A small "Mexican-Hindu" community formed in California when male Punjabi immigrants married Hispanic women. The origin of this community was in the Imperial Valley after 1907, near the largest irrigation system of the American hemisphere. A Mexican migration began in the 1910's, shortly after the Mexican Revolution, with families moving into the United States. These families picked cotton in fields farmed by Punjabi men.
--Isabel Singh Garcia, Yuba City, California.
"We took the best of two worlds and made one world. We became one big, close family."
Both cultures shared a rural life and a lower-class status. Many of the men were unable to retrieve their family members from India, and thus were forced to seek new relationships in the United States. Sets of Hispanic sisters or female relatives married Punjabi business partners, forming joint households. Male friendship and female kinship became the structure for family life.
Unfortunately, some prejudice did exist against these unions. Technically, no interracial marriages were allowed in the United States during this time period. However, the county clerks often identified both races as "brown" on the marriage certificates, making the marriages legal. The children of these marriages suffered prejudice as well, sometimes being called "dirty Hindus" or "half and halves." But they gained a unique collective identity through the combination of both parents' cultures. However, the children usually claimed to be of Hindu descent, and were never restricted to make a certain identity or religious choice in their lives.
Thus, the two cultures shared of themselves and created a tradition which continues today. The two cultures experienced different rights under the law. Punjabi men were unable to legally own land.
The Mexican women, however, could own land, as they were unrestricted by discriminatory laws targeted at Asian immigrants. But if a Mexican woman married a Punjabi man, she would then become ineligible for land rights due to the specifications of the Cable Act. To get around this dilemma, the men turned to Anglo landowners, lawyers and judges to hold land for them, and to honor verbal leases. Later, they also put land in their children's names, who were American citizens.
This showed their ability to work within the Anglo establishment, and, as a result, move up the stratification system which was imposed upon them by society. The domestic sphere, however, had different conflicts. Divorce and remarriage were common instances among the Mexican-Hindu community. Women maintained power at home, and thus contributed their culture to their children. They received Hispanic names, spoke Spanish, and practiced the Catholic religion. It would appear that the Punjabi culture was lost through these biethnic marriages. However, the men did maintain their culture through food and funeral ceremonies. The children remained very proud of their Indian ancestry although culturally they had become American, American with a biethnic heritage, and therefore in some sense triethnic.
"Once we are gone, we are gone," said Garcia, 56. "Our race will be a dead race."
She referred to a group known as "Mexican-Hindus," something of a misnomer for the children of Mexican women and Sikh, Muslim and Hindu men, mostly from the Punjab area of India. About 500 such marriages took place in the early part of this century in California, the result of romance in a new land and the laws of the time.
The long-ago marriages were celebrated Saturday at the Yuba City Old-Timers dance, begun 17 years to preserve memories of the pairings of Spanish-speaking mothers and mostly Punjabi-speaking fathers.
Only a relative handful of the children, including Garcia, were on hand. The 50 or so Mexican-Hindus now living in the Yuba City area are overshadowed by the 8,000 all-Indian, more recent arrivals.
And despite their Sikh heritage, the men do not wear the traditional turbans and the women do not wear their traditional flowing garments.
When their fathers came to the United States starting about 1906, the men cut their hair even though, for Sikhs, uncut hair under a turban was an important part of their religious upbringing.
Bruce LaBrack, a professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton who has studied the original immigrants and their descendants, remembers interviewing one Indian man who came to America:
"Well, I came thousands of miles," he quoted the old man saying. "I walked from Panama up to the U.S. border. If I came across wearing a turban and beard I would get arrested. I would die for my faith, but I didn't want to be deported for it."
Yuba City, the Imperial Valley and Fresno were the main agricultural destinations for Sikh farmers. The Sikh, Muslim and Hindu men left to escape poverty and for other reasons.
In India, the first son inherited all family property so other male siblings often left to gain their own land. Also, said LaBrack, the time of immigration was the height of oppressive colonial control by England over India.
But once they got to the United States, they also experienced setbacks. By 1917, the United States would not allow any more immigration, said LaBrack. Even married Punjabi men could not bring their wives to the United States.
Another factor working against the immigrants was that in 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Indians, although they were Caucasians, could not be citizens because they were not considered white in the popular sense of the word. And, under California law at the time, non- citizens could not own land.
