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Shining a light on the plight of workers at Santa Clara’s Indian grocery stores amid the pandemic

Shining a light on the plight of workers at Santa Clara’s Indian grocery stores amid the pandemic

Picture of Srishti Prabha
Dimple Ben works the register at a Trinethra grocery store in San Jose, California.
Dimple Ben works the register at a Trinethra grocery store in San Jose, California.
(Photo by Srishti Prabha)

I waited 20 years to hear Dimple Ben’s story for the first time and she didn’t make it easy. She didn’t feel her story was significant and she couldn’t understand why I was so insistent on hearing it. But she is significant, for what she provides to the community and for how she gives voice to the many muted Desi narratives like hers.

My project “Masala Heroes” was an idea that struck our team at India Currents when we witnessed the burnout of ethnic grocery store staff at our local Desi grocery stores in Santa Clara County (SCC) during the pandemic. What we thought would require straightforward reporting involved reshaping the narrative, digging for data, and having to run our own surveys. My work poses larger questions and challenges for Santa Clara County policymakers: Why do Desi grocery stores matter, who are the people working in them, what do we know about them, and how can we support them?

South Asian organizations such as SAALT report that South Asians are the largest growing undocumented population in the U.S. But where are they located and what work do they seek? The demand for disaggregation of Asian data became a consistent theme throughout my reporting.

I drove to the 24 Desi grocery stores in the Bay Area hoping to convince the owners to let me survey shoppers outside their store. What I thought would be a simple task proved to be difficult. Owners were resistant to media presence in or around their stores, and when the owners weren’t there (because they were stuck in India due to COVID), the employees could not approve the work I was hoping to do. It was imperative that I was sensitive to their requests because our work at India Currents is to be embedded and trusted community members. One grocery store, New India Bazaar in Evergreen – the store our publisher shops at and which has been buying ad space in India Currents for years, would not allow any coverage of their store. I was baffled. The fear of media and deference to owners made my reporting impossible. After much convincing, I was able to conduct surveys outside three stores and received over 50 responses from in-person surveys and solicited an additional 50 responses online. 

Distrust of the media consistently impeded access to the information I was seeking. South Asian culture and its understanding of Indian media reporting, which can be aggressive and reactive, acted as a barrier to exposing the realities the businesses and their staff were facing. It became apparent that owners were also partially resistant because they were protecting their employees. 

It took months to get a hold of an owner who would be willing to speak with me about their struggles as an essential business. One of the stores, outside of which I had surveyed, yelled at me and kicked me out of their store as I was trying to pursue an interview with the owner. It was demoralizing to face so much rejection when my work was to amplify these unheard voices. The model minority propaganda perpetuates the mindset of flying under the radar and projecting perfection instead of addressing the real concerns of rising costs, declining profits, and the stress of paying employees during a pandemic. 

The narrative of the employer became part of my third story and my second story shifted to the importance of Desi grocery stores as drivers of ethnic diet. This introduced another set of issues: the lack of health research on South Asian Americans. To source information or data, I had to ask current researchers in the Bay Area about their findings and reach out to local dieticians for data about ethnic gut biomes. Though the research is limited, the high rates of diabetes and heart disease proved that South Asians require more insight into their ethnic diets. 

The third and last story had the most impact on me. Dimple Ben had been a constant in my life for 20 years. Hearing her experiences these past few years was heartbreaking. After she shared her story, I began taking her home-cooked meals when I was heading to Trinethra because I knew she didn’t have time for a fresh-cooked meal. Getting her to be still for 20 minutes was difficult — we were interrupted more than once as I tried to conduct an interview with her. Again, it was only her narrative I got to hear because many others declined. Undocumented employees were afraid of what I’d report. This is when I began searching for disaggregated data on the undocumented South Asian population in Santa Clara County. The only information I was able to source was through USC Dornsife, which used regression models from American Community Survey microdata to estimate the population. 

A few of the things I discovered through this series:

  • The actual number of Desi grocery stores in the county (24), and where they are located (an interactive map will serve as an archived resource for any new Desi immigrants in the county).

  • Narratives of grief associated with loss in India and the lifeline that the Desi grocery stores provided for them.

  • The importance of an ethnic diet to mitigate diabetes and heart disease. A colonial diet has impacted South Asians in America and in their homelands.

  • The potential loss of culture and healthy diets for second-generation South Asian Americans as a result of lack of knowledge. Desi grocery stores function as culture-bearers of food.

  • The underreporting of COVID outbreaks at the Desi grocery stores in the county was a cause for concern because it meant that the staff was not accessing health care resources.

  • Narratives of an owner and an employee on the strain the pandemic put on their lives and health.

  • It is estimated that one in 100 Asians in Santa Clara County is an undocumented South Asian. There is little to no information about the work this group seeks despite the 72% increase in the population in America. The potential rate of undocumented South Asians working in the service/retail industry in the county is high.

My hope is that someone furthers my research into our Desi communities in Santa Clara County, especially for those who live in the shadows of tech workers and model minority myths. Here are some avenues for future research:

  • Sewa International Bay Area is a nonprofit working with all communities impacted by essential work in the Bay Area – narratives can be compiled from the people seeking help from their organization. 

  • AACI pushed for disaggregated Asian data in Santa Clara County — they can push for policy that would benefit the growing undocumented Desi population.

  • It could be useful to speak with Narika and Maitri, nonprofits helping victims of domestic abuse, to see what work the women coming to their organization seek and how Santa Clara County health care works for them.

  • South Asian Heart Center and SSATHI are great partners in health research for South Asians. More data on generational change in diets and its impact on South Asian health can be investigated. 

  • USC Dornsife immigrant data portal uses American Community Survey to estimate the number of undocumented South Asians in Santa Clara County. More efforts to do outreach to these communities to complete the survey will be necessary. Also, collecting data on the nature of their work will be beneficial. 

  • A support network for the ethnic grocery stores would be significant in Santa Clara.

What happens to undocumented South Asian workers and our grocery stores has an impact on the diverse and rich South Asian population in Santa Clara County. I am grateful to the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund for giving me the space and the resources to produce a lengthy and complex project for the South Asian community in the Bay Area. Such journalism is hard to produce on our own and the Impact Fund elevated what would have been a superficial story. I hope to keep reporting on issues pertinent to the South Asian community in the Bay Area and for India Currents to become a trusted messenger of impact journalism for our community.

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