The fading history of Punjabi-Mexicans


The onset of the 1990s saw a generation of working Punjabi men heading to the West in search for a better life in the fertile lands of Southern California’s Imperial Valley.

The gangs of migrant workers of Punjab were often called “Hindu crews”, although they were a mix of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, working effortlessly to earn enough so that their wives and children back home could join them in this land of opportunity.

They soon found themselves stranded in a country which passed a series of legislative Acts resulting in closed doors for foreigners and making travels between India and the US near to impossible.

Following the bloodshed of the Mexican Civil War of 1910, California witnessed the arrival of thousands of widowed Mexican women on its land. The women, along with their children and some possessions saw the opportunity to work in the cotton fields which were majorly supervised by the Indian men during that time.

“The Punjabi men wanted housekeepers, children and sex,” says anthropologist at the University of California, Karen Leonard. But this merging of ethnicities was regarded as “Punjabi bosses ripping the pretty women away.” Angry Latino men fought with their wannabe brothers-in-law and sometimes took women back by force. Moreover, unless the men and women listed their ethnicities as “brown,” the laws forbidding interracial marriage made acquirement of marriage certificates an impossible task.

The Punjabi men appreciated the similar appearances of Mexican brides, with women back home, who cooked similar dishes and were familiar with rural life. Meanwhile, the women saw their social stature rising by marrying men who were, at least, middle class and spoke fluent English. The country recorded at least 378 marriages between Punjabi-Mexican couples in California alone, according to a study of genealogies in Leonard’s book Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans, in the 20th century.

One such example and among the last of the first-generation Punjabi-Mexicans was Mary Singh Rai, a native of Yuba City, California. A daughter of immigrants, the then 89-year old was the result of an unlikely coupling of a Mexican mother and Punjabi father in the Golden State. Her Punjabi-Mexican children had grown up eating chicken curry enchiladas, attending Catholic Mass and making pilgrimages to Sikh gurdwaras.

However, with each passing year, the bigoted sentiment made it difficult for such love to find societal acceptance in that era. The Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 which made travel between India and the US an implausible task further opened doors for many such rulings with the Supreme Court’s 1923 ruling being one of them, which made Indian men racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship.

The Luce-Celler Act in 1946 ultimately loosened the US immigration laws and ended The California Alien Land Act of 1913, which prohibited most immigrants from owning land. The long-settled immigrants could finally send for their Punjabi sons and daughters residing back home.

At present, the fate of Punjabi-Mexicans dwindles as their present generation can be seen opting out of this culture and marrying out of the caste. Being a part of a legacy of such unlikely marriages which is primarily found and cherished in oral family histories, Mary Singh Rai passed away in 2013.  (Inputs from (picture courtesy: