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‘Forgotten And Forbidden’: 378 Marriages In 1900s USA That Created A Unique Community

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By Nikhil Umesh

Forgotten by the world and forbidden by it, back in the early 1900s in the United States of America, nearly 400 marriages took place between two different communities from two different continents. While one community came as a result of sons being pushed out of South Asia to make economic gains elsewhere, the other joined them in the wake of a revolution just south of the United States border.

Image source: Karen Leonard’s Punjabi Mexican American Papers/Courtesy of Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries
Image source: Karen Leonard’s Punjabi Mexican American Papers/Courtesy of Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

If one were to ask me when Indians first found themselves in the United States in mass numbers, I’d guess 1965 after the Immigration and Nationality Act. But I’m learning these days that there are histories of Indian migration that have largely been erased from collective memory.

I’ve been living in North Carolina since 2006, but history lessons from school and even discussions within the South Asian community have proven to be insufficient to tell the story of South Asians’ long stay in America. Instead, it took accidentally stumbling on a museum exhibit in Washington D.C last summer to excavate a more storied past.

This accidental find, the Natural History Museum’s Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape The Nation exhibit, was a portal into a more comprehensive picture of Indian Americans’ history in the United States. One where we’re not all doctor or engineers. But many of us are working class or lower middle class, building lives in the wake of racial discrimination. One where our collective existence in our now home can be traced back more than a century, rather than merely a few decades.

Karen Leonard, an anthropologist at the University of California at Irvine, has documented the histories of the first clash between Punjabi men and Mexican women in the Southwest of the United States.

Between 1900 and 1917, many farming families were sending their sons out of the Indian subcontinent to earn money. Arriving in California in the few thousands, the majority of Punjabi men worked as migrant farm labourers. Shortly after the Mexican Revolution, and its resultant political and economic turmoil, a wave of Mexicans also began the trek to the United States. They would share a way of life with the Punjabis of California, also working California’s farms and fields. And importantly, faced forms of racial discrimination and xenophobia that would solder their fates in fundamental ways.

The California Alien Land Act prevented immigrants ineligible for citizenship from owning land, relegating them to the realm of migratory labor. Additionally, a shift towards more exclusionary immigration policy meant that Punjabi men could not bring wives from India. To compound this reality, miscegenation laws existed in California until 1948, meaning that people could not marry across racial lines.

However, according to Karen Leonard’s work, some 378 marriages between Punjabis and Mexicans were documented in California. The explanation for this speaks volumes of the precarious but systematic nature of racism: Punjabi men and Mexican women’s phenotypic similarities meant a shared classification of “brown” on marriage licenses, meaning that state-sanctioned liaisons were possible.

The families of these early encounters between two people from two different continents swapped various cultural artifacts, such as language, religion, and cuisine.

Still, subsequent shifts in public policy would come to threaten the stability of a Punjabi-Mexican community operating within a life of rich cultural hybridity.

The 1946 Luce Cellar Bill allowed Indian Americans and Filipino Americans the ability to naturalize and become citizens. Citizenship meant the right to own land and, importantly, petition to bring family to the United States. Punjabi men began bringing other Indians, particularly women, to the States, nullifying the necessity to marry across ethnicity with Mexican women.

In the wake of rising numbers of Punjabi women, Kate Leonard details in an interview with the The Washington Post that the Punjabi community “...kicked out the Mexican women from the gurdwara, even though those Mexican women helped fund it.

Ironically, the interlocking systems of racism and misogyny boomeranged back to partially splinter the community, given that they were factors that necessitated inter-marriage.

These histories of Punjabi-Mexican communities at the turn of the 20th century are ones that have been actively erased from collective memory.

I am a firm believer that shedding light on narratives that do not conform to stereotypes of Asian immigration stories aids in interrogating and dismantling the “model minority” myth. The myth was derived from a 1966 New York Times article called ‘Success Story: Japanese-American Style‘. The article tells a story of Japanese-Americans overcoming discrimination in the United States in the wake of World War II.

Today, the myth is used to position Asian American in a wedge position, posturing some of us as evidence that the United States is a post-racial society, and any persisting inequities among Black, Latina/o, and other people of color are due to faults of their own. Many Indian Americans have bought into the myth, taking on its mission of anti-Black racism.

Indian Americans do not necessarily consider themselves component of a struggle against white supremacy. Excavating these stories and reclaiming these histories would bolster and renew a fight for self determination for Black and brown peoples. Indians didn’t just come to this country after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Our histories go back further, and many of these earlier waves of migration paint a picture of a people starkly different from the tired stereotype of doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

As Indian Americans, as South Asians, let us not play into the fabrication that immigrants are merely in the United States to assimilate and function as accomplices to America’s racism. Instead, let us uplift forgotten histories.

It is past due for a Model Minority Mutiny.

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  1. Avinesh Saini

    Proves that Punjabis are more racist than Mexicans.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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