This item is an audio file.

Interview with Karen Leonard on the Punjabi Mexican Community

As described in the interview:
"The second episode of Sikh Archive Podcast, a series of conversations with historians, authors, and academics on topics related to their areas of expertise on Sikh history. In this episode [they] are joined by Professor Karen Leonard. She's a historian and anthropologist at the University of California, with a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1969 on history of Indian Mexican Americans, South Asian Americans, and Muslim Americans. This episode is about her book "Making Ethnic Choices" which was published in 1992, and is a thorough study about the Punjabi Mexican community—its formation and a fantastic oral history expose on the early Sikh pioneers of California."

Duration: 00:51:58

Type: Oral History
Source: Sikh Archive Podcast

Transcriber: Rima Parikh

Host (0:18)
Welcome to the second episode of Sikh Archive Podcast, a series of conversations with historians, authors and academics on topics related to their areas of expertise on Sikh history. In this episode, we are joined by Professor Karen Leonard. She's a historian and anthropologist at the University of California with a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1969, on the history of Indian, Mexican Americans, South Asian Americans and Muslim Americans. This episode is about her book, Making Ethnic Choices, which was published in 1992 and is a thorough study about the Punjabi Mexican community. Its formation and a fantastic oral history exposé on the early Sikh pioneers of California. There are a lot of theories that float around about this small but historically unique community. And our conversation with Professor Karen Leonard really do clear up a lot of these misconceptions. And we hope you enjoy listening to this episode. But before we start a quick message about our sponsor of this episode from Sikh Student Learning, which is an educational resource that is developing a comprehensive Sikh studies modular program for Sikh children of four to 16 years with the option to take exams for modules and obtain certificates of achievements. And right now they have published a new series of Gurmukhi learning workbooks for those looking to learn how to read and write Punjabi. They are an excellent resource for new parents wanting to teach their children the culturally rich mother tongue that is Punjabi. You can find them at But now back to the podcast to learn more about the formation of the Punjabi Mexican community.

Host (2:04)
Karen, you've been studying Punjabi Mexican community in California. How did you come across this research area?

Karen Leonard (2:13)
Well, I had a graduate student in anthropology and she got a job at Yuba City Community College. And she was a counselor trying to counsel young women students about job futures, careers. And she said, she contacted me, you know, Yuba City is way up north, I'm down in Los Angeles. She said, “Can you come up? We're having trouble with the Punjabi girls, students who are immigrants, aren't coming in for career counseling. And we need to know more about women in India and what's going on here and why they're not interested.” So I went up there. And, of course, I discovered that these were the daughters of recent immigrants from the Punjab and they were going to be married off to the Punjab by their parents, right out of high school or in early college years, so no need for career counseling. So this was an unexpected finding. And I talked to a Punjabi immigrant Rav Singh. He had come as a young man and was a political science professor. And he said, “Oh, you should look into the earlier immigrants because they married Mexican and Mexican American women, and they're right in your backyard down in the Imperial Valley, just a handful.” So I thought, you know, I had two young children under five and I couldn't go back to India really, or I thought I couldn't. So I went down to the Imperial Valley and right away I found two, three hundred marriage, death and birth records for these Punjabi Mexican couples. It wasn't just a handful. It was a whole community. So, that got me excited.

Host (3:57)
And that introduced you to the idea of these marriage networks that were developing, right?

Karen Leonard (4:03)
Right. Exactly. And as I looked at them, I saw that the cores were sister sets or mother and daughters. It was really women, Mexican and Mexican American women linking men from the Punjab across religious and caste lines. Very, very interesting finding. Anyway, so that got me. I talked to people—life histories, oral histories. Fascinating.

Host (4:29)
And it's really important that when you conducted this research, you had some participants, some of the second generation or some of the early members of the community of the earliest settlers.

Karen Leonard (4:41)
Yes, yes. Now, there weren't very many of the pioneer men. They had been older than the women they married and I only found six or seven still alive, and one or two of them suffered from dementia. And it was the younger wives and the children, the “Mexican Hindu” children, as they were called, who talked a lot about their fathers and mothers and the way the marriages work, the way the families were built. It was really, really fun.

Host (5:12)
It's really good to get a woman's opinion as well about a man, yet more of a general honest account as well.

Karen Leonard (5:20)
Yes, I think that's quite true. And they have, they have a very different perspective. They too have married outside their religion and ethnic group, and they were pioneers as much as the men were.

