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Punjabi-Mexican Communities in South Texas

By Patrick Collins

On October 4, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, marking an end to the previous system of rigid quotas designed to maintain the Western European ethnic composition of the U.S. Despite assurances from politicians of the era that the bill would not radical change, the policy reform did just that, profoundly reshaping American demographics for decades to come and endowing the country with a more multicultural population.

Among the post-1965 arrivals were significant numbers of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, many of whom gained admittance to the U.S. by obtaining skilled worker visas. Doctors, engineers and scientists – now able to bring their families along thanks to the new laws – began establishing South Asian communities across the U.S., making novel inroads into American culture. Some of these immigrants who ventured to the American West, however, were in for a surprise.

“What many people don’t know is that between 1900 and the 1940s, there was an already sizeable population of Punjabis [Indians from the northwestern state of Punjab] in Texas and California,” said Anne Hardgrove, associate professor in the Department of History. Hardgrove’s main research interest is in the history of India. For the past seven years, she’s been interested in the little-known and fascinating story of Punjabi men who began settling in the American Southwest as early as the 1890s, who by marrying local Mexican women in large numbers gave rise to a culturally unprecedented and sparsely documented phenomenon. “When the wave of professional Indians showed up in the 1960s, they were taken aback by the fact that these Punjabis had married outside of their community,” Hardgrove said. Not only that, but the families they had created were already three generations deep. The new South Asians didn’t know what to make of this, and, perhaps not surprisingly, did not accept the Punjabi-Mexican families as part of the developing community.

For better or worse, this treatment as outsiders was nothing new to the Punjabi men, who came from a long history of cultural displacement and global diaspora. The Indian state of Punjab is known, among other things, for its agriculture and its age-old military traditions. During the British occupation of India, many Punjabi men were drafted into the British army and dispatched across the world to help police Britain’s global presence. By the turn of the 20th century Punjabi immigrants had begun settling in various regions in and around the West coast of North America, including Vancouver, Washington, Oregon, California and Texas. They came seeking new opportunities, and used their skills as farmers to carve out a living in their new land. Those who settled in Washington and Oregon went into the lumber industry; in California and Texas, they became accomplished ranchers.

The men were in their late twenties and early thirties when they first arrived, and it took them some time to find their feet in an unfamiliar and often hostile cultural landscape. Once they’d achieved a measure of success, however, their priorities shifted from mere survival to finding deeper satisfaction in life, and they looked to start families in order to root themselves more firmly in the community. “A few of them had been married in India,” said Hardgrove, “but in those days when you migrated to a new continent, it was basically like going to Mars today. It was a oneway trip.”

It was right around this time that history served up a coincidence, the nature and magnitude of which seems in retrospect to have only been possible as the product of intricate planning. Spurred by the recent legalization of divorce in Mexico following the 1910 revolution, an exodus of single Mexican women began making its way into the United States. Many of these women were taken directly to El Paso – which at the time held the highest concentration of Punjabi immigrants in Texas – aboard a train that connected the town with Mexico City. Taking into account the U.S. anti-miscegenation laws of the time that prevented different-colored people from marrying one another, and the fact that the Punjabi men and Mexican women possessed nearly identical skin tone, the result of this auspicious confluence of events was almost inevitable; along with California’s Imperial Valley, El Paso would eventually come to host a sizeable Punjabi-Mexican community. Once it became obvious that the Punjabi-Mexican marriages satisfied the county clerks whose job it was to assess marriage license applicants and decide whether they were racially acceptable according to the prejudiced standards of the time, word quickly got around. It was not uncommon for Punjabi men who had successfully been married to Mexican women to introduce their brothers to their wives’ sisters, and so a unique expression in American culture was born.

The Punjabi-Mexican families embodied an intriguing meld of cultures. When Hardgrove first began teaching at Northwestern University in Chicago, among the materials she used with her students was a book titled Making Ethnic Choices that offered an in-depth look at the Punjabi-Mexican communities in California. It so happened that one of her students had grown up in a predominantly Punjabi- Mexican town, and she brought her high school yearbooks to class one day. “The kids had these fascinating names like Jose Akbar Singh,” remembered Hardgrove

The wives became adept at cooking delightful fusion dishes like curried tamales, and the men learned to speak Spanish, which helped them communicate with the farmworkers who were often hired to help cultivate their land. The children inherited the religion of their mothers and grew up Catholic. One common story puts an interesting twist on the tradition of following mass with a family meal. The men would wait in the church parking lot, speaking Punjabi with one another, and when their families were done worshipping everyone would pile into their pickup trucks and go out to eat together. The tradition held until Punjabi religious institutions started to form along the lines of the three major religions of Punjab: Sikhism, Hinduism, and Islam. The Sikhs practiced in their traditional gurdwaras (place of worship), Hindus erected temples, and mosques were built by the Muslims, with the buildings functioning both as places of worship and as community centers for the thriving Punjabi-Mexican population.

Obvious differences like language and religion aside, one of the most interesting features of the Punjabi- Mexican union is how well the cultures came together. Many of the original couples stressed how similar the two ethnicities were despite their vast geographical separation. As Hardgrove points out, the similarities are notable: both cultures share origins as agrarian societies, have an appreciation for colorful traditional art (some examples, held side by side, could be taken to have been crafted by the same artist), and enjoy similar foods (the Mexican tortilla and the Indian chapati are virtually interchangeable, and the chili pepper looms equally large in both cuisines). These similarities may help explain why the Punjabi-Mexican story remains a little-known one, since over time the Punjabi-Mexican families blended ever-unrecognizably into the larger Mexican community of South Texas.

Though rarely heralded, the fact stands that for well over a century Indians have made their home in Texas and contributed profoundly to the economy and culture of the Southwest — perhaps more so than subsequent generations of South Asian immigrants, who came as fully-formed professionals ready to incorporate themselves into American consumerist society. The hard-won failures and victories of the earlier immigrants stand as a testament to the reality that culture is an ever-evolving phenomenon. “Community is not something that’s static,” concluded Hardgrove. “It’s not something that’s transmitted over the generations in fixed form. It’s always changing and adapting.”