I had the honor of spending time with some Sikh residents of Yuba City this spring to learn about their religion, culture, history and many contributions to this Northern California city. I wrote the resulting story, “American Dreams,” for Comstock’s magazine.
Punjabis in California overcame decades of discriminatory laws to build a new home for themselves in Yuba City — and the community flourishes today
By Sena Christian
As the legend goes, Didar Singh Bains arrived in his new home of Yuba City in 1958 at age 18 with only $8 in his pocket, which was enough for him. A young immigrant from India with humble origins, he says he believed that in the U.S. “money could grow on trees.” In the course of his lifetime, that youthful optimism has proven true — at least figuratively.
Back then though, Bains was a young Sikh farmer who thought farming was next to godliness. He was raised in a small farming village in Punjab, a state in northern India bordering Pakistan. Sikhism originated in the region and remains a predominant religion there today. In 1948, when Bains was a boy, his father left for the U.S., following in the footsteps of his great-uncle who had eventually settled in the Yuba City area in the 1920s and told of available work and chances to improve their livelihoods. After his father left, Bains started farming in his village to provide for his mother and younger brother until he grew old enough to make his way to California.
Yuba City suited the family. “They chose this region because they felt there were adequate amounts of water, fertile soils and the climate with four actual seasons — and the geography, it reminded them of being back home,” says Bains’ son, Karm.
Just like his great-uncle and father before him, Bains started as a farm laborer, driving tractors, irrigating and pruning orchards, earning below minimum wage at $0.75 an hour. Acclaimed for doing the work of four men, he soon became a foreman. But his dreams of one day owning his own farmland and harvesting his own fruit would have to wait until he’d saved up some money. In 1962, Bains’ mother, Amar Kaur, joined her son and husband. Accompanied only by Bains’ younger brother, who was 13 at the time, she was one of the first Punjabi women to arrive in Yuba City.
Since the first Punjabis emigrated from India to California at the turn of the 20th century, this population has carved out a prominent role in the economy, culture and identity of Yuba City, despite decades of laws that prevented immigration, citizenship and land ownership for Indian Americans. Most Punjabis here practice Sikhism — a religion they say manifests in their proclivity for hard work and entrepreneurship — and the Yuba-Sutter area boasts one of the largest Sikh populations in the U.S., estimated to be over 15,000. These Punjabi Americans are business owners, farmers, scientists, teachers, real estate agents, government officials, politicians, engineers, doctors, dentists and developers.
“You name it, we’re there,” Karm says. “Sikhs are hard-working and adventurous people and they’ve moved to all parts of the world. It’s their independent spirit and strength in their faith and hard work that has made them successful.”