Chicagoan from Kamala Harris family’s hometown in India among many women sharing joy of this ‘pivotal moment’

Vice presidential debate watch parties aplenty were held by women of color across Chicago Wednesday, a voter base heavily supporting Kamala Harris — first Black American woman and first South Asian American to grace a major party ticket. Bernadette Chopra is particularly passionate about the Democratic nominee, as she hails from the same hometown in India as Harris’ family.

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Bernadette Chopra, of Streeterville, is like many women of color, passionate about the candidacy of vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, who is the first Black American woman and first South Asian American to grace a major party ticket. Chopra is even moreso, as she and Harris’ family hail from the same little town in India.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The inbox filled pretty quickly Wednesday, with invites to vice presidential debate watch parties across Chicago, hosted by women of color.

That’s a voter base heavily supporting U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the first Black American woman and first South Asian American ever to grace a major party ticket in our presidential elections.

A large segment of Black women, of course, have claimed the Democratic vice presidential nominee as their own. But her mixed-race heritage offers binate benefit.

Harris enjoys strong support from a large segment of the South Asian community — particularly women, who claim similar ownership in her ascent to the national stage.

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“She checks a lot of boxes,” said Bernadette Chopra, 60, of Streeterville, who hails from the same neighborhood in the same town in India where Harris’ late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, grew up. It’s where Harris herself spent a lot of time while growing up, returning with her mother and younger sister to visit family there every couple of years.

Harris’ mother, a renowned biologist who died of colon cancer in 2009, was born in the Besant Nagar area of Chennai, a city on the southeastern coast of India. She immigrated to the United States in the late 50s to attend a doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley, where she met her husband, Donald Harris, who had emigrated from Jamaica.

“My home is about 10 miles from the place that Kamala’s grandfather lived, where her mother grew up, so all the neighborhoods she has been talking about on the campaign trail are around my home,” said Chopra, who watched the debate with husband Vivek Chopra.

The Chopras’ son, Sid, and his wife, in Vernon Hills, and their daughter, Sonu Merfeld, and her husband, in Madison, Wisconsin, were a group text away, as the family shared commentary on the highs and lows of the debate between Harris and Vice President Mike Pence.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, then running for the U.S. Senate in California, greets Bernadette Chopra at a June 2015 fundraiser in Chicago. Chopra, of Streeterville, is like many women of color, passionate about the candidacy of Harris, who is the first Black American woman and first South Asian American to grace a major party ticket. Chopra is even moreso, as she and Harris’ family hail from the same little town in India.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, then running for the U.S. Senate in California, greets Bernadette Chopra at a June 2015 fundraiser in Chicago.

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“What really impacted me was the misogynist display on that national stage — the other side not wanting to play by the rules,” said Chopra, a retired nonprofit executive, active on the boards of several organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

“This brilliant, strong woman came prepared with facts and figures. In a debate, you only have to answer questions put to you by the moderator. Sen. Harris was subjected to questions from Vice President Pence in the most demeaning and insulting way, and not once did the moderator take charge and put an end to it. He got away with it,” Chopra said.

“As in the presidential debate, the moderator was so unfair, unable to rein in the other side, yet constantly apologizing to and thanking Vice President Pence, despite his behavior — and almost not giving Sen. Harris a chance to complete a sentence.”

Harris, the first South Asian American to serve in the U.S. Senate when elected in 2016, was raised by her mother after her parents divorced when she was 7.

She has frequently shared how she was shaped by those visits to her mother’s hometown, crediting much of her political bent to her grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, a civil servant in India, with whom she would walk and talk on the beach in Besant Nagar.

“Kamala was my first choice for the presidential ticket. From the first time I met her five years ago, I saw a woman who was fearless, powerful. It was so exciting when she was announced as vice presidential nominee,” said Chopra, who first met Harris at a 2015 fundraiser in Chicago, when Harris was running for the senate.

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California Sen. Kamala Harris arrives on stage for the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s inspiring to hear her describe our little town as a place that shaped her public service aspirations, through her experiences there with her grandfather. When she speaks of our hometown, and her grandfather’s involvement in the freedom struggles in the ’60s there, it’s all so relatable for me. It takes me back to India,” she said.

“I always tell people, ‘Do not underestimate women from the South of India, because we come from a certain strain. I, too, grew up with a mother who was so politically charged, it seeped into me as well. So when Kamala speaks about getting her civil rights commitment instilled in her by her mother, it’s like she’s talking about my own mother.”

Harris’ mixed-race heritage made her also the second African American woman to serve in the Senate — Chicago’s Carol Moseley Braun was the first. And previously, she was the first African-American and first woman to be elected California’s attorney general, in 2010.

“To see a woman who identifies as Black but also has a strong lineage in her blood from an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, a heartbeat away from the presidency, is historic. On so many levels, she represents everything about the pivotal moment we find ourselves in on race relations in this country right now,” said Chopra.

“And despite every obstacle that was put in front of her Wednesday night, and every obstacle that she had to knock down to be able to speak her piece, she still came across as a woman who is strong in what she believes in, and unrelenting in what she stood up for. She definitely owned the stage.”

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