Host (5:37)
Yeah. You mentioned in your book that they got quite ostracized by their own Mexican community, and they were called Hindu lovers, etc.

Karen Leonard (5:45)
Yes, yes. And, at least, well, some—one or two of them were kidnapped and tried to be, you know, taken back by their families, but mostly they were just ostracized and built their own community: Spanish-speaking, Catholic, bringing up the children in the mother’s tradition. Again, I was kind of expecting, you know, men in India—kind of patriarchal, Punjabi as well, and I thought they might dominate, but of course it was the mothers who brought the children and taught them language and religion.

Host (6:22)
And the interesting point that you made in your book was that the women had a lot of authority in raising the children and, and also the way the Mexican womens’ network was there. It was also that their grandparents were only on the Mexican side because their Punjabi grandparents weren’t there. And when the parents weren’t raising the children, the grandparents were.

Karen Leonard (6:45)
Well, that's a very good point, although most of the Mexican and Mexican American wives didn't reconnect with their own parents, their own mothers. So for the third generation, it would be the Mexican grandparents but you know, they didn't take the children back to Mexico. They had come across the border in the Mexican Revolution and made a new life, made marriages on their own.

Host (7:12)
So around the same time the Mexican Revolution was happening around 1910, what were the Punjabis doing in California around in the Imperial Valley?

Karen Leonard (7:22)
Well, they were beginning to get into farming. The Colorado River had been harnessed. Irrigation agriculture was starting. And then the men from the Punjab wanted land. They were terrific farmers. They worked really hard. That's another reason the women dominated family life. The men work very hard. They come home at the end of the day, maybe have some whiskey, maybe just a meal and kind of go to bed. So the women really, really ran things and of course, as we said they were sister sets so it may not have been a grandmother, but aunts were there, and lots of reinforcement on the Mexican side, Spanish-speaking side.

Host (8:07)
You mentioned a lot in your book that there was a Mexican women's network. I can't pronounce it...compadr...

Karen Leonard (8:13)
Compadrazgo. Yes, this is godparents. Since most of them were Catholic, when children were baptized, godparents—godfather, godmother—was appointed to supposedly to bring them up in the Catholic faith, but say Magyaar Singh would be godfather to his partner's child and the Catholic Church would register him as Miguel. You know, they're supposed to be Catholic on both sides, the godparents. But there they are in the Catholic Church records, Singhs and Mohammeds standing in as godparents to each other's children.

Host (8:53)
And my understanding initially before reading the book, was that these Punjabi men were marrying these Mexican women to gain land rights or to gain citizenship. But you make it quite clear that that's a misconception.

Karen Leonard (9:07)
Yes, in fact, that's the worst misconception. Almost all the new Punjabi immigrants, the Sikhs, especially, they cannot understand why these men married out, why they made these out-of-bounds marriages. And they say, “Oh, well, it was to get land,” because of course, not especially Jat/Sikhs that’s their main interests. But that wasn't true. In fact, American citizen women who married foreigners and aliens ineligible to citizenship from 1922 to 1931, the Table Act, made them lose their citizenship so they couldn't hold land. It was a complete impossibility. So this favorite theory is…. is just completely wrong. And people still, still believe it. As you say, that's what's given us the explanation. Oh, they needed land. They wanted land. That’s why they married out. Soon as they have a case...they wanted women, they want children, they wanted family life.

Host (10:08)
And it's before 1923 that they actually did have citizenship. They actually did have land ownership, didn’t they? Or...

Karen Leonard (10:16)
Well, some of them were becoming citizens, especially in Utah, I think six or more Punjabi men became citizens, but then there was the Thind decision. That was what, 1923, when the American Supreme Court said that people from India, although anthropologists call them Caucasian, they were not quite as popular meaning of a term. So they, like Chinese and Japanese, became aliens ineligible to citizenship. And again, the timing of the decision that they couldn't be citizens, you know, that's when the women lost their citizenship by marrying such men. So it just doesn't work at all, that explanation.

Host (11:08)
One of the actual ideas that these Punjabi farmers actually had a lot of power. I mean, you mention in your book that when they were farming, and they were gaining, they were taking out loans and they were in debt, but they would repay that debt. This actually established a lot of good, strong connections for them to continue farming and not really have any much difficulties in that respect.

