The Forgotten Era of Punjabi-Mexicans

Why you should care

Because ethnic merging should know no bounds.

Like a good comedian, Mary Singh Rai picked from her three identities to best suit her listener. “When I’m with Americans, I like to think of myself as one,” the native of Yuba City, California, said in a 2012 interview. But in some ways, the then-89-year-old with the light brown skin and wrinkled cheeks epitomized the American dream more than many others.

A daughter of immigrants, Rai was the result of an unlikely coupling of a Mexican mother and Punjabi father in the Golden State — and decades later, her dual ethnicities were still reflected in her distinctly Hispanic last name and Indian maiden name.

This … led to some awkward conversations with their Punjabi-Mexican children who’d grown up eating chicken curry enchiladas, attending Catholic Mass and making pilgrimages to Sikh gurdwaras …

In the early 1900s, a generation of working men from Punjab — a region between the Indian and Pakistani border — laid down their rifles, headed West and picked up farming tools. Many had served in the British Royal Army or its police forces but decided to search for a better life a hemisphere away, in the fertile lands of Southern California’s Imperial Valley. Forming migrant-worker gangs, the Punjabi men were often called “Hindu crews,” but they were really an eclectic mix of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who toiled in hopes of earning enough to pay for their wives and children to join them in the land of opportunity. Instead, they found themselves stranded in a country that soon passed a wave of immigration legislation, effectively closing its borders to foreigners. 

Meanwhile, Mexican women were also flocking to California. Following the bloodshed of the Mexican Civil War of 1910, thousands of widows headed for the Imperial Valley, children and possessions in tow. There they could work the cotton fields for the Indian men who by now oversaw most of the farms. The California Alien Land Act of 1913 prohibited most immigrants from owning land, but many worked out deals with white landowners to sign property records on their behalf. And while most of these middle-class men were still technically married, it mattered little when faced with an unbridgeable distance from their loved ones.

“The Punjabi men wanted housekeepers, children and sex,” says Karen Leonard, an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine. But it wasn’t an easy merging of ethnicities, she adds, noting how it was seen as “Punjabi bosses ripping the pretty women away.” Angry Latino men fought with their wannabe brothers-in-law and sometimes took women back by force. Laws forbidding interracial marriage made getting marriage certificates difficult — unless the men and women simply listed their ethnicities as “brown,” thereby skirting the legislative constraints.

The Punjabi men appreciated that their new brides looked a bit like the women back home, cooked similar dishes and were familiar with rural life. The women, meanwhile, benefited from a boost in social standing by marrying men who owned farmland, spoke English fluently and were generally, despite being foreigners, middle class. Midway through the 20th century, county records showed at least 378 marriages between Punjabi-Mexican couples in California alone, according to a study of genealogies in Leonard’s book Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans

But discovering love didn’t mean finding acceptance. With each passing year, xenophobic sentiment made progress difficult. The Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 made travel between India and the U.S. nearly impossible. In 1923, the Supreme Court ruled that Indian men were racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship. “They had to fight incredibly hard to get the rights that we value today,” says Samip Mallick, executive director of the South Asian American Digital Archive.

A breakthrough finally came in 1946, with the Luce-Celler Act, which loosened U.S. immigration laws and ended the ban against noncitizens owning land. This meant the long-settled immigrants could send for their Punjabi sons and daughters — if their children, now well into adulthood, were willing to come. This, according to Leonard, undoubtedly led to awkward conversations with the Punjabi-Mexican children who’d grown up eating chicken curry enchiladas, attending Catholic Mass and making pilgrimages to Sikh gurdwaras, and working farms that might now be given to half siblings. “The Punjabi-Mexican boys,” she says, “were suddenly in danger of losing their inheritance.”

Mary Singh Rai, who passed away in 2013, was one of the last of the first-generation Punjabi-Mexicans. Subsequent generations have mostly married outside the unique culture, which means the legacy of these unlikely marriages is found primarily in oral family histories that cherish the promise of a better life in the New World.


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