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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Punjabi Pioneers


On a warm day in Imperial Valley California, visitors and residents alike can indulge in a fascinating cross-cultural dining experience: chicken curry enchiladas. The only aspect of this dish more enticing than its expert mix of flavors lies in its rich cultural history. Each bite conveys a story, stories of enterprising migrants from Punjab who married Mexican-American women and fiercely defended their ability to establish roots in their new homeland, despite a host of discriminatory legislation and the barriers of a foreign legal system. Building on primary source material uncovered by renowned anthropologist Karen Leonard in her book “Making Ethnic Choices,” I argue that the Punjabis achieved their success by pulling from a host of familiar strategies, including litigation, marriage, and cross-cultural networking, all learned from their interactions with the British Raj. I chart a path through historiography by examining how Punjabi farmers navigated a unique system of land ownership within Punjab before drawing on the experiences of Punjabi soldiers and laborers in the imperial service. I then delve deep into the lives of Punjabi immigrants in the United States, in which critical relationships with Hispanic women and local officials allowed them to circumvent the Alien Land Laws and maintain their status as landowners. This paper will illuminate how the unique experience of being a colonial subject has influenced, and continues to directly influence, how South Asian immigrants establish deep economic and agricultural roots in the Western United States.

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