Karen Leonard (11:24)
This is true. They were recognized as very, very hardworking and very good farmers and bankers gave them loans, lawyers represented them in whatever way they could. They were well respected members of the community and they are, although they were not well educated, their English was basic and confident. And they knew the litigation system, the British Indian system back in the Punjab and they used the American system. They fought each other on issues of land and partnership, they filed for divorce. So, you know, the marriage, I suppose the one way that they could get land after marrying was through their children. And this was a strategy Japanese farmers pioneered. You could stand as guardian to your minor children. Of course, children born here were citizens. So now the citizen minor children could own the land and the father could appear in court once a year as guardian and report to the judge how the farming was going. And this strategy developed in the 1920s later, again, following a Japanese pioneering strategy.

Host (12:41)
And they were also quite sophisticated with the legislation about property rights. I remember you mentioning a story in your book. I can't remember which pioneer it was but someone who was infamously known for passing on their car to their boss or their colleague and to—and so they, they claimed the car didn't belong to them and they won that court battle, and so on. They had a lot of kind of legal gymnastics.

Karen Leonard (13:09)
They were litigious in the Punjab. They're litigious, even today, and they were then. And they were litigious in the Imperial Valley, using property law and marriage, marital and divorce law. And this is very different from the more recent immigrants who are embroiled in Gurdwara disputes and disputes with authorities back in India, about religious practices. So the men, the early pioneers, really used the legal system for their immediate material interests.

Host (13:41)
And saying that actually you draw the distinction between the early pioneers and the post-1965 migrants you kind of describe it I believe in the book, it says something of the “old Hindu” and the “new Hindu” dynamic about where they're kind of social and cultural formations came about— the identity. It was quite contrasting in respect to religious and caste lines.

Karen Leonard (14:07)
Right. Well, I make an important distinction between the early Punjabi diaspora and the post ‘65. Clearly, Sikh diaspora when religion is the core of identity. And this speaks to changes in both India and the US. In India, religion has become more and more a political issue and important identity issue. And then in the US, we used to have, you know, European Protestantism and then Catholics and Jews became important parts of the civic religious scene. And now Muslims are claiming that role as well, and Sikhs, a place in the sort of multicultural religious landscape. So religion has been more public, more acknowledged as part of identity and politics, in both India and the US, for good or bad. I mean, social scientists used to talk about increasing secularism and religion disappearing from public life. Well, it's certainly not true and the new Sikh immigrants, they're saying, “Oh, the early one, it was a Sikh diaspora because 85% of those guys were Sikhs. So they were, but they didn't have Gurdwaras, they didn’t have Guru Granth. They didn't really try to teach their children anything about Sikhism, or Islam, or Hinduism. It was the Punjabi language, a sort of pluralism of the old local empire and the early British Empire. I feel very strongly that what we have now is very important in thriving Sikh diaspora is quite different from the earlier movement of the men from the Punjab.

Host (15:56)
You describe the pre-1965 being more cosmopolitan, and the post-1965 being transnational.

Karen Leonard (16:05)
Yes, those are the theoretical terms I use. Cosmopolitan meaning sort of comfortable with other contexts and traditions. Transnational meaning really pulling back on the homeland identity, building the ties to family and religion across national boundaries. I think that the earlier men, who didn't really choose to be cosmopolitan. They had to be. They didn't have their own women and children. They couldn't bring them because of the laws. They had to marry out. They had to form bi-ethnic families, and they did so with the grace and success and pride. And the children and grandchildren are very proud. You know, my granddad was a Hindu. They were proud Hindus. They may have been Sikhs or Muslims, but that was the term at the time for people from India. Now, people come from India and Pakistan, I’m a Sikh, I’m a Muslim. speak as a Muslim. The religion is more of the core of identity, and more national. That’s narrower, to my mind.

Host (17:15)
And that's the irony behind, you know, titling your book Making Ethnic Choices. They were quite compelled to be interracial.

Karen Leonard (17:23)
Right? Of course, I meant it to be an ironic title. But I think irony kind of isn't appreciated there. Of course, they couldn't make choices. They couldn't bring their first wife, their children from India. They had to marry women who were locally available and who could put on the marriage certificates, on the marriage license. The same race you have to marry in California, as in the American South, not across racial lines but within race, so mostly they put brown-brown or white-white, Black-Black. Something so that the clerk would give them a license.

Host (18:03)
So you mean to say that when Punjabis were maybe wanted to get married to another race, the only one the marriage license wouldn't really kind of find any contention was if Punjabis and Mexicans were coming to the marriage license, requesting for marriage? And they would say, “Oh, well, you're both Brown. So according to these anti-miscegenation laws, it's perfectly fine.”

