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First Cousin

UMD English Professor Shares Memories of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and How Their Progressive, Global Family Shaped Their Paths

By Liam Farrell

Sharada Balachandran Orihuela and Kamala Harris

Photo courtesy of Sharada Balachandran Orihuela

Sharada Balachandran Orihuela, a UMD associate professor of English, stands with her cousin and future vice president Kamala Harris. Balachandran Orihuela considers Harris a "big sister" and both trace their roots to a family that spans multiple continents.

To the rest of the world, Kamala Harris is a U.S. senator and soon-to-be vice president. For Sharada Balachandran Orihuela, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Maryland, Harris is also the cousin who took her to her first punk rock concert.

Harris and Balachandran Orihuela, who share Indian grandparents, are part of a continent-hopping family that for decades bucked society’s personal and professional expectations, culminating on Jan. 20 when Harris will be sworn in as the first female, Black and Indian American vice president.

“I had just grown up in this family with all its complexities and its diasporas,” Balachandran Orihuela said. “It’s only as an adult that I realize how wild it is.”

The pair’s grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, was a civil servant for the Indian government whose ties to traditional societal expectations—which largely included women forswearing careers—were nonetheless no barrier when his daughter, Shyamala, applied in 1958 to study at the University of California, Berkeley. A few years later, Shyamala met her future husband and Kamala’s father, Donald Harris, a graduate student from Jamaica. She went on to have a distinguished career as a cancer research scientist before her death in 2009, while he is an economist and professor emeritus at Stanford University. 

Balachandran Orihuela’s background was no less globetrotting, with a Mexican mother, Rosamaria Orihuela, and Indian father, G. Balachandran, who studied at the University of Wisconsin and became an academic in his native country. Her childhood was often spent “pingponging” between family in India, Mexico and the United States.

“It shaped my sense of how important my family was to me,” she said.

Shyamala was the consummate role model for Harris—a brave and forthright woman who was active in civil rights advocacy and protest. Her common response to complaints with “do something” has been oft-cited by the future vice president as a guiding piece of advice.

And her aunt played a similar role for Balachandran Orihuela when she moved in with her in 2001 to study at Mills College in Oakland. Shyamala was an important sounding board as her niece began to grapple with issues of race and ethnicity in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing backlash that targeted Muslim and Middle Eastern populations as well as Sikh and other South Asian communities in the United States.

“She was very influential in shaping my own intellectual trajectory,” said Balachandran Orihuela, whose research focuses on U.S. multiethnic literature and issues of belonging for underrepresented groups.

It was also her first chance to spend a lot of quality time with Harris, who at that point was beginning to ascend San Francisco’s political ladder and became the city’s district attorney in 2004. While they often got together during campaigning and phone banks, Balachandran Orihuela remembers Harris was also willing to drop everything one night to take her to a Bad Religion concert at a local club.

“She just sat in the back,” Balachandran Orihuela said. “It was just such a wonderful experience. It also just speaks to who she is.”

There’s little difference between Harris’ public and private personas, she said, and watching her cousin’s victory speech on Saturday—with a special acknowledgment of Shyamala’s influence—was a needed dose of hope in a fraught political time, particularly as Balachandran Orihuela pictured all of the young girls and women who would be inspired by the journey of her “big sister.”

“To me, she’s just my cousin who came over to dinner,” she said. “She almost belongs to everybody now.”

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