Diwali Is Central To Many Indian Americans. But In Texas, Celebrations Are Often Adjusted

Even in parts of Texas with high Asian populations, holidays central to those cultures are not officially accommodated.

By Laura RiceSeptember 7, 2020 10:00 am, ,

Part of the immigrant experience involves reevaluating and redefining identity. Which parts of the homeland will one bring to a new land, what will be left behind and how does that evolve over generations? These questions apply to language, food, and so much else – including holidays. For many Indian Americans, one of the most important holidays is Diwali.

Celebrating Diwali

In India and other parts of South Asia, public life is set in part around the Hindu calendar. Diwali is a five-day festival – but the third day is largely the most important. It celebrates the day the prominent deity Lord Rama returns home to his kingdom after a victory.

Diwali has no set date and can fall on any day of the week. Across most parts of India, regular school and business practices come to a halt to allow for celebrations. But, in the United States, public life is set primarily around  the Christian holidays – though there is precedent for accommodation being made for other religious holidays. Less than 1% of Americans are Hindu – so often those who celebrate Diwali have to make some choices.

Brahmachari Hari Chaitanya grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“We’d still do business as usual, school and work, and then we’d celebrate on the nearest weekend,” Brahmachari Hari said.

Aarti Bhalodia grew up in India but came to Texas for college. She has stayed in the U.S. and has adjusted her Diwali celebrations.

“With us, that has almost kind of become a tradition that you celebrate it when you can,” Bhalodia said. “Usually a few days before or after.”

Indian Americans in Texas

Bhalodia is a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin with a background in history and a focus on Asian American history, culture, and migration.

She says Indian Americans first made their way to Texas more than 100 years ago – primarily to work in agriculture or on railroads. Now, many work in the oil and gas industry around Houston and in information technology around DFW.

Manish Sethi works in IT and lives in the North Texas city of Coppell. He is the first Indian American school board member in Coppell ISD – even though almost 50% of students in the district are Asian.

“For any immigrant community to feel at home and for any minority representation is extremely important,” Sethi said.

Courtesy Manish Sethi

Manish Sethi (second from left) and family.

Sethi said as soon as he joined the Coppell ISD board he, “started getting emails from Indian parents they didn’t feel comfortable sharing before.”

One issue a large number of Indian Americans in the district face is negotiating school responsibilities with Diwali.

Adjusting Diwali around school

Just before Sethi’s time on the board, more than 1,700 people signed a petition asking Coppell ISD to consider Diwali a “professional development” or “weather day.” The petition cited the high number of Asians in the district as a primary reason for the calendar change. Currently, Coppell ISD often designates Good Friday as a “weather day” when the district does not otherwise use up days set aside for severe weather closures.

The district consulted an attorney about the change but, ultimately, rejected it – citing the separation of church and state. But, Sethi said, the district did publicize the form for requesting Diwali as an excused absence and started having conversations with teachers to, “manage the schedule in a way that students, if possible, get more free time around those days so they can enjoy the special days with the family.”

Right now, Sethi’s family also adjusts their celebrations – mostly having them in the evenings. But others worry that by making those adjustments, they’re losing something important.

The cost to culture?

Though Brahmachari Hari Chaitanya grew up adjusting his Diwali celebrations around school in DFW, he grew to see those adjustments as somewhat problematic.

“Celebrating a holiday on the day of and fully immersing yourself in it – the joy of that is like no other,” Brahmachari Hari said. “And I truly believe that makes that student have that pride in this culture as well.”

Courtesy Chinmaya Mission DFW

Brahmachari Hari Chaitanya.

Brahmachari Hari traveled to India after college and now serves as a monk in training at the local Chinmaya Mission – a Hindu organization. Chinmaya Mission DFW is one of several religious or cultural groups that has grown over the past few decades alongside the growing Asian American population in Texas.

The future of the Diwali negotiation

But Coppell ISD board member Manish Sethi says the case for adjusting school calendars around holidays such as Diwali is not closed. There is opportunity – if enough families decide to take it.

“The reason comes down to all financial,” Sethi said. “Because we get funding based on the number of hours students attend our school system. And if 50% of the students are not there, why is the school open?”

So the willingness of Indian Americans in years past to make adjustments has limited the possibility of flexibility in the school calendar in the future. In fact, in past years at Coppell ISD, Diwali actually had higher attendance than the days around it. 

Sethi says he will continue to send his kids to school on Diwali.

“If I personally have to ask my kids to take a day off from school for Diwali, I personally wouldn’t do it,” Sethi said.

Families are likely to come down on different sides of this issue. UT-Austin lecturer Aarti Bhalodia says that is due in part to the diversity of the Indian American population.

“You have people who have been living here for multiple generations and a lot of times with the third generation or sometimes even the second generation, we’re looking at multiracial Indian Americans where one parent is Indian, the other one’s not,” Bhalodia said. “So when it comes to maintaining one’s identity or passing on culture to children, there’s a lot of diversity in what families decide on.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic – and the main day of Diwali falling on a Saturday for the next few years – this issue might fall back into the shadows. But, in the long-run, Brahmachari Hari Chaitanya says these cultural negotiations are far from over and the district petitions for calendar changes did not actually fail.

“Because when my parents and others moved here 30, 35 years ago, if they were told that, in 30 years, there will be a discussion where people will consider in the school districts whether to have Diwali as an off day, as a holiday, they would say, ‘how is that even possible?’ That’s beyond their wildest imagination back then,” Brahmachari Hari said.

He says the fact that these conversations are happening is a testament to the vibrancy of the Hindu culture and the openness of Texans to see how it adds to the overall cultural landscape.

Clarification: Though online petitions list Chinmaya Mission DFW as a top supporter of including Diwali as a school-sanctioned off day, the mission says it did not endorse the petition.

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