Karen Leonard (18:26)
Quite right. Quite right. You could marry, say brown-white on a ship at sea, or perhaps Arizona was more lenient than California. But basically, you had to appear to be and put down on paper the same race. So that worked. And these women were available. The Mexican Revolution sent poverty-stricken women and children across the border, looking for jobs, picking cotton or whatever.

Host (18:57)
You argue as well in your book in the direction of women marrying the men, this was more of an economic strategy, economic advantage because the men were quite established. And these were quite a good opportunity for the women to rise on the agricultural ladder.

Karen Leonard (19:12)
Yes, I think that's true, although not all of the men were well-established, but they might have been part of a crew of a successful Punjabi farmer or they might be, you could become a brother-in-law, a successful one by marrying the sister of his wife. So these networks pulled people together, pulled them up. The women were, perhaps economically upwardly mobile through these marriages. There weren't as many men coming from Mexico and if so, they were also displaced by war and not well off and at the bottom of the agricultural ladder,

Host (19:52)
And, but saying that the sex ratio was really low for women in Punjabi community, it was largely a male community, wasn’t it? That had come—

Karen Leonard (20:02)
Yeah. So I think there were 3-4 real Punjabi women in those early years. They couldn't bring—the immigration laws prevented bringing more, bringing their own wives. No, there were very, very few real Punjabi women and few were up north in the Yuba City area.

Host (20:23)
I remember you made the—

Karen Leonard (20:25)
—locally available. Yes. They had to look to who was there.

Host (20:28)
I remember you make the interesting study on Nand Kaur and how the other Mexican women were quite intimidated by her and her Punjabiness.

Karen Leonard (20:37)
Yes, yes. Well, and later after ‘65 when Punjabi families came, Sikh families, women and children with the men, the one Gurdwara that started out in Yuba City, with [unintelligible] from the Punjabi Mexican community, and the wives cooking chicken curry in the kitchen. Those wives were thrown out by the new-coming Indian women who said they can't make chicken curry properly and we don't want them in the temple. So that was too bad.

Host (21:12)
Yeah, that’s quite interesting that when the post-1965 Punjabi diaspora came, you know, there was a conflict between who are the real Indians and who are the real Mexicans and, and the second generation were really bullied about that, weren’t they in school?

Karen Leonard (21:28)
Well, that's true. And sometimes, I mean, the Mexican Hindu sons had worked on the farms of their fathers, you know, for all their lives and suddenly, if the father chose to bring, say, I'm using this in quotes “real” son or “real” nephew from an earlier marriage or relationship, this was very threatening. And actually very few fathers did that. But sometimes sons or grandsons in India wanted to come and get land in California so they had machines, some lawsuits from India. Of course communications, everything changed. You know, in 1945, the Luce-Cellar bill—was it ‘45 or ‘46—allowed Indians to become citizens and migrate. So this opened up the whole transnational connection again, that had been pretty much not able to be active and alive.

Host (22:29)
So around post-1965, the second set of the second Sikh diaspora that was migrating to America, a lot of them were middle class, well-educated and came in families.

Karen Leonard (22:39)
Yes, completely different. Mostly-urban, well educated professionals. The men are very well qualified, gaining, gaining access to migration through talent and achievements. And often their wives were also professional or well-educated. So they came as whole families, not just the men. It was just completely different. And not so many from rural areas, not so many. You know, the earlier migrants were farmers from rural Punjab and new ones were urban, well-educated professionals and thinking, “Why did these guys do that?” They just didn't understand the historical context and how much it had changed.

Host (23:25)
You also mentioned that the first earlier Sikhs that came, you know, their wealth peasantry status, they were farmers. But they were largely migrating because they were either indebted with the Punjabi system, the privatized agricultural industry. Under the British had become under a huge amount of—

Karen Leonard (23:43)
Or they were second or third sons. The first son inherited everything. So the others had to go and find something else.

Host (23:51)
Yeah. And if it wasn't—you just mentioned, if it wasn't the military that they would sign to, they would migrate for a better opportunity in California.

Karen Leonard (23:58)
Yes. Yes. And sometimes they were security guards, policemen in British colonies like Hong Kong, Shanghai. No, no. They did other things. But when they came to California, they were able to go back to farming.

Host (24:16)
You also mentioned in a chapter of your book about some of the conflicts that arose with these relationships. And marriage largely centered around some culture shocks, such as gender. For example, wanting the male son, divorce rates, and some, I believe, resulting in murder.