The men married women of Mexican descent, many of whom were American citizens and capable of owning property.
They married in the California Church. Their children were raised Catholic, but the Punjabi men retained their religion.
According to anthropologist Karen Leonard of the University of California, Irvine, children spoke to their mothers in Spanish. Leonard, who is traveling in India, has written that Punjabi fathers did not have the time to teach their children their religion.
The children met prejudice from Anglos and Mexicans, who called them "dirty Hindus." Leonard said the children were called. "Mexican-Hindus" "half and halves," or, like their fathers, "Hindus," an incorrect but common name for all people from India.
Isabel Singh Garcia said that the Mexican-Hindu children had their own little community during her childhood.
"The Mexicans kind of disowned the Mexican women who married Hindus," she said. "Our social life was to a great extent within our own race of people."
The marriage of her parents, Memel Singh and Genobeba Loya, was a good one, she said. Her father and her mother have been dead for more than 30 years, but she clearly remembers them and her Sikh uncles.
Growing up on a peach orchard with her parents and sisters provided a mixing of cultures. They attended Catholic services and had regular visits to the Sikh temple in Stockton.
"The Mexicans and the Hindu were compatible," she said. "They had a lot in common. The Mexicans had tortillas. The Hindus had rotis, a bread that is like a tortilla."
Even today, Rasul's El Ranchero restaurant in Yuba City serves a mixed menu that appeals to both cultures. Owner Ali Rasul, whose father was Muslim and mother from Sonora, Mexico, serves enchiladas along with roti, chicken curry and something called the "Hindu pizza."
"We wanted to make something that appeals to both," said Rasul's wife, Rachel. "It has Mexican ingredients, but we put them on a roti. We call it a Hindu pizza."
A smaller number of Indian men married black, American Indian or white women. G. Dave Teja's mother was a white woman from Arkansas and his father came to the United States in 1921 from Jalandhar in India.
His parents were married in Arkansas, avoiding the laws at that time prohibiting marriages between whites and Indians in California. The couple's first 10 acres were in his mother's name until 1947, when his father became one of the first Indians to get a citizenship, Teja said.
His mother died in 1989, after 58 years of marriage. His father died last year at the age of 93. Teja said there are one or two old-timers of his father's generation still alive in the Yuba City area.
Teja, the former Sutter County district attorney who prosecuted mass murderer Juan Corona, said he pays dues to the Sikh temple to remain close to his heritage.
"I'm an American." he said. "But I shared a heritage with these (Indian) people.
I couldn't deny it if I had wanted to."
By Bill Lindel of Bee Staff Writer
For more information about Mexican-Hindu heritage, refer to "The Mexican-Hindu Connection: In a Search for their Roots, Descendants Discover a Moving Tale of Loneliness and Racism", by Mark I. Pinsky. Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1987, pt. V, p. 9-12.
Isabel Singh Garcia's thoughts on Hindu terminology and genealogy:
In the dictionary the definition of Hindu is a race of people of India as
well as a religion. As you know my father Memel Singh was the first generation
to come to this country in the year 1906. At that time these people were Hindus,
because they were from India, as were people from China Chinese, Mexico Mexican,
Italy Italian, France French, Spain Spanish and etc, etc, etc. As for East Indian
(not used until 1960), that was to let people know they were not American Indian.
He came from the Eastern Hemisphere. As for the word Sikh, that is a religion.
I am catholic, but I do not go around calling myself catholic. And as for Punjab,
that is a state in the district of Jaelinder where the people of this area come
from. So it is correct to say that the people of India can be called Hindus.
So whether you are a Sikh, East Indian or Punjabi you are still a race of people
from India. The first generation of Hindus that came here, married Mexican women,
and there are a large amount of half-breed children born from the marriages.
The East Indian of today would like to forget we exist, because they are ashamed
that their people came to this country, and found the Mexican women very compatible
with them. So let's say between 1916 and 1950 we were born. Our fathers and
mothers lived a very rich life. They raised us to be very proud, and gave us
the best, and the finest quality of life, that one could ask for. They can be
proud of their offspring. Our fathers with the help of our mothers became well
to do in our community, and were well know for what good people they were. They
could take a piece of ground, and turn it into a rich farmland. The Hindu of
yesterday paved the road and built a brick wall for our East Indian population
of today. But I am sorry to say they have torn the wall down, and let the paved
road deteriorate. The reputation is no longer there. Our mothers allowed them
to bring their brothers and sisters and nephews in the 1950s and helped to adjsut
to our way of life, and the cycle has repeated itself over and over and over.
