Amelia Singh Netervala points to her mother’s chicken curry enchiladas as the best metaphor for her childhood.
Born to a Punjabi Sikh father and Mexican mother, her family was full of cultural contradictions: She went to church on Sundays with her mother and three siblings while her father waited outside in the family car. She would have langar — the daily Sikh communal meal — just once a year, when her father would embark on the five-hour journey from Phoenix to the nearest gurdwara in El Centro, a Californian border town in the Imperial Valley. Her clandestine conversations with her mother were done in Spanish, a language her father never mastered.
All the while Netervala never had any doubts about her identity.
“I’m proud of my Mexican heritage and mixed ethnicity,” said Netervala, who grew up on an alfalfa and cotton farm in Casa Grande, 50 miles south of Phoenix. “But if I had to choose, I would identify as being an Indian woman.”
Now in her mid-70s, Netervala is part of the nation’s thinning Punjabi-Mexican population, an identity forged out of historical necessity and made possible by uncanny cultural parallels.
“The children of these unions did not marry into that community, and so now they are dying off,” explained Karen Leonard, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine who wrote a book on California’s Punjabi-Mexican population. “So their numbers are diminishing.”
The first marriages between Punjabis and Mexican Americans occurred in the early 1900s, after waves of men from Punjab — a geographic region straddling the Indian-Pakistani border — immigrated to the United States by way of Canada.
Although their numbers were initially small, estimated in the few thousands, the Punjabis, who were mostly Sikh, quickly adapted to life in the farming communities of the United States, particularly in California’s Central and Imperial Valleys. Drawing on their extensive agricultural knowledge, the Punjabis planted troves of peach and prune orchards, which today produce 95 percent of the peaches and 60 percent the prunes that grow in Yuba-Sutter County, an fertile agricultural hub California’s Central Valley.
Despite their contributions to California’s farming industry, early Punjabi immigrants were heavily discriminated against both economically and socially, said Vinay Lal, a professor of history at UCLA.
The California Alien Land Act of 1913 prevented all “aliens ineligible for citizenship” in the state to own agricultural land. And although the act primarily targeted wealthy Japanese landowners in California, the Punjabis were not considered citizens and were victimized, Leonard said.
Strict immigrant laws also prevented Punjabis living in the United States from bringing wives from India, creating a distinct problem for the community.
“They would have gone to India to find brides and brought them back,” Lal said. “But when they passed the Asian Exclusion laws, it became impossible for them to leave.”
Traditionally, Punjabis had marriages arranged by their families. But facing strict immigrant quota laws, the then-newly immigrated Punjabis — overwhelming majorities of whom, according to Leonard, were Sikh, at nearly 85 percent — were forced to turn elsewhere.
“Many Punjabis married the Mexican women that worked on their land because of their cultural similarities and proximity,” Leonard explained. “And when they’d show up at the county record office, they could both check ‘brown.’ No one knew the difference.”
The Punjabi men chose Mexican women for a host of other reasons: Physically, Mexican women at the time were thought to resemble Punjabis, Leonard said. Both communities also shared a rural way of life, cooked similar types of food and had a similar material culture.
Perhaps the most important reason, however, was that Mexican women were accessible in the border cities of the United States, Leonard said.
“Most of these women came across the border after the Mexican Civil War,” she added. “They supported themselves by working in the cotton fields of places like California, doing hard physical labor… so if they could marry the boss, hey. It was a leg up.”
According to Leonard’s book, “
Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi-Mexican-Americans
,” country records show that some 378 marriages, mostly bi-ethnic Punjabi-Mexican couples, were carried out in California, a nexus of the Punjabi-Mexican community.
Although official numbers for the population do not exist, these families averaged between 5 to 6 children apiece.
Many of those children, however, did not decide to marry within the newly formed community. Netervala, who has lived in California for more than 50 years, is happily married to an Indian Parsi, and her children were raised as Zoroastrians with very little Mexican influence.
That’s not to say that the community has completely disappeared. For example, the former mayor of El Centro, California, David Singh Dhillon, was a third-generation Punjabi-Mexican.
But the vast majority of children born to Punjabi fathers and Mexican mothers in the early 20th century have assimilated with the greater Indian community now thriving in California, explained Jasbir Singh Kang, founder of the Becoming American Museum in Yuba City, which celebrates Punjabi history in California.
“It’s true that most of the community has assimilated, but that’s not saying we are ethnocentric,” said Kang, whose family hails from India’s Punjab state. “We cherish that history – the connection between Punjabis and Mexicans – and we are very proud of it.”
Kang, a physician and Sikh leader in Yuba City, considered one of the first Punjabi locales in America, said the passage of the Luce-Celler Bill of 1946 – which granted citizenship to people of Asian and Indian origin – permanently altered the Punjabi-Mexican Diaspora. The act allowed Punjabi landowners to bring wives back from India, thus negating the necessity to marrying outside their community.
And when Punjabi women began coming to the United States, the Punjabi-Mexican community confounded them, Leonard said.
“They even kicked out the Mexican women from the gurdwara, even though those Mexican women helped fund it,” Leonard said.
Today, the Punjabi community in California is one of the largest in the world, estimated at nearly 250,000. For the descendants of the nation’s Punjabi-Mexican couples, many have decided to identify themselves as either Mexican or India, Netervala explained, because it provides a more concrete identity. Her two brothers and sole sister all have Mexican spouses.
“Looking back – when you’re young, you don’t appreciate or realize the wealth that the two cultures brought together,” Netervala said. “But, if you’d ask me, I’d say the [Punjabi-Mexican] community is distinctly American.”