Karen Leonard (24:36)
Well, very few murder cases. But some. I remember the husband who went out and tied his wife to the deadpost because he didn't want her going out with her sister to do things. You know, it was more of that level. The women have had, you know, kinship networks of their own and they wanted to do things and the man had traditional Punjabi norms in mind and the women also they were, they could dance. I mean the men were not used to women who had a recreational life of their own with their sisters or whatever, or friends. So that was, that was there but there were, you know, some of the conflict stories are exciting and dramatic but very few murder cases actually. I mean divorce on others grounds— Host (25:31)
Divorce was really defining wasn't it? Divorce was really something that they had to get used to because the women in Punjab couldn't really exercise the divorce, but the women—the Mexican women could.

Karen Leonard (25:43)
Well I remember Mola Singh. He was married four times to Mexican American women here, and I wish I could find the pages in my book, but he says something like, “The women here, they can go, they say sonny honey, I'm going! And they have that right.” He said we have to get used to it. And actually he did. He had four wives in succession. I think one of them ran away, another one may have died. But they recognize that women have more freedoms and a divorce was quite possible here. They had to get used to that.

Host (26:22)
One of the culture shocks that I was trying to describe was that a lot of the Punjabi farmers would donate a lot of their wages to Stockton gurdwara, at the time the Sikh temple, and the wives weren't happy about them redirecting their wages, were they?

Karen Leonard (26:37)
Well, that's that's certainly true. And they discouraged sending money back to India, which was, of course to the Indian families and the political activities. Again, they had their own children, they had their own wants, and the men had really tight political networks, not just the Ghadar party or the gurdwaras but lobbying for American citizenship. They donated money for that too. And they got it in ‘46. So the men were very political and they committed themselves financially. And the wives did resent that, by and large.

Host (27:16)
And what about the cultural transmission of their Sikh identity or their Sikh practice onto their wives or children? How—was there any enforcement of that? Because I couldn't find really much of that happening.

Karen Leonard (27:31)
No. No. Well, let's look at the men again. They were not well-educated. There were no, you know, clerics or priests among them. The Muslims didn't have copies of the Quran, the Sikh didn’t have copies of the Guru Granth.They were not well qualified to teach about their religion. And they didn't want to bother to teach their children their language. Some of the children said, “Teach me Punjabi” and they'd say, “Why? You're in America now. It's of no use whatsoever.” And about religion, they said, most of the early men said, “You know that there's one divinity approached by many ways, many paths. It's fine. My children being brought up Catholic, that's one way. I will remain Sikh. I will remain Muslim. But my children and wives can approach another way.” And they didn't mind that at all. They thought it was an important part of pluralism or accommodation to a new context. That's a very different approach than say the new Sikhs are taking. They really want their children to know the language, but even more, religion has got to be carried on. And of course they are doing well enough. They can establish gurdwaras, they can hire teachers, they can, you know, really practice at a level that they could in India.

Host (29:04)
How much of the unwillingness to exercise their kind of religious practices had to do with maybe some of the external pressures they were facing as being precarious migrants or not having any rights or being preoccupied with other battles that they were facing with the state. So that, you know, maybe their religious identity politics—

Karen Leonard (29:25)
Yeah, that's really important. Of course, the early Sikhs, most of them came with turban and beard. And they were ridiculed for that. Stones were thrown. They were called ragheads. They discarded these external markings. And they said, “The religion is inside me. What does it matter?” And they had more important battles. After they were called aliens ineligible to citizenship, they couldn't lease their own agricultural land. They had to work through lawyers and banks, they had to secure allies in the local community. They were not interested. Religion was, you know, they went—if there was a gurdwara, which there was one in Stockton from early decades—but the Muslims and Hindus went to him and the Mexican women. And finally after World War II, in El Centro, the Sikhs down in the Imperial Valley bought the Japanese Buddhist church—temple because the Japanese were incarcerated and taken away. So then they established a gurdwara. So the women came and cooked chicken curry and gossiped and it was the Punjabi language, the politics of lobbying for citizenship and anti-British activism. Those were the things that held them together. You know, many of the children would say to me, “Oh, I'm Sikh and Catholic,” or “I'm Catholic and Muslim.” Well, this is the kind of identity that the new immigrants find incomprehensible. You know, they just don't think it's possible. Anyway.

