Who Were The Punjabi-Mexicans Of California & Why Are They Fading Away?

Who Were The Punjabi-Mexicans Of California & Why Are They Fading Away?

Rasul’s El Ranchero restaurant in Yuba City wasn’t your typical Mexican restaurant. The culinary joint which served customers for almost 40 years served a cuisine which put as much stress on tamales and fajitas as it did on chicken curry and roti.

It was a place where the most popular dish was ‘Hindu Pizza,’ in which Mexican ingredients adorned a roti and where ‘Roti Quesadillas’ were a popular dish. El Ranchero shut shop in 1993, in case we already lost you to a Google frenzy to locate it.

The story of Punjabi-Mexican cuisine, however, is not one of culinary experimentation but a cultural amalgamation which occurred more than a century ago - the marital bliss of Sikh men and Mexican women, whose only commonality was their ‘immigrant’ status.

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Records show that by 1946, there were 378 Punjabi-Mexican marriages in California, while it is estimated that around 400 such families lived in the area we’re about to explore. Although an exact figure of the population isn’t available, each family was said to have around 5-6 children. But first, a little context.

The early 19th century saw thousands of Indians from Punjab immigrating to America through Canada. While there were many instances of sporadic South Asian visits before, a sustained campaign of immigration started in the period of 1900-17 when Punjabi men holding British Army positions in the Pacific and Far East, landed in America lured by the prospects in lumbering, agriculture and railroads.

An estimated 85 percent of these were Sikhs, 13 percent were Muslims and only 2 percent were Hindus, a fact which didn’t seem to matter to the local media and population which termed them collectively as ‘Hindus.’ The arrival of the ‘exotic immigrants’ lasted for a few years as economic and social discrimination reared its head.

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When Indian lumber workers in Bellingham demanded better pay, they were attacked by a mob and thrown out of the city. But the agriculturally adept Punjabi men were then able to create a comfortable home in the agricultural lands of America, especially in the Central and Imperial Valleys of California.

The extensive agricultural knowledge which they had was applied to establish troves of peach and prunes orchards, which today provide 95% of the peaches and 60% of the prunes that grow in Yuba Sutter County. The establishment of autonomous agricultural lands and achievement of economic certainty meant that these men could now get married and focus on their family lives. However, the discriminatory and racist laws of the time proved to act as deterrents.

An Unlikely But Practical Union

The California Alien Land Act of 1913 prohibited the immigrant communities of Sikhs and Indians from owning farm holdings, and the immigration restrictions prevented them from bringing their families and wives to the country to live with them. The Punjabi community, with majority being Sikhs, responded by forming communities with another ethnic minority which worked closely with them - the Mexican Women.

The Mexican Civil War had resulted in many women in crossing the border to seek employment and economic safety, and they were engaged in hard physical labour in cotton fields in places like California, which were being cultivated by the Punjabi men. While the cultural and religious differences between the communities would not make them prima facie natural partners, the institutional racism of the day promoted marriages out of impulses of pragmatism and love.

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The Miscegenation Laws of California prohibited interracial marriage but only between the whites and non-whites. Mexicans and Punjabi were perceived to be of the same ‘brown’ colour by the county clerks. The Mexican-American women were allowed to own land, while the Punjabi men were financially stable and wealthy, but could not own land or get citizenship rights. Thus, the Mexican families arranged for these interracial marriages between the communities.

The Punjabi-Mexican families came to own land through legal loopholes where arrangements were made with white landowners, who agreed to hold the land until American children were born and the land could be inherited by them.

Women in their teens and twenties married men who were in their thirties and forties. A few Punjabi men adopted Spanish names such as Miguel for Magga, Andreas for Inder and Mondo for Mohammed.

A limited cultural confluence occurred with the men teaching the women how to prepare chicken curry and rotis, but the Punjabi culture was not widely advocated among the children by the men due to the discrimination and racial bias. Sadly, even the children of these families have said that their fathers refused to share their Punjabi culture or language as they felt the immigration laws of America made it useless to pass on these customs on to their children.

