By Vikram Doctor
August 13, 2012,
Kehar Singh Gill went to El Paso to look for a bride. A Mexican woman who worked in the cotton fields that he farmed in California’s Imperial Valley had told him that she had eligible nieces there. Gill got the address wrong but the girl who opened the door, Matilde Sandoval, was pretty and, after some hesitation she invited him in. It helped that he was tall and handsome, though because of his turban she first thought he was a Turk.
In a few days they married and went to the house that Gill shared with Sucha Singh Garewal, his partner in the farm. Four months later Matilde’s younger sister Lala agreed to marry Garewal (perhaps as part of the deal he removed his turban and shaved his beard). A third sister, married to a Mexican, soon moved there too and in time one of her daughters married a Sikh. And finally the twice widowed mother of the three sisters joined them and a Sikh man persuaded her to take him on as her third husband.
If this multi-generational, multi-ethnic marriage saga sounds surprising, consider too that the year Gill made his journey was 1917. Nor was this an isolated story. Dr.Karen Leonard, an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine whose book Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans is one of the most fascinating documents of the South Asian Diaspora, estimated that there were almost 400 such couples in that era, most of them living in the Imperial Valley.
It is a story worth remembering in the wake of the horrific massacre at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The motivations of Wade Michael Page, the killer are still unclear, but almost definitely involved the white supremacist ideology he subscribed to which sees groups like Sikhs as illegitimate interlopers in America. But as the story of the Punjabi-Mexican marriages shows, their roots run deep in the USA, as do the prejudices they have always had to deal with.
Punjabi men were not the first South Asians to come to the USA, but they almost definitely accounted for the largest group. Their reasons for migration were mostly linked to land pressure and debts in India. Leonard notes that most came from the Malwa and Doaba districts of central Punjab where land holdings were no more than four or five acres. Canal irrigation had brought cash crops to Punjab, but also brought unwise spending, debts and high levels of litigation. By contrast, she writes, “a 1916 source reported that men who earned 16 cents a day in India could earn $2 a day in the United States.” The few migrants who had gone and returned spun stories of abundant land and easy access to loans.
The California gold rush of 1848-55 had emptied the land of agricultural workers, lured by the prospect of easier riches and few returned, creating opportunities for those ready to take their place. Between 1899 and 1914 an estimated 6,800 South Asians came to the American West, mostly Punjabi Sikhs, but Punjabi Muslims and Hindus as well. World War I saw many Sikhs enlisting in the British Army – Chandradhar Sharma Guleri’s short story ‘Usne Kaha Tha’, which many of us studied in school, is one reminder of this – and some not return to India, migrating to Canada and then the American West. The valleys of California, with their canal fed lands and cash crops, like fruit, reminded them of the Punjab.
They did not face an immediate welcome. They were all generically called ‘Hindu’ and their beards and turbans mocked – the term ‘raghead’ may date back to this time. An Immigration Commission report of 1909 wrote that “the Hindus are regarded as the least desirable, or better, the most undesirable of all the eastern Asiatic races which have come to share our soil.” A California state report in 1920 repeated this, decrying the ‘Hindu’s’ “lack of personal cleanliness, his low moral, and his blind adherence to theories and teachings, so entirely repugnant to American principles…”
Such sentiments were part of a general sense of disquiet in the US at non-white immigration. It would lead to passage of laws like the California’s Alien Land Law in 1913 which prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural land or taking leases longer than three years. This was primarily directed at Japanese immigrants, but South Asians were affected too, after the US Supreme Court’s decision in the case of United States vs Bhagat Singh Thind (1923). Thind, a Sikh lecturer on spirituality who had sought to get citizenship on the basis of serving briefly in the US Army in 1918.
US citizenship at that time was biased towards whites and Thind tried to work around this by claiming that, as a high caste Indian of Aryan descent he also could claim a common Caucasian heritage. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that he was not Caucasian as per “common understanding” (Thind’s submission and the Court’s opinion are both fascinating and repugnant for the way in which they conflate caste and race in India). As a result even South Asians who had got US citizenship, like the writer A.K.Mozumdar, found themselves stripped of it, though they were usually allowed to remain in the US. In any case, the Immigration Act of 1917 had created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” that included South Asia, which prevented further immigrants from the region.
The Punjabi-Mexican marriages were a direct result of these laws. Men who had planned on bringing their families or getting brides from India suddenly found this option blocked. Marrying white women was even more dangerous since it brought them up against miscegenation laws. Mexican women were then the best alternative and it helped that, interacting with them in the fields, these Punjabis of peasant stock found many similarities with the Mexican peasants. Moola Singh, who had 13 children from three marriages to Mexicans put it vividly when he recalled how similar he found it when he visited Mexico: “Just like India, just like it. Adobe houses in Mexico, they sit on floor there, make tortillas (roti you know). All kinds of food the same, eat from plates sometimes, some places tables and benches. India the same, used to eat on the floor, or cutting two boards, made benches.”