Host (31:06)
There was one exception that I kind of understood. Although, you know, the religious priorities may have come second, one place where it really came forward was funerals. Some of the migrants were really captured by you know, “We have to have to protect or preserve the funeral rights.”

Karen Leonard (31:27)
This is quite right. So, I remember one case—I've forgotten what whether the [unintelligible] wanted to kidnap the body so they could bury it or if the Sikh relatives wanted to kidnap the body so they could cremate it. But there was conflict sometimes. And, of course, the Catholic women wanted to bury their husbands in a cemetery, Catholic cemetery. And the funny thing is that in rural California, every little town has got in the cemetery something called the Hindu plot, groups plot plot, collectively and bury their members. And in the Hindu plot, of course, it's Muslims who are very—they're Muslims who bury, Hindus and Sikhs cremate. And the Hindu plot is also interesting because on the gravestones, these markings are only in Punjabi, Punjabi and Urdu script. The man's name, the father of the man's name, his name and the village name. And the wife. Some children can't read these gravestones. It's in a script in a language they don't know. And the markings are inadequate as the children get some translated and want to find their father or grandfather's village. Often the village names, they can't find them on a map—too small or perhaps it's changed. So that really did mark a difference here at the end.

Host (33:12)
And in contrast, the weddings weren't so religious, didn't have such a religious custom, did they? I mean, the Punjabi men were just not so worried about the religious customs. And when it comes to weddings.

Karen Leonard (33:23)
Oh, well, they mostly went before the county clerk. They had civil weddings. And then they might have a celebration afterward—some kind of potluck at the, at the farm where the partners were focused with the wife. But no, the weddings were not religious at all. Maybe some of the men consented to be married in a Catholic ceremony if the wife really wanted it. Again, they didn't think it mattered. There were no Sikh priests. There were no Muslim imams. If there was to be a religious wedding, it would be because a woman insisted on it and he gave in. Very different from today, of course.

Host (34:14)
And do you feel there's a level of erasure of that Punjabi Mexican history by the second set of diaspora?

Karen Leonard (34:21)
Oh, definitely. Especially in the gurdwaras—I should have mentioned this before—in the gurdwaras, when they did finally get established, the old timers, they sat on chairs. They said, “We're too old. I'm too old. We'll sit on chairs, not on the floor. And we'll take prasad on a paper plate with a spoon. We don't want it, you know, greasy and messy in our hands. So they adopted practices that when the newcomers came after ‘65, “Oh my gosh, these are not the way we do it back in the Punjab.” And they insisted on changing it back. And the old timers didn't like that. And when I went to a funeral down to El Centro, to the gurdwara, the daughter of the old timer who had died, the newcomers were in charge of the gurdwara. And they were, you know, enforcing village Punjabi practices. And the daughter stood up and she said, “My father donated chairs to this group. I want to sit on a chair. Bring out the chairs for those of us who want them.” So, you know, I think they've lost, and as I said, the Punjabi Mexican women were kicked out of the gurdwara kitchens up in northern California. There's been a reluctance to, you know, they can't understand why these marriages occurred or how they could be approved of retroactively. Well, they had no choice. They did the best they could and they made it work.

Host (35:59)
No, I remember. You know, there was one story in your book about how the children were playing everywhere and the ladies were just smoking in the toilet, while the men would just have political discussions, or organize and lobby.

Karen Leonard (36:10)
That's right. And that was in the Stockton gurdwara. The Stockon gurdwara was a Sikh gurdwara, a Sikh temple, on the outside, and as someone told me, told me, “Oh, yes, that's where we met the Khan kids every year coming over from Arizona. The Khan kids are Muslim-Punjabi father.” And everyone went to the gurdwaras. They were social centers and political centers, when they actually began to develop. And now of course, they're totally religious.

Host (36:44)
What had happened, geopolitically I mean, that kind of shifted that climate?

Karen Leonard (36:50)
So, you know, so the independence movement succeeded, actually the men here had been organizing anti-British and pro-American citizenship, they hadn't quite realized, you know...Congress party leaders came to Stockton gurdwara. But nobody had come from the Muslim League or Jinnah supporters, and the separation of India and Pakistan took people here by surprise. Almost entirely by surprise. So they had been working together. They were joined in partnerships and marriage relationships, compadrónes go across religious lines. Division of the Punjab into Pakistan and India made an artificial new distinction. And over in Arizona, where most of the Muslim Punjabis were settled, they invented a new term for themselves because they realized their roots were now in Pakistan. So they said, “Well, we'll call ourselves Spanish Pakistanis.” Again, recognizing the bi-ethnic nature, but leaving to invent a new term because “Mexican Hindu” now wouldn't do. So, you know, things, things changed politically and at the national level. And luckily, American citizenship was obtained at almost the same time. So they didn't have to go back or choose to be Indian or Pakistani. They could be American. And most of the children here, when they became aware that the newcomers were saying, “Who are you? What are you? How did your…,” they say, “We're American, and you're not becoming American fast enough.” So they claimed, you know, a majority identity is part of the mainstream.

