Updated: August 4, 2021 12:28:44 pm
When the US government tightened its immigration rules in the early 1900s, Punjabi immigrant workers, mostly men, were unable to bring their wives and families with them. Marriages between whites and people of colour had previously been prohibited by anti-miscegenation laws in many states till 1967, and the new immigration regulations were the final nail in the coffin.
Mexican women matched Punjabi men perfectly. They had black hair, dark eyes, and had the same skin tone. As county clerks perceived similarities in complexion as indicators of belonging to the same race, it allowed Punjabi men to circumvent anti-miscegenation laws and begin their family life in America.
Amelia Singh Netervala, the daughter of a Punjabi Sikh father and a Mexican mother, saw the bi-ethnic marriage of her parents as a result of this bypass. Jiwan Singh and Rosa, Netervala’s parents, were among hundreds of other Punjabi-Mexican couples who formed intercultural alliances in the early twentieth century.
Under British rule, farmers in Punjab, most of them from land-owning castes, were forced to seek wage labour abroad due to the dismal living conditions in India. Records from 1907 show that over 6,000 Punjabi men immigrated to the United States via Canada.
Though the Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade non-citizens from owning or leasing land, some of the Punjabi men found ways to work around the system and gained control of cotton fields. They began to employ Mexicans, who fled to the US after being displaced by the Mexican revolution.
Netervala, who grew up in Casa Grande in Arizona city, said her parents met for the first time on a cotton farm in Texas. “My mother had relatives in a small town in Texas. And so when she was visiting them, she came across a few Indians. There were about four of them who were working on the farms, my father being one of them. And somehow she and my father got to talking and that’s how they met, she said as quoted in Karen Leonard’s book, ‘Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans’.
According to Leonard, there were approximately 400 Punjabi-Mexican couples in Southwestern America by the 1940s.
The new community that sprang up as a result of interracial marriages were called “Mexican-Hindu,” a broad term that wasn’t entirely true as the term ‘Hindu’ referred to Hindustan rather than the religion. It is estimated that approximately 80 per cent of these Punjabi men were Sikhs and the remaining Hindus and Muslims.
Despite the barriers of language and religion, Punjabi-Mexican couples found themselves to have much in common in terms of cultural traits.
Food for instance, was similar in both communities. Mexican cuisine, like Punjabi cuisine, was spicy and largely relied on bread, vegetables, and meats that were typically boiled or fried. Mexican tortillas and Indian chapatis were seen as nearly identical. The gorditas were stuffed with meat, while the paranthas were filled with vegetarian fare.
Immigrants from Mexico and Punjab grew up mostly in agrarian societies. As a result, a shared thread of agriculture and farm life provided a stable foundation for the two groups to relate to one another.
“I never had to explain anything about India to my Mexican family. Everything is the same, only the language is different,” Moola Singh, a resident of Selma in California, said in an interview with the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA). He has thirteen children from three marriages, all of them to Mexican women.
For Netervala, religious differences between her parents “melted together”. She remembered going to church every Sunday with her mother and siblings as her father waited in the family car outside. One of her fondest childhood memories is her annual trip from Phoenix to the nearest gurdwara in El Centro, a small town in Imperial Valley on Guru Nanak Dev’s birth anniversary.
The men often learned Spanish to communicate with their spouses. Women, on the other hand, learned how to cook Punjabi food. “She made rotis and parathas. And she would make Mexican food too, like beans, but mostly it was Indian,” Netervala said.
According to Leonard, at least seven Punjabi-Mexican couples celebrated fifty years of their marriage.
Despite the success of many of these marriages, several disapproved of the coming together of the two communities. The alliances between the two were labelled as marriages of convenience. Mexican women, according to critics, were used as a tool by Punjabis who wanted their children to obtain property in their names as they couldn’t legally do so themselves.
Although both Punjabis and Mexicans arrived in the United States with similar disadvantages, by the late 1920s, the Punjabi population had surpassed the Mexican community in terms of social status.
Many Punjabis were shifting away from the labouring class and were leasing and purchasing agricultural land. Mexicans, on the other hand, were moving in towns and purchasing urban land; they rarely leased or acquired rural property, and the majority of them worked as farm labourers.
Marrying Punjabi men was, therefore, seen as one of the ways for Mexican women to climb up the social ladder since a majority of them worked on Punjabi men’s farms.
“My mother’s father was not in favour of her marrying a ‘Hindu’. In fact, her father wanted to break the marriage up. He offered her property in Mexico if she were to leave her husband. My mother said, ‘no’,” said Netervala.
This does not imply that these marriages were based purely on an idealised notion of romantic love, but rather were a result of a “combination of pragmatic, self-interested, and idealistic reasons,” as Emory University Associate Professor, Falguni A. Sheth puts it in her article ‘Am I That Race – Punjabi Mexicans and Hybrid Sensitivity, or How To Do Theory So That It Doesn’t Do You’.
The Luce-Celler Act of 1946 granted an annual quota for Indians who could migrate to the US. This meant a change in the established Punjabi-Mexican family structure since men could now bring their Indian families and women to the United States.
The new immigrants were uneasy with the Punjabi-Mexican alliances, and at times were downright antagonistic towards the Mexican brides. “When Indian women came after 1947, they didn’t allow Mexican women to cook in the gurdwara. They even kicked them out,” Netervala said.
The children of the Punjabi-Mexican couples also did not marry within the newly formed community. According to Leonard, marriages between Punjabi-Mexican men and women were the least desired, with the bulk of Punjabi-Mexican children assimilating with new immigrants, signalling the end of this unique cultural phenomenon.
Singh laments the rigid nature of the new immigrants and the changes that they brought with them: “Today, it’s different, twenty or fifty years have passed and today it’s different. Before, the Hindu men married women here. You know, everybody married white women, everybody married Mexican women, everybody went to church. That was before, not now. Indian farmers and preachers have come. They want all the customs like India.”
*The author is an intern with indianexpress.com
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.