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.
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.