Host (38:50)
When you make such arguments, when you put--release these publications, what is the critical response from some of the Sikh community that you received?

Karen Leonard (39:01)
Well, you know, Sukhraj, we're just about to have a sixth annual Sikh Studies Conference at UC Riverside. And it's a pity you couldn't come and make it here because it's a completely new landscape. When I first went to a Sikh studies conference initiated by the new Sikh diaspora people in 19--I think--84, at the University of Michigan. I was the only person who had looked into this early pioneer community and discovered its interesting characteristics. And I gave a paper about the Mexican Hindus. And there was an uproar. Most of the people in the room were new immigrants, Sikhs or people studying Sikh things. And they said, “Hindu? How could they allow themselves to be called Hindu? We don't believe it. This can't have been the case. And also we didn't know about them. We don't want to recognize this.” So, then of course, one had to explain “Hindu” at that time it just meant “from Hindustan,” from India. In Spanish, still people from India are called Hindus, regardless of their religion. So there was consternation and an initial rejection, both of my work and of the people themselves, the community. And now, it's really changed because the children of the new immigrants are growing up being American and saying, “Oh, this is great. A hybrid, you know, adaptation, becoming American. We like it.” So, the attitude has changed and people are, although not understanding the reasons for the marriages still thinking it must be land, there's an interest in reclaiming—reclaiming this as a Sikh diaspora, not really about the broader Punjabi characteristics. Again, the newcomers have their own politics, their own identity politics, and they try to interpret the earlier pioneers the way they want to.

Host (41:20)
And that’s, I mean, your book, your book is quite indisputable in ways because it's not just all history, but it's all history of the early settlers and their, their, their wives and children and so on. It's hard to contest that but it's quite a reflection of how, how effective that kind of religious identity has become.

Karen Leonard (41:41)
That's very true and there's a wonderful film Jayasri Majumdar Hart has made called “Roots in the Sand.” She made it all at least 15 years ago now and it has members of these Punjabi Mexican families speaking to the camera saying, “Yes, I'm a Hindu and I'm proud of it,” or “Yes, my granddad was a Hindu.” And of course, they were actually Sikhs or Muslims. But, you know, the language was different. The whole scene, the whole landscape was quite different. People don't realize, you know, historical change. It makes a big difference: national laws, regional customs, the demography of the local community. All of these things are very, very important and play major roles.

Host (42:49)
I really enjoyed reading your book because it really had that perspective of the social construction of their identity, whether it's political, economic, whether class. There's a lot of intersectional factors that considered, that was taken into consideration about who these early settlers were. To say they were just Sikh wouldn't really be really revealing about the choices they made or the consequences of their life, in life choices etc. Do you think that in the rise of this literature on intersectionality, that some—that there will be more analysis now in the future? Or has anybody worked to continue your work after your publication of your book and other literature?

Karen Leonard (43:11)
Well, you know, I have people continually contacting me asking for information about their grandfathers, or whatever. And these are, you know, mixed ethnic descendants, almost always. And I've given all my research materials to Stanford University because the Chicano Latino people up there wanted them. They wanted these materials. And since then, an Indian oral history project has shown a lot of interest but people contact me and they're making movies. I'll send you an email about Punjabi truckers that another one's making—I don't know, she's writing a journal story about the mixed cooking in the families. The food was really good, taken from both traditions and the women cooked especially chicken murgi. Well, that means chicken chicken, chicken curry. Some people made a dance performance of, you know, actually I don't think the Punjabi men and the Mexican women did dance a lot in public, but there's been some celebratory ethnic thing, you know, again, drawing on my work and interviewing people. It isn't an ongoing community because the children and grandchildren have all married out. When they grew up, their fathers suddenly objected. They would say, “Oh, you can't marry x. He's the son of a Muslim Punjabi or he's from Majha, not our Malwa area or, you know, various objections. And the mothers would say, “What? You married out. And then they would help their children elope or make whatever marriage they wanted. So the community has died but descendants are still very interested and proud and want to learn more.

