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You're My Love Song in the Flowers - Little India for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 20, 2011 05:00pm | Post a Comment
LITTLE INDIA

Little India Plaza

Little India is a small neighborhood within Artesia centered on Pioneer Blvd. However, since the population of Artesia surrounding Little India is more Mexican, Filipino and Chinese (not to mention home to smaller but significant number of Koreans and Vietnamese), the city council and mayor rather lamely compromised, officially designating it the "International and Cultural Shopping District." Catchy, huh? That silliness suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what a designated ethnic enclave is... that is, a community that retains a cultural distinction from the larger community. Oh well, everyone knows it as Little India, whether it's official or not.

EARLY ARTESIA - DAIRYLAND

Artesia, named after the area's artesian wells, was primarily developed in the 1920s and '30s by mostly Portuguese and Dutch dairy farmers. Later came Dutch-colonized Indonesians. The character of Southeast Los Angeles became increasingly suburban after World War II and most of the homes in the immediate area date from the mid 1940s to the early '50s.

Pioneer Blvd
Pioneer Boulevard in the 1950s

As development increased, so did the value of the land and most of the local farmers sold and began moving away to Chino or the Central Valley to continue farming. The Portuguese-Brazilian Portazil Bakery, the Portuguese restaurant The Navigator and the Dutch Artesia Bakery have all closed in recent decades after many years of operation.

Artesia Portuguese DES Hall

There are still vestiges of Artesia's ethnic past with organizations like the Artesia Portuguese DES, Portugal Imports, Artesia Drive In Dairy and California Dairies. In addition, the Portuguese Festa do Espirito Santo still occurs annually.

Streets of Little India, Artesia, CA

In the 1970s, the first Indian-American merchants began to move into the older buildings along the boulevard (some which date back to the 1920s -- their architecture and sign shapes give hints to their original purposes). As Little India grew, new mini-malls were built. Most of the newer shopping buildings date back to the 1990s and are ugly, bland, nondescript and vaguely Mexican-looking strip malls so common throughout the region. 

Map of Little India
Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of Little India

As with many of ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles, the exteriors of Little India give little hint as to what lies beneath the faded stucco surface. Roll down the windows, however, and the unmistakable smell of Indian food and spices wafts pleasantly through the air. Peek inside the buildings to find crowded, cluttered markets and restaurants that tend to look more like dingy cafeterias or, alternately, garish nightclubs. But before we delve into Little India, allow me to elaborate on the much older history of Indians in America.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF INDIAN-AMERICANS

The history of Indian-Americans is older than that of the USA itself. It began in the 1600s, when the East India Company brought Indian servants to the American colonies, where they were treated, essentially, as slaves. In fact, in 1680, an Indian man and Irish woman gave birth to a baby girl. Being "mixed-race," she was classified as "mulatto," taken from her parents and promptly sold into slavery. After the US achieved freedom from the British Empire, the first recorded Indian immigrants arrived in the 1790s, to work in the maritime industry.

Sikhs hounded from city Bellingham Indians

Larger numbers of Indians, mostly Punjabi Sikhs, began immigrating to America and Canada's west coast in the early 20th century, mostly to work in lumber mills and on the railroads. There they faced considerable hostility and in Live Oak, California and Bellingham, Washington, they were driven from town by angry white mobs.

A.K. Mozumdar, second from right Immigration Act of 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone
 
Left: A.K. Mozumdar (second from right) Right: the Asiatic Barred Zone

To make matters worse, the 1913 passage of the California Alien Land Law made non-citizen Asians ineligible to own property. A few months later, even leasing land became off limits to Indians. The same year, Indian-American religious figure A.K. Mozumdar became the first to earn US citizenship after successfully arguing before a district judge that he was “Caucasian” and therefore eligible under the naturalization law that restricted citizenship to free white people. In 1917, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act banned Asians from a large part of the continent from immigrating to the US.

Bhagat Singh Thind  United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
 
Bhagat Singh Thind 

In 1923, the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (a World War I veteran who'd fought for the US) results with Indians' being ineligible for citizenship because, though classified as Caucasian, they're also determined to be "not white." A.K. Mozumdar, along with all naturalized Indian-Americans that followed him, had his citizenship revoked as a result.

