Street and Lenox Avenue.  They yelled “Get him!” and “Osama!” and “Terrorist!” and grabbed his beard and punched his face repeatedly, knocking him to the ground.  Before bystanders could come to his aid, he sustained injuries to his lip and jaw that required hospitalization.  His offense: wearing a turban; he is a Sikh.  In a press conference later Dr. Singh expressed no anger or desire for revenge, but the hope that his assailants would engage and learn in some other way.  He had no intention of leaving Harlem, where he lived with his wife and infant son, and planned to return at once to treating his patients.  A gentle man, a gentle religion.

     Sikhs are believers in Sikhism, a monotheistic religion founded in the Punjab region of India in the fifteenth century.  Early in the twentieth century many Sikhs emigrated to the U.S. and found jobs on farms in California, in lumber mills in Oregon, and in railroad construction throughout the West.  Their presence reinforced the racism already prevalent in the area, which was directed especially at the Chinese, and as a result Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, which banned immigration from India and other regions, thus halting Sikh immigration for the next thirty years.  Immigration quotas were established by legislation in 1946, but it was the Immigration Act of 1965 that made a difference, giving visa preference to applicants whose skills were needed; more Sikhs entered the country, mostly highly educated professionals who gravitated toward cities like New York, and many became citizens.  Prominent Sikhs today include writers and lecturers, physicians like Dr. Prabhjot Singh, businessmen, scientists, and politicians.  New York’s largest Sikh community is in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, where a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, opened in 1972.

     Sikhs are required to wear a kirpan, or short sword, and when one of them was arrested for doing so on a New York subway in 1987, the case was dismissed when it was learned that this was a religious custom.  April of the following year saw the first Sikh Day Parade in New York, with thousands of initiated males wearing their long hair and beards unshorn, topped by the mandatory turban, and Sikh women, some of them in brightly colored saris, and all of them with head scarves.  The parade is still held annually in Manhattan, with free vegetarian food and nonalcoholic drinks available to everyone.

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A kirpan.
Hari Singh
     The 9/11 attacks initiated a new phase in the history of Sikhism in New York and the U.S., for people often take the turban-wearing Sikhs for Arabs or Muslims, blame them for the attacks, and commit hate crimes against them.  That an assault like the one on Dr. Prabhjot Singh could occur in supposedly liberal and enlightened New York alarmed many, myself included.  Unfortunately, wearing the mandatory turban seems to make Sikhs a target for assault.  This is all the more reprehensible, given the very nature of Sikhism, which strikes me as surprisingly modern, enlightened, and tolerant.  Just consider these aspects of it:

·      It makes no claim of exclusivity, but respects all monotheistic faiths. 
·      It believes in the equality of all humans, including equality of the sexes, and abhors the Hindu caste system.
·      It shuns not just alcohol, smoking, and drugs, but also superstition, ritual, fasting, pilgrimages, and idolatry, and has no priests.
·      It honors honest work and charitable actions and sharing.
·      It has no quarrel with science.
·      It advocates a simple vegetarian diet.

Obviously, this is not a religion for bigots, male chauvinists, playboys and the idle rich.  Nor, I suspect, would it be appropriate for hedge fund managers or dealers in derivatives.  And carnivores might have a problem, too.

     That such a religion, now the fifth largest in the world, suffers from the ignorance and intolerance of other Americans is a scandal, and even more so, given Sikhism’s commitment to tolerance and love.  We should be honored to have Sikhs among us.

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A Sikh parade celebrating the Sikh New Year.
Joel Friesen

     Death notice:  In an earlier post I reported that I had signed a contract with Brown & Sons, a small new press (very small and very new), to publish a selection of posts from this blog; congratulations poured in from friends and acquaintances.  Over the following months I then toiled diligently with the publisher to determine which posts would be published, and how arranged.  But last Sunday I received this e-mail:

We regret to inform our authors that Brown and Sons Publishing must close its doors, due to understaffing, underfunding, and high volume of work. We will be restructuring and planning tentatively for a re-opening in late 2014. We must, necessarily, release all authors from their contracts. We will notify you in late 2014 of our plans. We encourage you to submit your manuscripts to other publishers and we wish you the very best in your endeavors.

     As two witnesses can confirm, my reaction to this epistle was not teary regret, resentment, or astonishment, but hoots of laughter.  While I wished this publisher well, I never quite believed in them.  Somehow, their operation seemed too vague, too flimsy, and certainly too optimistic.  So beat the drums slowly and play the fife lowly, as yet another small press is laid to rest.  Of course there may be a resurrection later in the year, but let’s not count on Brown & Sons (“Life-impacting books by newsworthy authors”) rising from its ashes like the phoenix.  Meanwhile, requiescat in pace.  Ci-gît Brown et fils.  (The “& Sons” always bothered me, as no sons were ever in evidence.  But no matter.)  So it goes in the world of publishing.

This is New York

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Patrick Kwan

     Coming soon:  Village Eccentrics of Yore.  A bum who graduated from Harvard, slept in flophouses, and claimed to understand the language of seagulls; and a Baroness who wore a bra composed of tomato cans, eyelashes made of parrot feathers, and a birthday cake for a hat with fifty lighted candles.  And here’s a line from her poetry: “Narin-----Tzarissamanili.”  Of course that’s plucked from its context; I’ll give more next time, so readers can grasp the full beauty and meaning of the poem.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

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