Immigrants from India’s Punjab region are helping preserve a slice of Italian culture while making an invaluable contribution to the economy
Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are two of the world’s famous cheeses calling the Lombardy region of northern Italy home. The cows are Italian, the territory is Italian but surprisingly, the people who work on the cheese are not.
Over the past two decades, thousands of immigrants from India’s Punjab region, many of whom are Sikhs, have immigrated to the central and northern provinces of Italy. Perhaps the least known of Italy’s ethnic minorities, the country relies heavily on them for its cheese production.
The Sikhs arrived just as a generation of dairy workers was retiring, with no substitutes in sight. Young Italians in these provinces were not interested in working with cows or doing long hours at cheese farms and diaries, leading to labour shortages.
Enter the immigrants from the villages of Punjab, bringing with them the experience working in farms back home, to settle in the heart of the Italian agricultural heartland. Coming from a similar agricultural tradition, the Sikhs were ready to do any job, willing to put in long hours and work hard for a lower wage, so long as they could make a new life for themselves. A number of them in the Lombardy and Emilia Romagna regions found work as bergamini, as dairy workers are known in the native dialect, producing Parmesan and other cheese products.
“It (cheese making) was a profession that was traditional and typical of Northern Italy. But with the workforce dwindling, it was fortunate that Indians came to fill the labour gap and save the cheese-making economy,” says Mayor Dalido Maligo of Pessina Cremonese, a municipality in the province of Cremona in Lombardy. Cremona has a dense Indian population – Indians of Punjabi origin constitute the single largest immigrant group, and make up about 20 percent of the total immigrant population.
Most of the Sikhs are employed as dairy hands but some who started in the diaries as assistants are now taking on key roles in preparing the cheeses, working closely with the master cheese-makers and have earned their respect and trust.
The Sikhs are seen as hard-working and honest people. Their contribution to the Italian economy has been recognized and appreciated by the people in the agro-industry. According to folks like Mauricio Sassi, a farmer employing the Sikhs, “None of our businesses would survive without them.”
A sense of community
The Sikhs tend to live in the countryside within their own communities but have mainly positive interactions with the locals. The coexistence is based on the value of mutual respect. In addition to recognizing the similarities, what is different is also shared.
Nonprofit organizations like the Sikhi Sewa Society facilitate the exchange of knowledge and provide information about the Sikh culture and religion, and help the locals understand the significance of the visible religious symbols such as the turban and the ceremonial dagger. The focus is on furthering the integration of Sikhs into society and inviting dialogue.
Like Italians, for Punjabis, food is an important part of their tradition – from the flavours of food to the energy that goes into preparing it, and the delight of sharing it with family and friends. “In Italy, eating is a tradition, so as in Punjab. We mix it up and eat both Indian and Italian food,” says 22-year-old Jaspinder Saini, whose father moved to Italy in the nineties.
Today, Italy has the second biggest Sikh population in Europe after the United Kingdom. Many of the immigrants have become Italian citizens, speak Italian, bought homes in the countryside and settled with their families. They have encouraged fellow villagers or family members from India to join them and have established vibrant Sikh communities.
The number of Sikh temples (Gurudwaras) is a testament to the intention of the Sikhs to keep their culture and traditions strong in their new home. In addition to keeping their religious traditions alive, the Sikh temples provide an anchor to thousands who long for the sounds and smells of home. In 2011, after a decade of bureaucratic challenges and financial hurdles, a temple was inaugurated in Cremona, in the presence of government officials, mayors and the local community. With over 20 of them in Italy, this one is touted as the largest Sikh temple in the country and in continental Europe.
Many of the immigrants have raised their children in Italy. The parents want their children to experience both Italian and Indian cultures equally. Prem Singh, one of the Sikh immigrants to Italy in the mid-nineties says that his three children “feel more Italian than Indian,” adding that they had no plans to return to his native land. “We have put our roots here. It’s our home, and that’s that.”
Making it Work for You:
- Creating spaces and forums for dialogue and interaction can help immigrants and host communities understand each other better. Ask important questions: what contributions are the newcomers making? What similarities and differences exist?
- Foster a culture of openness by welcoming individuals and local officials from your host community to visit and experience your culture, such as to a place of worship or a community centre or a cultural event
- Local industry can support the integration of immigrants in the job market as employers and speak about their value add, thus sending a signal to wider communities