Review of “Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans”

Karen Isaksen Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans (1992), xii + 333 (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, $96.13, paperback $30.95).

Karen Isaken Leonard takes on every thinkable form of archival research and conducted interviews to document and interpret both the internal and external forces that led to the emergence of Punjabi Mexican Americans in California. Leonard explained that in her initial interest she discovered that there were no sources available outside of oral histories. Therefore, the thoroughness of this book makes Making Ethnic Choices a keystone work on South Asian immigration, Mexican Americans, biracial awareness, and selective adaptation. In an attempt to methodically analyze the role of women and the socialization of the second generation, her application of new social history creates a complex book that is thorough but very clearly organized and, therefore, accessible to undergrads and people unfamiliar with the subject.

Putting the book into context, Leonard discusses the socioeconomic similarities between Punjabi immigrants’ home communities and their new homes. She discusses racism, legal hurdles, and constraints that these early immigrants experienced in California. Within the home, Leonard details the complexities of family, marriage traditions and expectations, and the influence of American civilization on every facet of the Punjabi Mexicans’ lives. However, the details in terms of child mortality and medical history and the comparison between Punjabis born in India and California seem to be unnecessary to the content of the book as a whole. In business, the majority of these men worked in agriculture. Also, because they brought a skill set from India and were placed in these jobs by a community organizer, Leonard discusses the idea of equality between the Anglo and Punjabi Mexicans. This section on networking and employment is equally inclusive of both the Punjab and Mexican immigrants.

Unfortunately, the majority of the section on female networking is focused on Mexican immigrants with a brief mention of Indians networking through marriage and the belief that the “real Indian” family was not multiethnic. Here she connects both the genders and ethnicities to present a very hierarchical system in which the males are on the top, females are on the bottom, and the Punja peoples are superior to the Mexicans–even if those are their spouses. This establishment in their bi-ethnic communities, Leonard argues, is precipitated by homeland values. Outside of marital and opinions of premarital sex being influenced by tradition, religion, and western society, Leonard also pulls in marriage legitimacy via laws, divorce beliefs, and polygamy. She then moves into marriage conflict that leads to adultery and murder, no different than what is seen presently on American nightly news. However, she closes out the second part by reflecting on second-generation Punjabi Mexicans celebrating their parents’ anniversaries. While a common practice in the United States, the newly arriving Punjabi immigrants were offended and shocked by the custom. It was a nice touch at showing just how different relationships are valued and celebrated while emphasizing that their networks were transnational.

The third part focuses on the second generation’s experience; growing up, coming of age, change in politics and their identity, their place in society, and closes with the construction of ethnicity and theoretical implications. Despite being multiethnic, a Mexican identity was formed early on when the children attended schools with a mostly Spanish-speaking student body and entered a society that not only labeled them as Mexican on sight but consider Singh a Mexican surname–which is obviously problematic. Leonard rightfully elaborates on the various religions practiced in the Imperial Valley and how inside and out of it, society labeled and committed violent acts against the immigrants. Additionally, she addresses things that made the differences in their customs of faith, such as, funerals and diet, which publically showed their differences.

Within this part, she elaborates on their family dynamics which may seem meaningless until the reader takes a step back to think about how this affects the second generation’s perspective on family roles and finance. At a young age, the female Mexican children were actually discouraged from befriending and interacting with the Indian children. This is presented as the symbol of discord between the two ethnic groups. Then, the topic of marriage occurs once more as many arranged marriages occurred at such a young age in India; however, the theme remains constant that fathers needed to approve the marriage and most Punjabis married Mexicans. The topic ends in conflict, with this generation eager to maintain their Punjabi values and homeland pride while adapting and finding their place in American society. The tension with arranged marriage and gender roles, where masculinity is defined by the ability to provide for the family, is arguably a conflict between maintaining certain values and habits while trying to adapt to American culture.

The shift in the legal system, Leonard clarifies, occurred in 1946 with the Luce-Celler bill, which allowed Indians to pursue citizenship. The bill is discussed in depth, describing who was eligible for citizenship and what the newly established quotas would be. There are also explanations of what has come to pass in Anglo-American society with the new spotlight on the South Asians, such as the term ‘Hindu’ to describe them rather than those solely of the Hindu faith. Another shift is that of the influx of immigrants from India and Pakistan, which changed communities as well as social and cultural identities. These new communities faced public prejudice and racism only exacerbated by the Punjabi agriculturists’ refusal to turn over land, which distanced them further from other societies. The Mexicans and Mexican Americans were also farmers which led to significant networking between the two ethnic groups. This section then closes with the shifts in the meaning of being Hindu and how being multiethnic only further complicated the shifts in the meaning of the term. Her goal here being that the historiography needs to expand and acknowledge both the oppression these immigrants experienced as well as the struggles they overcame, particularly when clarifying the diverse identity of Indians.

Closing with the discussion in the field, Leonard addresses the differences of opinions on Punjabi immigrant experiences how their culture changed and their values affected their adaptation to American society. Furthermore, she addressed beliefs that they assimilated [sic] via the Mexican peoples’ culture and acculturation of material culture, habits, and diet. In addition to this, Leonard points out that there has been a lack of acknowledgment to the second generation, women, and the changes in the meaning of “Hindu.” Leonard believes that the creation of an invented tradition where the second-generation is accepting every aspect of their heritage, parental values, and their westernized life, is what historians will begin to focus on and study. Her goal is to end the myth that they are a marginalized subculture.

Ultimately, this work presents a group of multiethnic people, immigrants and their second-generation children, and how their positions changed in the 20th Century. Leonard presents ethnic and racial groups, particularly of mixed ancestry and pushing the Anglo identity. Moreover, she rightfully emphasized the need for historians to include transnationalism in their studies of immigrants as homeland pride is not a hindrance to adaptation–as she makes obvious in her argument with the Punjabis. The book provides a detailed study on the Punjabi Mexicans of California. Unfortunately, the ethnic groups’ gender balance is skewed: The majority of discussion on women is of the Mexican immigrants while the majority of the discussion males focuses on the Punjabis. The book remains the most thorough source I have discovered, both the Mexican and Punjabi immigrants and the second-generation experience.

Natalie Griffitts
University of Mary Washington