This race of people came to be in the Yuba-Sutter, Fresno and Imperial Valley
area of California. I would also like to mention that my mother's name was Genobeba
Singh. Over the past century there have been many terms used to refer to immigrant
peoples and cultures from the Indian subcontinent. Today, ongoing debates among
new immigrants and their descendants continue over which are the best, most
accurate, and most inclusive terms to adopt when referring to groups whose ancestry
is Southern Asian. Historically, Hindu was the most common referent in North
America until the 1960s, although it was wholly inaccurate if used in a religious
sense to categorize the early Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims who formed the bulk
of the immigration to America until the post-1965 period. In addition, there
are historical and contemporary sources that use Indian, Indian American, East
Indian, Asian- Indian, Indo-American, Pakistani-American, and many other hyphenated
and/or geographically oriented labels. For our purposes here, the term South
Asian will be used to encompass the peoples and cultures who were indigenous
to, or whose ancestors derived from, the current nations of India, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan.
Notes on Terminology by Bruce La Brack
Over the past century there have been many terms used to refer to immigrant peoples and cultures from the Indian subcontinent. Today, ongoing debates among new immigrants and their descendants continue over which are the best, most accurate, and most inclusive terms to adopt when referring to groups whose ancestry is Southern Asian. Historically, Hindu was the most common referent in North America until the 1960s, although it was wholly inaccurate if used in a religious sense to categorize the early Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims who formed the bulk of the immigration to America until the post-1965 period. In addition, there are historical and contemporary sources that use Indian, Indian American, East Indian, Asian- Indian, Indo-American, Pakistani-American, and many other hyphenated and/or geographically oriented labels. For our purposes here, the term South Asian will be used to encompass the peoples and cultures who were indigenous to, or whose ancestors derived from, the current nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan.
La Brock, Bruce "South Asians" in A Nation of People: A guide to America's Principal Ethnic Groups
Edited by Elliott Barkan. Westport, Conn:Greenwood Press 1999 p.502
Most 'Hindus' Actually Sikh -All Faced Early Prejudice
Although a majority of Punjabi-speaking people living in Yuba City, Marysville
and the surrounding region, they are to this day wrongly referred to as 'Hindus'
by most of the non-Punjabi population.
While Hindus make up more than 80 percent of the population of India. Sikhs make up more than 60 percent of the population of the Punjab, the rich agricultural region of northwest India and southeast Pakistan.
American newspapers promulgated the use of the term "Hindu" in referring to all people from India. It wasn't until 1960 that the Appeal-Democrat newspaper pointed out that the majority of Yuba-Sutter residents of Punjabi Americans of the Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths.
Early newspaper accounts of "Hindus" in Yuba-Sutter contain some specific information about the early prejudice faced by the "turbaned protégé of King George" (a prejudiced reference to the fact that India was a British colony), and a surprising piece of information about this area's agricultural history:
· The first reference to an "East Indian" in Yuba County was in 1861, when a man called "Sam" by the newspaper because his real name was "unpronounceable" was fined $5 for fighting. Inexplicably, no mention was made of who "Sam" was fighting and whether that individual was fined.
· In April of 1912, Sutter County residents sent a letter to the Marysville Appeal protesting the sale of land to "Hindus" by a Yuba City real estate agent. The newspaper printed the letter verbatim on its front page. The Sutter County residents referred to "the invasion of our erstwhile congenial and pleasant little neighborhood by a denizen of India, the lowest and most loathsome specimen of humanity on the face of the earth."
· In 1915, Sutter County's sheriff reported to the Marysville Appeal that many residents of Sutter Country were so prejudiced that they demanded that he not try to pursue and prosecute individuals who were robbing "Hindu" work camps.
· In 1960, the Appeal-Democrat reported that the first commercial planting of rice in Sutter County was carried out in 1911 by "Hindus" at a place then known as Marcuse, about 14 miles south of present-day Yuba City. Today, rice is one of this area's richest crops.
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