Luce-Celler Act of 1946  INS Act

In 1946, Missourian President Harry Truman signed into law the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, returning the right of immigration and naturalization to a limited number of Indians and Filipinos. In 1965, Texan President Lyndon Johnson signed the INS Act into law, eliminating per-country immigration quotas.

Kaushal Sharan Navroze Mody, center
Left: 
Kaushal Sharan years after his attack, Right: 
Navroze Mody (middle)

In the 1980s, as more Indians were able to move to the US, they met increased hostility. Gangs like The Dotbusters formed in New Jersey to target Indians with violence and harassment. In 1987, one of their victims, Kaushal Sharan, was beaten with a baseball bat and suffered brain damage. Navroze Mody wasn't so lucky and was beaten to death by the same gang, also in 1987.

Balbir Singh Sodhi  Frank Silva Roque saurabh bhalerao
   Balbir Singh Sodhi                         Frank Roque                             Saurabh Bhalerao recovering from his attack

After the 9/11 Arab Terrorist Attacks, non-Arab South Asians in several cases bore the brunt of inflamed racist hatred. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station attendant, was shot five times and killed by Frank Roque in Los Angeles. Roque was picked up after boasting at a bar, "They're investigating the murder of a turban-head down the street." In 2002 a Hindu pizza deliverer, Saurabh Bhalerao, was mugged and beaten in Massachusetts for "being Muslim." His attackers, after telling him to go back to Iraq, stuffed him in the trunk of their car. Bhalerao escaped and took a hammer to one of his cowardly assailants before being stabbed as he fled.

Indophobia isn't limited to completely uneducated street thugs, however. In 2006 Virginia Senator George Allen, a UVA graduate with a B.A. with a distinction in history as well as a law degree, without provocation mocked an Indian-American political staffer, S.R. Sidarth. On camera, he was caught smugly and sarcastically welcoming him to America and twice addressing him as "macaca," a term derived from "macaque." 

As jobs are increasingly outsourced to India, Indians and Indian-Americans are increasingly at risk for misplaced anger. At the same time, comedies like Outsourced, comedians like Aziz Ansari and the popularity of the Harold & Kumar films raise Indian-Americans profiles and de-exoticize a particular segment of American culture.

HISTORY OF LITTLE INDIA 

After the passage of the aforementioned INS Act in 1965, more Indians moved to the US, many to LA's suburbs and Orange County. In 1970, the growing suburban Indian-American community convinced the owners of LA's first Indian grocery, Selecto Spices, to relocate from Hollywood to Artesia where property values were in decline and thus more affordable.  Afterward, several Indian markets followed their example. In the 1980s, several restaurants followed. At least as early as 1988, locals began referring to the increasingly desi neighborhood as "Little India." 
 
Little India Artesia

The first suggestions of gaining official designation began around 1991, with the formation of The Little India Chamber of Commerce. Over the next ten years, the desi character extended beyond the core five blocks northward into Norwalk and southward into Cerritos. Nowadays Little India boasts about 120 Indian-oriented shops, including clothing stores, eyebrow-threading/hair removal places, home furnishers, fabric stores, jewelers, grocery stores, restaurants, video & music stores and more. 

Anglo Mannequins  More anglo Mannequins
The mannequins of Little India aren't just Anglo but exceptionally Anglo

As an ethnic enclave that grew organically (as opposed to LA's Chinatown and Olvera Street) Little India remains targeted toward average SoCal Indians and not tourists. There are, as far as I've seen, no "I Love Little India" T-shirts or "Wish You Were Here" postcards. In the markets, English and Kenyan products outnumber the sorts of trinkets and souvenirs favored by casual Indian fetishists like Gwen Stefani or Madonna. The soundtrack is Bollywood and Bhangra, not Goa Trance. There are no signs of Hare Krishnas or Natural Law Party members. Compared to other Indian-American neighborhoods, LA County's surpasses Devon Street in Chicago and University Ave in Berkeley in size. Only Jackson Heights in Queens has a larger desi population in the US.


STUFF TO SEE AND DO

Artesia Plaza
Artesia Plaza - Little India's de facto downtown
 
Weekends and most nights (although not Mondays), the streets, sidewalks and restaurants bustle with people but if visitors want spectacle, India's Independence celebrations, Diwali, Navaratri and Eid ul-Fitrbring crowds, parades, skits, fashion shows, singers and lights.
 
