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Meet the Filmmaker: Jayasri Hart

Jayasri Hart
Jayasri Hart

"Roots in the Sand" started as the story of David Dhillon. He was a second generation Punjabi-Mexican-American who had lived in the Imperial Valley all his twenty-seven years. At that time, I had been in the U.S. less than five years, but soon "Roots in the Sand" became my journey to find my place in America.

In India, as in the U.S., a person has two major identities. My nationality is Indian, and I am Bengali by culture. And in the grade schools of that eastern state of Bengal, the curriculum placed India squarely in Asia.

Imagine my consternation when I realized that in the U.S. I was neither Indian nor Asian! The people of India were widely perceived as Middle Eastern. The correct ethnic label was "East Indian," or so I was told by an American-born child of immigrants from India. She was somewhat resentful that the indigenous North American tribes had usurped our right to the label "Indian," thanks to the ignorance of Chris Columbus.

In our country of adoption, ours has long been an assigned identity. We were linked to the people of Mexico whom we were allowed to marry because of our common "race" or skin color. And with the people of China, Japan, and other Asian countries, we were linked through U.S. legislation.

1917 Immigration Act (39 Stat. 874) specified "the following classes of aliens shall be excluded from admission to the U.S... persons who are natives of islands not possessed by the United States adjacent to the Continent of Asia, situated south of the 20th parallel latitude north, west of the 160th meridian of longitude east from Greenwich, and north of the 10th parallel of latitude south, or who are natives of any country, province, or dependency situated on the Continent of Asia west of the 110th meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and south of the 50th parallel of latitude north..." creating what was popularly known as the Asiatic Barred Zone.

Jayasri receiving award
NEMN Silver Apple awarded to ROOTS IN THE SAND (1998)

1922 The Cable Act (42 Stat. 1021) specified "that any woman citizen who marries an alien ineligible to citizenship shall cease to be a citizen of the U.S."

1922-23 Takao Ozawa vs. U.S. (260 U.S. 178) and Bhagat Singh Thind vs. U.S. (261 U.S. 204) The Supreme Court decided that people of Japanese and Indian races were ineligible to U.S. citizenship.

1924 - Immigration Act known as National Origins Quota Act (43 Stat, 153) specified that "no alien ineligible to citizenship shall be admitted to the United States." There were some very small loopholes to this one.

I wanted to take this crazy patchwork of an identity handed to us and make it the source of a mutual partnership and interest among our diverse communities. I am glad NAATA and LpBp feel the same way.

Filming on the back of a truck

The writer of "Roots in the Sand," a white man from Kansas and my husband of 14 years has certainly been part of this new identity of mine. In the process, I think I have changed his idea of America — and of India. And the pioneer couples of the Imperial Valley have radically changed our unreal expectations from our marriage!

Today, I feel American because I am happy to be East Indian, South Asian, and even plain "Indian" if my distant cousins of the Navajo or the Chumash nation will have me. I have been addressed in Tagalog — and scolded in Spanish for having forgotten my mother tongue. Some day, I hope to speak at least Spanish well enough to explain.

"Roots in the Sand" also shows how laws are weapons in a sophisticated struggle for political and economic power.

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