This can be evidenced even from the experiences of Amelia Singh Netervala, a Punjabi-Mexican who talked about the contradictions of growing up in this contradictory cultural set-up. She would attend church with her mother and three siblings while her father would wait in the car and she would only have Langar once a year when he father would undertake a five-hour journey to the closest Gurudwara. She would have secret conversations in Spanish, a language her father never mastered.

The children of the Punjabi-Mexican families were even baptised, confirmed and married as Catholics in the church, while the fathers and Punjabi men from the community would stand in as their ‘godfathers.’ This resulted in a situation where the children were heavily ingrained with the Mexican and Christian culture, with a deficit of their Punjabi heritage.

But with names such as Maria Jesusita Singh, Jose Akbar Khan, and Armando Chand, socializing and passing off as one of the Mexican community wasn’t easy either. A complete ignorance of Punjabi did not deter a few from visiting the Stockton Sikh Temple on Sundays instead of the church in order to avoid discrimination. A large part of the Mexican American community, particularly the men, never approved of the Punjabi-Mexican union and would discriminate against the families.

Created By Law And Undone By It Too

The Luce-Celler Bill of 1946 allowed for a quota of Indian-Americans to immigrate to the United States each year. This signalled a turnaround in the growth of the thriving Punjabi-Mexican family system, as the men could now have their families and wives from India come to the United States.

The migration of entire families saw the establishment of a strong traditional set-up where the values of the Punjabi Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus were rigidly imposed. The children of the union would find it difficult harmonising the different cultures, such as the gender-separating practice of worship in mosques of Punjabi Muslims.

The Mexican Sikh women would face hostility when they would participate in cooking for the Langar.

Another reason for the decline of the Punjabi-Mexican community was ironically their unique functioning itself. The lax approach to their duality saw many children of such unions getting married to Mexicans or to other Christian communities, instead of forming such unions within the Punjabi-Mexican cohort.

The strong growth surged by the Luce Act along with the general immigration reforms saw a steady rise in immigrant Punjabi communities into which many of the Punjabi-Mexican children were assimilated.

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Moola Singh, a Punjabi-Mexican accurately painted the picture of the coming decades as he talked about the changes the immigrant Indians bought. “Then, everybody could sit on a chair. And for food, they gave it on a plate, with a spoon, and paper to clean your hands.

But after that, some Indian farmers and preachers have come. They want all the customs like India, and they’ve taken away the chairs, put people back on the floor again”, said Moola, expressing distaste for the rigid nature of the immigrant communities.

The Punjabi Community in California is one of the largest in the world today, with an estimated 250,000 living there. While the Annual Sikh Parade remains a star attraction in Yuba City, the Annual Old Timers Reunion Christmas Dance introduced by Punjabi-Mexican in 1974 has blurred into obscurity with few to none takers. Many of the Punjabi-Mexicans choose to identify either as Indians or Mexicans in pursuit of a concrete identity.

Sikh Pioneers

We cannot deny that the children of the Punjabi-Mexican heritage had very limited duality in existence with the Punjabi heritage receiving lesser stress. But that doesn’t lessen the significance of the vivid experiences such associations have created within their truly global and secular nature.

Professor Karen Leonard, who was responsible for highlighting and bringing the conversation about Punjabi Mexicans to the mainstream through her book Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans, said “The men and their descendants state repeatedly that all religions are the same, a view again in sharp contrast to that expressed by more recent immigrants from India.

The statements take different forms: The Sikh religion is just like the Catholic one; Sikhism is a composite of Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.” The families would point out the similarities between the various religions and cultures. “While there were many vigorously contested matters between pioneer Punjabi husbands and Mexican wives, the children’s religious training was not one of them.

The men wanted to inculcate respect for Sikhism, Hinduism, or Islam, while they encouraged their children to practise Catholicism (or whatever form of Christianity their wives practised).”

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The melting pot and cohesive nature of the Indian nation is exalted time and again, but few cite the pioneering and inclusive lives lead by Indians around the world, some of which have created enigmatic conundrums such as chicken curry enchiladas - the perfect metaphor for Punjabi-Mexicans like Amelia.

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