Diwali in Artesia's Little India
For Diwali usually a crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000 enjoys the festivities
 

EATS

Surati Farsan Mart Surati Farsan Interior
Surasi Farsan Mart

With Indian Food being one of the world's three most delicious cuisines, most visitors to Little India come to eat. While most of Little India's residents come from Mumbai, Kolkata and The Azores, not all regions of India are, of course, represented culinarily. Gunjurati, Punjabi and Maharashtrian cuisine are especially common but Pakistani and Bengali food are also represented.
 
Local eateries include Ambala Dhaba, Ashoka the Great, Tirupathi Bhimas, The Haveli Cuisine of India, The India Restaurant, India West, Jay Bharat, Mehfil Tandoori, Mumbai Ki Galliyon Se, Rajdhani, Rasraj, Royal Cuisine of India, Saffron Spot, Shan, Sukhadia's Mithai, Tangy Tomato, Tava Grill & Lounge, Udupi Palace and Woodlands Indian Cafe. Having eaten at roughly a third, I always try a new one and on the day of our visit, film producer Diana Roark and I ate at Surasi Farsan Mart. The chaat joint was packed and the food was good!

Ambala Artesia Inside Ambala

Afterward we stopped by for a snack and a drink at Ambala Sweets & Snacks, another Little India institution. I kind of wanted jalebi but was still stuffed from lunch.
 
If you like Indian goods or like cooking Indian food there are several markets in the neighborhood including Bharatiyi Grocery, Bombay Spices, House of Spices, Jalaram Market, Kerala Delicacies, Pioneer Cash & Carry, Rasa Indian Groceries, Shan Hala Mead & Grocery and Tawa Supermarket. If your food turns out well, invite me over. If you cook it, I will come. 
 
 
FILMS & MUSIC &  TV & DANCE

Bangle Bazar  Bollywood
Rasa Indian Groceries   Rhythm
 
Normally I try to separate music from film and tv but with Indian culture, that doesn't make a lot of sense as they're inextricably intertwined. Amoeba of course carries Indian music and films but there's more on sale at Bangle Bazar [sic], Bollywood Music & Video (aka International Video), Rhythm and even markets like Rasa... in addition to other products. Bollywood is simply too prodigious to be even close to well-represented in a store's subjection. In fact, Bollywood idols like Amitabh Bachchan (the Indian Al Pacino), Priyanka Chopra and Aishwarya Rai have their own subsections in stores like Bangle Bazar (below).

Inside Bangle Bazar
 
 


Little India's Cottage Art decorated the set of A.R. Rahman's performance of the Academy Award-winning song "Jai Ho" on The Tonight Show
 
Naz 8 Cinemas

An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people per week visit the eight-screen NAZ8 Cinemas in nearby Lakewood, which shows mostly Bollywood movies (and offers desi concessions).
 

Choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan, who's appeared on programs including So You Think You Can Dance?, operates a dance studio in Little India for his NDM Bollywood Dance Troupe.
Here's a video of the great Huell Howswer visiting Little India.

 
WORSHIP

Matiya Patidar  Shree Swaminaryan

I don't know (or in this rare case, pretend to know) much about Hinduism. (I did read the Bhagavad Gītā and suffered through Little Buddha.) Anyway, I'm pretty sure Matiya Patidar Samaj (above left) and Shree Swaminarayan (above right) are two Hindu temples, just up the Pioneer Boulevard in Norwalk. Little India proper doesn't have any proper houses of worship so these nearby temples serve the Hindu locals.
 
Curry Lane
Curry Lane is in my ears and in my nose
 
 
*****
 
 
Welp, that's it for now. Have a great South Asian Heritage Month and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and to vote for other Los Angeles County communities to be covered on the blog, vote here. To vote for Los Angeles neighborhoods, click here. To vote for Orange County neighborhoods, vote here. Namaste, dudes!
 
*****


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South Asian Heritage Month (1), Little India (2), Artesia (3), Bollywood (9), Southeast Los Angeles (1), Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (57), Indians (4), India (6), Asian-americans (40), California Fool's Gold (107), Indian-americans (3), Norwalk (2)