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

December 21, 1987|MARK I. PINSKY | 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.

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