When this Punjabi family moved to Livingston in 1970, they planted the seed for an entire community
By some estimates, Punjabis now make up close to a fifth of the city’s population.
This story was featured in the Livingston episode of the KVPR podcast The Other California.
Gurpal Samra became the mayor of Livingston almost by accident. “My brother got a parking ticket,” he said.
It was 1997, and the ticket, which Gurpal said was given to his brother by mistake, was worth $10. He tried to contest it, first with the chief of police, then the city council. “They wouldn't listen, so I said I'm going to fix their wagon and run for council,” he said.
Gurpal was elected to the Livingston city council in 1998. He never did manage to toss out his brother’s ticket. But in one of his first acts in office in this Merced County city, he ended the system that allows mayors to be appointed by the city council, instead putting the vote up to residents. Then he ran for that office, too. “That's how I became the first elected mayor in Livingston,” he said.
That was in 2002. Gurpal would alternate between the city council and mayor’s office for the next 18 years. Affable and warm, he shared this story from a cushy couch illuminated by the blue light of a fishtank in his living room. “In order to be an elected official, it helps to be a people person,” he said. “And I think I’m a people person.”
In 2020, just before he retired as mayor, Gurpal was instrumental in getting information to the public about a deadly COVID outbreak at the town’s biggest employer, a Foster Farms chicken processing plant. The company initially concealed the fact that nine employees had died.
Politics was never Gurpal’s end-game, however, especially in the U.S. He wasn’t born here. He’s a Sikh from the Indian state of Punjab, and by the time he became mayor, the city had known Indians for only 30 years. “Here we are, immigrants from India, moving to Livingston. And to have the Livingstonians allow us, especially me, the opportunity serve them in an elected position—if that doesn't tell what the community is like, I'm not sure what else will,” he said.
As a relative newcomer, Gurpal’s run in city politics might seem brave, but he will never admit that. He feels he knows real bravery, and that was modeled to him by his parents. Fifty years ago, they left behind everything they knew and moved here, to Livingston, where no one else looked like they did. “It was only four Indians here,” he said, “my father, my mother, my brother and myself.”
Gurpal was nine, his brother seven. “If that doesn't show courage, I don't know what does,” he said. “When you’ve got to move to a different country and don't even know anything about it, it’s courage.”
Gurpal’s father, Sarwan Singh Samra, died in February. But his mother, Harjit Samra, lives with her son and his family. And the 87-year-old still remembers the move. “When we came here, it was nice but we were scared because there was nobody to talk to,” she said in Punjabi.
In 1970, back in Punjab, Harjit and her husband were farmers. They didn’t have a bad life, but they wanted more opportunities for their sons. Word had gotten to them that an Indian family had found well-paying jobs at that Foster Farms chicken processing plant and had made a home near Livingston, in the community of Winton. So they crossed the ocean to try it out. Just two days after arriving, the two parents found themselves on the assembly line, cutting and packaging chickens—even though they were vegetarians. “I did not like working in the beginning,” she said. “First three days, I didn't eat at all.”
They’d both end up keeping those jobs for more than 25 years. They’d process chickens at night, and by day they were farm workers picking peaches. Eventually they bought a house, then a farm, then began renting houses as landlords. They prospered. They told friends and family back home about Livingston, who would make the same move and then tell other friends and family.
Today, Gurpal estimates Punjabis make up nearly a fifth of the town – thousands of farmers, farmworkers, truckers, and business owners. They built two Sikh temples known as Gurdwaras. And Harjit got to watch as her sons grew up, went to college, and became active members of their community. “I wouldn't give anything up for what I have now,” she said.
Now, two more generations of Samras are thriving. Gurpal has three kids, all in their 20s, and a one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter he Facetimes with every night.
Gurpal’s youngest daughter, Harleen, is 21, and is studying to be a psychologist. Unlike her parents and grandparents, she and her siblings never had to work the fields or process chickens. “I don't think I could handle it, which is kind of embarrassing to say, but I feel like it's kind of the sacrifice they made,” she said. “They did that so that me and my siblings wouldn't have to.”
Harleen is grateful to study Spanish, to work at a makeup store, and to go to college, among other opportunities. And she knows it’s all because her grandparents took a leap into the abyss by coming here with no certainty about their future. “I feel like I've lived such a different life that I can't even imagine that,” she said.
None of this would have been possible without another story of courage, however, and that is by Harleen’s mother, Amarjit Samra. Her marriage to Gurpal was arranged in 1994. He had been living here for decades, but she had only ever known India. She was in her 20s and had gone to college there. Coming here was a giant leap for her as well, and she was scared. “And nervous too, my family not here, nobody, I'm lonely,” she said.
For 20 years she was a stay-at-home mom. Her first job was also at Foster Farms, then she recently left it for something new. Now, she works early mornings at a laundromat, and in her free time she’s teaching herself Spanish so she can communicate with some of the town’s other immigrants. She actually nodded off while I spoke to her husband. “You're talking, I'm sleeping here,” she laughed.
Amarjit misses her family in India. She’s been back to visit only once. Still, she says she’s at home in Livingston, straddling the line between Western and Indian cultures. She made sure her kids learned Punjabi and went to the Gurdwara, and she’s so excited about having a granddaughter. “She hugs, kisses, flying kisses,” she laughed. “She's so cute.” Amarjit is making sure that she learns Punjabi, too.