New York has always been part of my imaginary. Because I was born there and soon moved to Brazil, my connection with the city has always been through old family photographs and the bombarding of images that came from the movies and the television. It was through photography that at 29 I was finally able to create a personal and experiential bond with the city and, with the help of the camera, see it deeply, create social relationships, and break some cultural barriers. This work is a small sample of the cultural diversity within the City of New York. It is a look on this city’s ability to absorb such different cultures.
I’ve spent two months in the region of Queens, from July through August of 2013, observing and living among south Asian immigrants, especially Sikh Indians, driven by the motivation of understanding more about the people who cross the planet in order to live in such a different place, with values often times opposite to their original ones.
The Queens is known for being the biggest region in New York City and one of the most ethnic-diverse urban areas in the world, with residents from over 100 countries, speaking more than 138 different languages. Amidst so much information, so many languages, colors, and different smells, it’s not uncommon to feel transported to somewhere else in the world far from North America.
Jackson Heights is one of these cases. Located between 93rd and 69th street and between Northern Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue (somewhere between Central America, South America, and Asia), it is the most diverse among the diverse, an extremely urban and dense neighborhood, far from the spotlight of Times Square, where one doesn’t hear much English. It was in ‘Little India’ (74th street of Jackson Heights), a region inhabited mainly by the south Asian communities that live or work there, that I was able to experiment the result of this cultural adaptation and resistance within the city.
Through Gurbach Singh, an Indian from Punjab, living in Queens for ten years and a practitioner of the Sikh religion, I had the opportunity of taking part in the life of the neighborhood of Jackson Heights and learn a thing or two about Sikhism – a religion founded in the 15th century in the region of Punjab, in the Indian subcontinent. It’s the fifth largest organized religion in the world, with approximately 30 million followers. Sikhism preaches equality of all humanity, pacific coexistence, and a supreme God. The male Sikh follower usually does not cut his hair or his beard and covers his head with colored turbans; women wear shawls to cover their heads, a sign of total commitment and devotion to God. Their garments are a key part of their Sikh identity.
Guided by Gurbach, I witnessed a little of the religious life of the Sikh in Richmond Hill neighborhood. In the public ceremony Nagar Kirtan – Parkash Guru Granth Sahib, that pays honors to the sacred book of the religion, it’s evident that, in spite of the strength of its cultural identity, Indian traditions are impacted and adapted when they enter American soil and end up being a reflection of the immigrant’s context. Cultural identity for Indian immigrants is a means of survival; it connects them to their origins, preserves their references and brings balance into a new world.
This project has allowed me to get to know New York a little deeper, what the City is made of, how it pulsates. Feeling all this transplant and adaptation process as a way for these people to create a new home has made me renew my ties with my hometown and my own origins.