South Asian Immigrants Celebrate Culture in NYC


South Asian Street Festival in Queens, NY - Photo: Cristina DC Pastor

NEW YORK–Under the arching branches of a maple tree, Asian musicians sang indigenous songs, as vendors and activists sold merchandise and promoted an array of political causes.

At the July 25 South Asian Arts and Activism street fair in Queens, immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Chhaya, a grassroots organization for South Asian communities with immigration and housing concerns.  New York’s dynamic South Asian community is estimated to be around 280,000 strong, representing more than 30 percent of the city’s total Asian population.

Amid the ear-splitting music, the aroma of curry-puff samosas, and a rainbow of sari scarves fluttering from a clothing kiosk, South Asians found themselves relishing their shared culture.

“It’s all about having fun,” beamed a relaxed looking Seema Agnani, executive director and founder of Chhaya. Her group advocates for low-income South Asian homeowners facing foreclosures and mortgage troubles. This is the group’s first time to celebrate, she told Fi2W. “Hopefully, we’ll be around another 10 years.”

Fair-goers occupied one block of 77th Street in Jackson Heights strolling, watching the musical program, or making small talk with fellow immigrants from the Indian subcontinent while they sipped from cans of ice-cold coconut juice.

Tibetan musicans performing at South Asian Street Festival in Queens, NY - Photo: Cristina DC Pastor

Tibetan musicans performing at the South Asian Street Festival in Queens, NY. (Photo: Cristina DC Pastor)

“I’m here with a couple of friends, just checking out the music – and the food,” chortled student Nikita Dass.

An Ecuadoran father and daughter were on their way home, but were lured by the blaring music and the red and yellow balloons. They took a detour to a table serving watermelon chunks and enjoyed a classic summer moment.

But some of the booths were manned by organizers who were there to talk about issues more serious than good food. Student Tenzing Sherpa was standing behind a booth for Adhikaar, a non-profit for Nepali immigrants.

“Many of the people we serve are domestic workers,” he told Fi2W and others who dropped by for a leaflet or a quick question. “Nepali immigrants also come to us for English classes and other services.”

Turning Point, an organization serving South Asian victims of domestic violence - Photo: Cristina DC Pastor

Turning Point, an organization serving South Asian victims of domestic violence. (Photo: Cristina DC Pastor)

The battle against domestic violence was front and center with booths run by Turning Point for Women and Families and the New York Asian Women’s Center (NYAWC).

“Violence against Muslim women is on the rise, unfortunately,” declared Turning Point volunteer Rabya Rafiq. “We’re here to let the community know that help is available.” The group offers counseling, crisis intervention, and support groups for abused women.

Fronthy Nguyen, outreach coordinator of the NYAWC, said some battered Asian women are culturally hindered from seeking help due to feelings of shame. But she said NYAWC has confidential hotlines women can call, and emergency centers that offer a safe place when lives are threatened.

The Bangladeshi band, Grammyo, played country music with a spiritual theme, and was followed by a Tibetan duo singing in their native language.  Costumed women performed a traditional dance, young men showed off their break dancing skills, and a much-awaited Bollywood dance number courtesy of SALGA (South Asian Lesbian & Gay Association) pumped up the crowd. At one point, the crowd suddenly erupted into a bhangra dancing mass, and 77th Street was transformed into a scene out of Slumdog Millionaire.

Jai Ho!

AboutCristina DC Pastor
Cristina DC Pastor, a former Fi2W Business and Economics Reporting fellow, is the publisher and editor of The FilAm ( Her book, “Scratch the News: Filipino Americans in Our Midst” (Inkwater, 2005), is a celebration of ordinary citizens at the center of extraordinary stories. She is a graduate of The New School.