Opinion: Why Berkeley’s newest street name should honor an Asian American

Asian Americans make up 20% of the city, but you would never know it if you saw the names on our streets, parks and schools. The renaming of a tiny downtown street presents the opportunity to start to change that.

Asian Americans have been in Berkeley for over a century, and make up 20% of the city. But you would never know it if you saw the names on our streets, parks and schools.

Berkeley is renaming a tiny downtown street, and this might be the perfect opportunity for the city to start to honor its Asian American heritage.

Who to nominate? Asian Americans in Berkeley history have included the first Asian American in Congress Dalip Singh Saund, aviator and scientist Maggie Gee, anti-imperial freedom fighters like Kartar Singh Sarabha, Japanese communities who survived internment, TWLF movement elders, scientists, anarchists, Newbery Award winner Dhan Gopal Mukerji, and so many others.

For us, an Asian American we hope to honor now is Kala Bagai (1892-1983), who was born in colonized India, immigrated to the Bay Area, survived anti-immigrant attacks in Berkeley, and then went on to build, in Southern California, one of the earliest South Asian communities in the United States. Her story is an opportunity to share with our children a powerful example of resilience and community in the face of oppression.

Kala Bagai and her husband immigrated to the U.S. from present-day Pakistan in 1915. The Bagais built a small business in the Bay Area and bought a home in Berkeley. When they arrived at the home with their children and their belongings, their neighbors physically barred them from moving in. After being driven out of Berkeley by racists, an anti-immigrant court ruling stripped all South Asians of their citizenship. Her husband, now a stateless person, killed himself out of despair.

But Kala Bagai persisted in the face of oppression, raising children, remarrying, and going on to become a critical California immigrant leader. Nicknamed “Mother India,” she worked tirelessly to build bridges through arts and community until her death in 1983.

Kala Bagai is exactly the right person for us to honor at this moment:

• As an Asian American, an immigrant, a woman of color, and a member of a minority faith, Bagai represents critical segments of our community who have been deeply unrepresented in civic naming.
• As a survivor of local racism and federal anti-immigrant policies, honoring Bagai is a tribute to her resistance in the face of adversity, and part of our reckoning with a difficult past.
• And honoring Bagai can help inform our choices today, underscoring the importance of preventing displacement, housing newcomers, and welcoming immigrants.

If you want to see “Kala Bagai Way” among the shortlist of names to be considered for the new 2-block street, please join us in nominating her.

Like the naming of Sylvia Mendez School, honoring Kala Bagai offers an opportunity to recognize immigrant leaders, learn about their contributions and struggles, and recognize the varied models of leadership that they exemplified. Kala Bagai is part of the history of Berkeley and California, and her story deserves to be heard.

Read more about Kala Bagai’s life via Angel Island Immigrant Voice, the South Asian American Digital Archive, Timeline, or The Aerogram. Or listen to a 1982 interview with Kala Bagai, or a 2013 interview with granddaughter Rani Bagai.

Barnali Ghosh serves on the Berkeley Transportation Commission, works with Walk Bike Berkeley, and is a curator of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour. Monisha Bajaj is a Professor of International and Multicultural Education at the University of San Francisco, and a Berkeley resident. Alfred Twu is a Berkeley artist and designer, and is a member of many political clubs. Terry Taplin is a poet, pedestrian advocate, Walk Bike member, and District 2 Candidate. Sofia Zander is a Berkeley resident, Transportation Commissioner, parent of two teenagers, and principal of a small local planning and design firm. Libby Lee-Egan is a volunteer organizer for housing in Berkeley. She and her husband are raising 2 daughters in North Berkeley. Zach Franklin helped coordinate the South Berkeley Neighborhood History Walking Tour and the William Byron Rumford sculpture on Sacramento Street. Anirvan Chatterjee curates the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, and volunteers with groups like Bay Area Solidarity Summer and the Desi LGBTQ Helpline. Deborah Matthews is a co-founder of South Berkeley Now!, and a local real estate broker and consultant. Salma Saifuddin is a student at the University of California Berkeley, and a Berkeley resident.