Rich History of the Unique PunjabiMexican Community

At the dawn of the 20th century, America began to welcome a new demographic of immigrants – working class men from Punjab, the region between the disputed border between India and Pakistan. These immigrants settled into Southern California to farm the land and build new lives for themselves. Using their extensive knowledge of agriculture, these Punjabi immigrants planted peach and prune orchards that flourished and gave a much needed economic boost to the region’s farming industry. Having realized their dreams of prosperity, they next hoped to find Indian wives and bring them to the United States to share in their success. But strict immigration laws passed shortly after their arrival essentially closed the border to foreigners. Left without any traditional options for marriage and producing future generations, these Punjabi immigrants found another way to create the families for which they yearned. And, in the process, they also created one of the most unique communities in U.S. history.

When the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 were passed amidst waves of anti-immigration sentiment in the early 1900’s, travel between the United States and India was effectively made impossible. This meant that a traditional arranged marriage, fundamental to their culture, was no longer an option for the thousands of Punjabi men in Southern California. To find wives, they had to think locally. The thousands of Mexican women fleeing to Southern California to escape the turmoil of the Mexican Civil War of 1910 proved to be a desirable alternative. Many of them, widowed as a result of the war, sought work on farms owned by Punjabis. Karen Leonard, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans, explained in a The Washington Post interview, “Many Punjabis married the Mexican women who worked on their land because of their cultural similarities and proximity,” noting that Mexican women were considered to physically resemble Indian women, cooked food similar to Indian cuisine, and were comfortable with a rural lifestyle. [See The Forgotten Era of Punjabi Mexicans, by Nick Fouriezos, Ozy, 13.Jan.2016. See also Punjabi Sikh Mexican American Community Fading Into History, by Benjamin Gottlieb, The Washington Post, 13.Aug.2012.]

According to Leonard’s book, county records document at least 378 marriages in Southern California involving Mexican and Punjabi couples during the early 1900’s. These unions proved to be fruitful, as each marriage produced between 5 and 6 children, on average. Most of those children, however, chose not to marry within the newly formed PunjabiMexican community, and instead assimilated into the greater Indian community that began to thrive in California by the mid-20th century, as immigration regulations loosened.

Even the direct descendants of PunjabiMexican marriages have tended to maintain a more Indian cultural identity. Amelia Singh Netervala, the daughter of a Punjabi Sikh father and a Mexican mother, recalled an upbringing that blended her cultural roots – her mother’s chicken curry enchiladas, Sunday mass at a Catholic church, and annual trips with her father to the nearest gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs. But when asked by The Washington Post about how she identifies herself, she is unwavering. “I’m proud of my Mexican heritage and mixed identity. But if I had to choose, I would consider myself an Indian woman.”

While the MexicanPunjabi community that was created in Southern California during the early 1900’s may prove unable to sustain itself with future generations, its fleeting existence makes it no less meaningful to our nation’s history, and what we stand for. Immigrants have always arrived here with a sense of purpose, a drive to achieve, and an innate ability to overcome challenges. Xenophobic legislation deprived Punjabi immigrants of Indian wives. So, in a country that prides itself on the ability to improvise, these immigrants did precisely that. The result is a unique moment in our culture, and a testament to the American dream.


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