It wasn’t always that easy though. The Mexican community initially objected strongly, sometimes even kidnapping the women to take them back. It probably helped though that many of the Punjabis were physically tall and imposing, having had to fulfil certain physical requirements to serve in the army, and they were able to defend themselves effectively. In time the Punjabi-Mexican marriages became more accepted, with the women often recruiting other women from their families to marry other Punjabi. These were both communities used to making pragmatic arrangements over marriages, and as the Punjabi farmers amassed money and became better-off, they became attractive marriage prospects.
But cultural adjustments still had to be made. The men had to accept women with more rights and independence than in India, while for the women there was the knowledge that many of these men had Indian families and also the expectation that they had to cook and keep house for more than one man, since many of the Punjabis had formed partnerships to help in the farming. Divorce and violence were not uncommon. One of the first Punjabi-Mexican marriages, between Valentina Alvarez and Rullia Singh in 1917, ended in tragedy when Alvarez decided to leave home and sought the help of her daughter from an earlier marriage, who had also married a Punjabi. Singh expected his compatriot to support him, but when he didn’t, he shot the other man and was convicted for his murder.
Yet many of the marriages did work, both for practical and emotional reasons. The women were often better educated than the men, so were able to serve as interpreters between them and American culture. Religion was, perhaps surprisingly, rarely a source of conflict. Perhaps after they realised that their hopes of getting family members from India were barred, many of men made adjustments to American culture like removing their turbans. They still spoke Punjabi among themselves and went to Stockton where the first Gurdwara in the US came up exactly 100 years ago, in 1912. But they did not impose these choices on their wives and allowed them to bring up their children as Catholics.
In her interviews Leonard noted a strong sense with many of the men of putting India behind them, even as they remained proud of their identities. They identified with America now, and some would contrast the relative classlessness of their new country with the caste and tradition bound society they had left behind. They rarely taught their children Punjabi and kept only the easiest parts of Indian culture, like making chicken curry to go with tortillas. They took on more Mexican names – Inder becoming Andreas, Amer becoming Ambrosio – and some even accepted that strange American concept called love. Mola Singh, again, expressed his dislike of arranged marriages: “In India, lots of time in India, I feel, the woman is a slave. I say, no, that’s no good. You should have a duty to them, women have rights, even more than men… I like it when a woman and a man get together, fall in love, and marry.”
This adaptation was so complete that it was the few times it broke down that stood out. Death was one of them. The men may have accepted the Catholic faith of their wives and children, yet many felt very strongly that they themselves should be cremated. Leonard records several stories where when a Punjabi died, groups of men would turn up at the house and take away the body, sometimes forcibly to be cremated (a right for which they had also battled with the US authorities). But the real problems with adaptation would only come after World War II, when the immigration laws were relaxed and people started coming from Punjab again.
Some of the new migrants were sponsored by the Punjabi-Mexicans, who were well established by now, having done well with farming through the war years and the boom afterwards. Part of this success involved greater pride in their ‘Hindu’ identity, which some contrasted with their Mexican relatives, who had not done as well. They also took pride in India’s independence – funds were collected and given to Indian representatives like Vijaylakshmi Pandit. Dalip Singh Saund, who was one of the few community members who had come to the US for higher education, but had also become a successful farmer, was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1957, as its first Asian-American member.
The Punjabi-Mexicans felt that all this should have won them respect from the new migrants, but instead found themselves looked down on as insufficiently Indian. The new migrants, who were now often coming with their wives, felt that the older generation had adapted too far. Some looked down on the Mexican wives and friction was created over matters like segregated seating at the Gurdwara and ways of preparing food. At one Gurdwara a dispute over cooking chicken even lead to accusations of poisoning from the new migrant women to the Mexican wives!
This was all extremely jarring for the older generation, who had come to see religion as a more private affair, and not a matter of beards, turbans and rituals. Feeling themselves more American, and resenting the newcomers for not being so, they started drifting away. In time different traditions have come in places like Yuba City, California, where there are large populations of both communities. The city celebrates an annual Christmas Dance, which is mostly for the descendents of the Punjabi-Americans, but there is a separate Sikh Parade, which is more for the newcomers.
In time some of these divisions have become less sharp. The newcomers have seen a new generation coming up, their own children who have dealt with issues of adaptation in their own way. The work of scholars like Leonard, and documentaries like Jayasri Hart’s Roots in the Sand (1998) have made the newcomers aware of the struggles of the Punjabi-Mexicans, and brought more understanding. Leonard tells me that today, “the descendants are very aware of their heritage and newcomer Sikhs/Punjabis are also more aware than before because of my own and other work about the earlier pioneers.”
And there can be little doubt how the news of the Oak Creek shootings would have caused shock and a sense of despair among both old and new Punjabi-Americans, who have all, in different ways and to different extents, faced the greater problems that have come post 9/11. For the community this tragedy is all the worse for coming just as they were celebrating the centenary of the Stockton Gurdwara, the oldest continuous symbol of Sikh presence in the USA. The only hope might be if it brings more understanding of what President Obama spoke, of “how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs,” – going all the way back to those Punjabi men and their Mexican wives.