‘The Sikh Pioneers of North America’: The Punjabi-Mexican Americans of California

By Guest Contributor Ay-leen The Peacemaker, cross-posted from Beyond Victoriana

In California at the turn of the 20th century, a community grew in southern California with an interesting history: Punjabi-Mexican families of the Imperial Valley. This unique community stemmed from the effects of British colonialism, transnational labor immigration & American economic opportunity (and American anti-Asian discrimination laws). Many multi-generational families in the area today can trace their multicultural and multiethnic histories back over a hundred years, and refer to themselves as “Mexican Hindus”, “Hindu” or “East Indian” today.

During the 19th century, many Punjabi families sent their sons abroad to earn a living outside the British Raj; most of these sons had served as part of the British army and police force in China. Eventually, these men saved enough for passage to America to work in manufacturing, lumber, or agriculture, with a majority of this immigration happening between 1900 and 1917. These bands of travelling workers were known in America as “Hindu crews.” Others from the middle to upper-middle classes sough educational opportunities in American universities. These Punjabi immigrants typically entered America through Angel Island, the entry point for overseas immigration on the US West Coast. According to Professor Karen Leonard, “Some 85 percent of the men who came during those years were Sikhs, 13 percent were Muslims, and only 2 percent were really Hindus.”

At the time of immigration, these men hoped to bring over their families once they’ve settled in America. But because of changes in American immigration laws, they were unable to send for their families. Many Punjabi immigrants, however, soon formed their own communities with the other ethnic group that shared the farming work with them: Mexican laborers. In 1910, refugees fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution and sought out a new life across the border.

Despite cultural and religious differences, both groups shared similar working lives and their communities became integrated with each other. Additionally in California, miscegenation laws preventing racial intermarriage existed until 1948, but that applied to only white and non-white unions; thus marriage between other non-white groups wasn’t prevented.

Many of these marriages were arranged by Mexican families to Punjabi bachelors; the brides were mostly considerably younger than their husbands. Not only were there marriages out of love, but Punjabi men were seen as more financially stable, since by the time of Mexican immigration, most Punjabi men have become successful businessmen. Mexican-American women were allowed to own land, while Punjabi men were denied US citizenship and could not, and a compromise was constructed that allowed Punjabi-Mexican families to own land for themselves. Women who married lost their land rights, but legal loopholes were worked out with white landowners who would hold their property in trust until American children were born and the land agreements could be placed under their names.

Unlike expectations of assimilation, Mexican-Punjabi families had difficulty being accepted by Mexican-Americans and formed a distinct community of their own. Because of different religions, these marriages were civil unions, and most wives kept their Catholic heritage and passed it onto their children. Spanish was predominantly spoken in the home and most Punjabi men added Spanish nicknames. They passed on little of their Punjabi heritage to their families with exception to funeral customs and food. Another aspect that impacted the evolution of Punjabi-Mexican culture is the fact that many Punjabi fathers were denied US citizenship and legal rights, despite being successful businessmen and firmly established in America. As a result, many Punjabi fathers chose not to pass on their cultural heritage on which they had been discriminated against:

The original Punjabi immigrants refused to transmit elements of Punjabi culture that they judged inappropriate in the United States, according to their children. Many fathers felt that the immigration laws and other discriminatory policies against Asians had made it useless to teach the children Punjabi, or even to tell them about Punjabi society. Social practices from the Punjab, life cycle ceremonies, and caste and religious distinctions and observances, were consciously discarded; when interviewed, several children remarked on their father’s refusal to talk to them about the Punjab, refusals justified by the uselessness of such knowledge and by the need to become American. (Source)

Nevertheless, many Punjabi-Mexican families found ways to express their background in ways that celebrate the hardship and determination of their immigrant ancestors, and this community still thrives in California today, especially as later generations have come to call themselves the “Sikh pioneers of North America.”

More information:

Punjabi-Mexican Americans on Wikipedia

Half and Halves: The Punjabi-Mexican-Americans of California

Roots in the Sand: a PBS documentary

Excerpt from California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans by Karen Leonard

More info on Karen Leonard’s book California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans

Photo courtesy of Steven Williamson

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  • jmf

    This is amazing. I had no idea about this! Really eye-opening thanks for discussing!

  • Ladyguerita

    I remember reading  about  Punjabi-Mexican families from  the Ask a Mexican column. http://www.dallasobserver.com/2007-05-31/news/ask-a-mexican/ and I read this post at Beyond
    Victoriana last Sunday.  Are you guys stalking me?

  • madvie

    As a person of Punjabi descent, this is very interesting.

  • Farheen

    I read Leonard’s book for my research last year. It was fascinating and eye-opening. Along with Sikh men, Muslim and Hindu men from the Punjab also came at that time. And somewhere along the way a Pakistani-Spanish recipe book was also published (though that would have been sometime after 1947). Really interesting part of our history in North America.