The Mexican-Hindu Connection : In a Search for Their Roots, Descendants Discover a Moving Tale of Loneliness and Racism

Times Staff Writer

For a long time, Sylvia and Yolanda Singh wondered about their heritage.

Raised in a Catholic home in Santa Ana where they spoke Spanish and English, the sisters were often asked about their last name, one common to all male members of the Sikh faith from India's Punjab province.

But not until Yolanda was doing graduate study in education at Stanford and chose her father as a subject for an ethnographic project did the family history began to unfold, and she learned the 67-year-old construction worker is a Mexican-Hindu.

Mexican-Hindu? Although the combination may sound odd, the story of the Singhs of Santa Ana and several thousand people like them throughout the American Southwest represents an anomaly of America's melting pot. It is also a nearly forgotten story about how history and culture made strange bedfellows, bringing together two immigrant groups in relatively brief marriages of convenience.

Today, with intermarriage outside of their small circle, the Mexican-Hindus are growing more indistinct with each generation, rapidly reducing them to a footnote of California history. But thanks to Karen Leonard, a UC Irvine professor of anthropology who has written nearly a dozen articles on the subject and is completing work on a book, Sylvia and Yolanda now have a comprehensive family tree and know even more about their background.

In the early years of this century, according to Leonard, between 2,000 and 6,000 Sikh, Muslim and Hindu agricultural workers were imported to California and Arizona from Northwest India. Most Californians referred to all of these men as Hindus--India was then popularly known as Hindustan--despite the fact that more than 85% of them were Sikhs.

Many of the Punjabis were former soldiers and police officers who had served with British colonial forces; they were valued as recruits in the arid Southwest because of their familiarity with irrigation in their home province, sometimes called "the land of five rivers."

The immigrants were, by and large, yeomen farmers who left Punjab either because their family farms were too small to divide or simply out of a sense of adventure.

Punjabi agricultural immigrants imported to work on major reclamation and irrigation projects like those in the Imperial Valley helped make these areas bloom with cotton, asparagus, lettuce and cantaloupe. Hoping to make their fortunes before starting families, they left their wives and fiancees behind, planning to send for them or return to them in a few years.

Soon, however, the Sikhs encountered the anti-Asian prejudice that Spencer Olin of UCI's history department called "California's special brand of racism," and as a result they had to make painful compromises in order to survive in California society.

Then as now, Sikhs were required by their religion to let their beards grow and to wrap their uncut hair in a comb and bind it in a turban--garb which brought them ridicule and name calling in the early years of the century, especially the term raghead. Sometimes this prejudice and economic exploitation also resulted in violence. In 1925, a Sikh named Pahkar Singh who lived in the Imperial Valley killed two Anglo agents who, he said, tried to cheat him out of his lettuce harvest. "There was a lot of hostility in the first few decades," said Jane Singh, a research specialist at the Center for South and Southeast Asia Studies at UC Berkeley, whose father came from Punjab in 1906. "You never knew if you went into town if someone was going to hassle you," said Singh, who is not related to Sylvia and Yolanda.

Most of the Punjabis gave up their beards and turbans in the 1920s, as did G. Dave Teja's father, who arrived in 1921.

"When he came to the United States, he wanted to be an American," said Teja, a former Sutter County district attorney who prosecuted the Juan Corona murder case. "Getting rid of that was one of the first marks of living in this country," he said.

Restrictive State Laws

One old Sikh man, who had taken a boat from Asia to Panama, then walked through Central America to the Mexican border after 1913, when legal immigration to the United States was shut off, explained to Bruce LaBrack of the University of the Pacific in Stockton why he cut his hair and discarded his turban. "I would die for my religion," he said, "but I didn't want to be deported for it."

Sylvia Singh recalled a story her grandmother told of cutting the hair and beards of 12 weeping Punjabis, as they prepared to cross the border.

Sikhs quickly graduated from agricultural and railroad jobs to small farmers and grocers, and by 1919, Punjabis were leasing 32,380 acres of the Imperial Valley. But their upward economic mobility was slowed by a series of restrictive state laws--aimed mostly at Japanese farmers--in 1913 and 1920, which barred Asian aliens from owning or leasing land.

In 1923, a case brought by a Sikh U.S. citizen to the U.S. Supreme Court produced a ruling which found that, although the Sikhs were Caucasian, they were not considered "white persons" and were thus ineligible for citizenship and land ownership.

In order not to lose their land and their livelihood, and to combat loneliness, the Punjabis--mostly in their 30s and 40s--began marrying young Spanish-speaking women whom they met working in the fields and towns. Many of these women were young immigrants from Mexico, often without male family members in this country.

A marriage to a Punjabi by one of a set of Latino sisters would frequently lead to others, until six or seven women in a family, including a widowed or divorced mother, would provide an extended family structure. For example, the Singh sisters' Mexican grandmother and two great aunts all married Punjabi men. Sometimes four or five male Punjabi family members or business partners would marry sisters of the same family.

Occasionally there were difficulties.

"Our grandmother went through hell when she married our grandfather," Yolanda Singh said. "When she applied for U.S. citizenship, the immigration official told her she had broken the law by marrying an Indian."

Researchers like LaBrack, who has collaborated with Leonard, considered the Punjabis and the Mexicans "the last two groups I would expect to attempt to meld. . . . They're about as polar opposites as you could imagine." But to the Spanish-speaking women, the frugal, ambitious, non-drinking Punjabi men must have "looked like a good deal," he said, with the tall, often physically imposing men offering stability and economic security.

