Unexpected Unions: The Punjabi-Mexican Families of California

By Natasha Karunaratne

Jon Box Abdulla and Juanita Chavez Abdulla, married Sept. 13, 1926, Watras, New Mexico, with Ali Abdulla, born in Brawley, CA

Thanks to immigration laws and shared cultural experiences, an unexpected union occurred in California’s early 20th century with the union of over 300 families of Punjabi men and Mexican women. It began with Sikh men from the Punjab region of India migrating to America as early as 1890, finding jobs working for the railroad, building roads, and in lumber mills. With them, they carried dreams of eventually bringing over their families that remained in India. However, after a series of restrictive immigration laws were passed by the state of California in the early 1900s, these men were prohibited from bringing their family over, from returning to India, and even from owning land. The report, entitled “California and the Orientals: Japanese, Chinese and Hindus catalyzed such restrictive laws, as it described the Sikhs as “a group of laborers becoming landowners and threatening the monopoly of the majority group,” thereby antagonizing the ‘native’ Californian farmers and igniting anti-Asian sentiments.

Luckily, the men found success in farming Californian fields, where they met Mexican women who had also recently migrated. Many of these women fled to the United States after the Mexican Revolution hoping to earn money for themselves. As both groups were isolated from their own in this foreign land, they found each other – resulting in the union of many Punjabi-Mexican families. While interracial marriage was illegal in California until 1948 and in many states until 1967, both ethnic groups were categorized as “Brown,” affording them the legal privileges of marriage. The families shared experiences of rural life, food, culture, and facing racism in America.

Male members of the Puna Singh Family, Yuba City, California, c. 1945

Read more in Karen Isaksen Leonard’s book, Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans or watch Timeline’s short clip on the story.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What attitudes are revealed through the language used in the “California and the Orientals: Japanese, Chinese and Hindus” report. What are the similarities and differences between the sentiments held against immigrants as reflected in this report and anti-immigrant sentiments of today?
  2. Why would both Mexicans and Punjabis be labeled as “Brown” by the White majority in early 20th century California? What does this tell us about their understandings of Mexicans and Punjabis?
  3. While once labeled as “Brown,” today Mexicans are categorized within the label of “Hispanic” and Punjabis are categorized within the label of “Asian.” What other examples are there of an ethnic group’s racialization changing over time? What do these shifts tell us about race as a construct?
  4. Research other stories of marriage between different ethnic or racial groups throughout American history. What is there to learn from the cultural hybridization that is often produced from such patterns of migration as discussed in this story?