Host (45:13)
Just two things. There was one quote by Mola Singh on page 116 of your book about all the similarities about the food, the rotli being the same, the vegetables, eating on the floor and enjoying so many similarities and how much he was really happy to be part of the Mexican community.

Karen Leonard (45:33)

Host (45:34)
The second thing was that any incestual concerns because brothers were marrying sisters, just and they found that to be quite similar networks. But were there any kind of incestual concerns about maybe being married to some--a close cousin or something?

Karen Leonard (45:53)
Well, not that I picked up on or heard about no, no. And Mola’s thing was terrific. I’m looking at that page. And this is where talking about religion only one God, Susanna said “God gives a lot of different languages but I don't think so many gods.” Mola Singh says, “Only one god.” So again, they, they made it work and they were more cosmopolitan, whether forced to be or not. Here's his thing about in India: “lots of times in India I feel the woman is a slave. No, that's no good.” You know. So the men changed their views and was one of the few surviving pioneers I was able to meet. I interviewed him for three, four days I think. Anyway, it is rewarding.

Host (46:48)
It is rewarding because I mean, I had my own misconceptions about that community. And then when I started doing my own kind of oral history and reaching out to some communities, I got some interest. There were actually some descendants to this day who have their family photos in your book and then were like, they recognized it straight away. And they said, “That's my granddad or that's my great grandfather and so on.” And they're around the university and Southern California too, and Fresno.

Karen Leonard (47:16)
Yes. Yes. No, no, it's a really proud—you know, they know they had a hard time, and they know that they achieved a lot despite it. The children know that and they’re really proud. So whether your name is Omar Deen or whatever, you can sit there and say, “I'm a Hindu and I’m a proud Hindu and I’m from the Punjab.” And of course, Omar Deen is a Muslim name. Oh, well. Anyway, it was a really fun project and it continues. I still have a lot of friends in the community. But there are funerals, yeah.

Host (48:04)
And how important—just closing—how important would you say oral history is for such work to capture the kind of essence of history?

Karen Leonard (48:16)
Right. Well, I think it's absolutely essential. Without the words of these men, women and their children, you wouldn't catch the flavor of their life at all. Just looking at the statistics, at the birth, death and marriage records, without hearing the voices. And not just the voices of the community members but of, say, Swiss farmers or Basque farmers who dealt with these farmers, who could testify to their hard work and crucial roles in the community. You have to fill in the whole context for your speakers and all the voices together. Make a picture that you could never capture in any other way. And, you know, it couldn't be done now because too many people have died or taken other turns. You just have to capture it the best you can, as fast as you can, and keep on. Keep on talking to them.

Host (49:16)
That's beautifully said. And I really, really enjoyed reading your book. I read it really sharply in detail, made extensive notes about it. Was there any final message that you wanted to give to the listeners or future readers of your book?

Karen Leonard (49:33)
Well, not, not really. It's just, I think, you know, the claiming of identity in a national context that's always changing. You know, right at the moment, you know, Muslim Americans were making a strong claim to becoming part of the national civic religion. And our horrible President Trump has really made that hard. You know, things can change dramatically and fast and whole communities have to react and reinterpret and represent themselves. It's, it's very, very challenging. Anyway. Well, all the best and thank you so much for calling.

Host (50:24)
Thank you so much, Professor Karen Leonard, the author of the book Making Ethnic Choices and her continued support and correspondence with SikhArchive about the Punjabi Mexican community. I learned so much from reading that book, and was presented with a real, unique critical outlook on the social construction of the Sikh diaspora in America. It really made me wonder more about other Sikh settlers in other countries, and certainly reaffirmed for me the importance of oral history. But please do share your thoughts and feedback on this episode, what you liked or disliked about it, what questions you would like answered about this particular topic and what topics you would like to hear from us in the near future when we start to record future episodes, I would like to thank all the generous Patreons that made this episode possible, our sponsor, Sikh Student Learning, and the thousands of followers on our social media that continue to motivate us to actively record and share Sikh history. We hope to continue recording more podcasts and make Sikh history accessible in audio format. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to hear more, please share with others so that we can attract more supporters that in turn help us generate to record more episodes. Thanks again for listening and to all those that generously support our project.

Collection: Karen Leonard Materials
Donor: Karen Leonard
Item History: 2020-03-18 (created); 2023-05-16 (modified)

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