Eventually, Leonard says, about 500 Punjabis married Spanish-speaking women, most in the 1920s. At first, things went well. Beyond their mutual economic needs and despite the apparent cultural differences, Leonard says, the two groups turned out to be compatible in a number of ways. Both groups spoke English as a second language, and the color of their skin was similar, subjecting them to the same kinds of discrimination. There was an interesting intermingling of the two cultures in home life.

Sikh husbands, who had cooked for themselves and their friends as bachelors for many years, introduced pickled lemons, spicy chicken and vegetable curries, often eaten with roti, a tortilla-like bread to the households. Mexican wives contributed extensive use of corn to the diet.

The men established Sikh temples and units of the Ghadar party, a sometimes violent Punjabi organization that opposed British colonialism, and gave their children Indian names. Some of the men slept on a string bed called a charpoi, which they moved outside to escape the summer heat, as they had in Punjab. There were circuit-riding Sikh priests who traveled from community to community from Texas to Northern California, praying with groups too small to maintain their own temple.

Yet the wives remained practicing Catholics, as did most of the children, and the practice of having compadres, or godfathers, was adopted. In their houses, Leonard found, statues of saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus shared space with portraits of Sikh founders Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh.

"They celebrated Cinco de Mayo in Yuba City-Marysville the same way they celebrated Guru Nanak's birthday," said LaBrack. "Some days the Mexican women dressed in saris."

"The community was very close-knit," said Jane Singh, a research specialist at the Center for South and Southeast Asia Studies at UC Berkeley, who is part of a team completing work on an annotated bibliography of the Sikh experience in California.

Yet over time, inherent cultural conflict in these so-called Mexican-Hindu relationships--especially the age disparity of two decades or more between husbands and wives--combined with economic tensions to create stress in the marriages, sometimes resulting in domestic violence. Sylvia and Yolanda Singh's grandmother and grandfather separated in the 1920s, and the marriages of their great aunts also broke up.

Despite the fact that the land titles and leases were in their wives' names, the women and children complained that the Sikh men held tight to economic power within the family. "The reality was that some of these guys were so frugal they wouldn't give the women money to buy their kids clothes," LaBrack said.

In the late 1940s, after immigration regulations were eased slightly and India became independent, some Sikhs were permitted to bring relatives, including wives they left behind decades before, to the United States, accelerating the break-up of many already shaky Mexican-Hindu marriages.

Baldev Singh, who came from Punjab in 1950 and now teaches political science at Yuba College, suggests that it may have been guilt rather than intercultural tensions that caused the Sikhs to abandon their Latino wives in order to bring over previous wives.

"Maybe the ties--cultural, social and religious--hadn't become that cemented," Baldev Singh said. "When the opportunity came, they went back to the original."

Some of the Sikh men who remarried or were reunited with Punjabi wives looked down on remaining Mexican-Hindu couples, Leonard found.

"They seemed to have felt a little superior about marrying Punjabi women," said Teja of Sutter County, whose mother is Caucasian. He acknowledged that "there may exist some bias toward Mexican women. The Indians just stopped marrying them."

For whatever reasons, most of the Mexican-Hindu marriages ultimately ended in divorce, Leonard found, with the children going with their mothers, sometimes back to Mexico, with some residual bitterness.

Leonard found that, in Latino women, "the proud Punjabi male had more than met his match. . . . Not only were the Hispanic women individually strong, they had kinship networks of their own. The children of these marriages proved strong and independent-minded. Toughened by prejudice expressed against them in childhood, they were survivors, able to explain and use elements of three different cultures in their adult lives."

The parents of Sylvia and Yolanda Singh's father, Jose Romero Singh, broke up when he was 5 years old, and he spent much of his childhood with a grandmother in Ensenada, Mexico, where some of his schoolmates taunted him about his mixed background.

Yet even today, Sylvia said, "he uses the proverbs that his father would tell him . . . he cherishes everything his father ever taught him . . . he lives that culture in his work ethic."

'Transitional Community'

Leonard and LaBrack believe--and Mexican-Hindus themselves agree--that theirs is a "transitional community" rather than a new ethnic group, and that they will be completely subsumed in the Latino and Anglo communities within the next few generations, leaving only a culinary legacy to their descendants.

Leonard estimates that about 10% of the descendants live in Orange and Riverside counties, with much larger concentrations in the Imperial Valley, Marysville-Yuba City, Stockton and Chino. Smaller groups can still be found in Arizona and Texas.

At Yolanda's request, Leonard took her to meet some of her relatives, including one of the original Punjabi immigrants, for a reunion in the Central Valley town of Selma.

Leonard observed that, until recently, "wherever they moved and whomever they married, they remained highly conscious of their unique ancestry and the Mexican-Hindu community in which they had grown up."

In one incident recounted in her book, Leonard attended a funeral of an old Sikh farmer with the man's Catholic daughter and fundamentalist minister grandson. Both a Sikh priest and the grandson participated in the services, where, Leonard wrote, "people of all skin and hair colors, dressed in clothing ranging from high heels and short dresses to Punjabi dress, sat around me."

And there is still some cohesion to the community. Each year there is a Mexican-Hindu "old-timers" dance in Yuba City. More than 100 descendants gathered at the most recent affair on Nov. 14.

"We have a colorful background that I am very proud of," said Isabel Singh Garcia of Yuba City, who attends the dance each year. "I don't want what our fathers did to be forgotten. . . . Soon our generation is going to be be a dead race, and that's really sad. I try to get as much as I can across to my children, but they're just not interested. . . . I'm Indian and I'm Mexican and I'm 100% American."

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