There is a salient absence of women in the early history of South Asian Americans.  But a handful of women from Punjab did join their husbands in the western United States before the Second World War.  Between 1916 and 1940, a unique Punjabi/Mexican American community formed in the western US involving mixed families of Punjabi men who had married women from Mexico.  These women, and their daughters, formed the majority of women in the hybrid Punjabi/Mexican American community.  This gallery narrates the extraordinary lives of the first Punjabi women in California’s Sacramento Valley, as well as the Punjabi/Mexican American women who played a critical role in shaping the community’s history.

The Arrival of the First Generation of Women from Punjab

When the first cohort of Punjabi women arrived in Yuba City circa 1950, they entered spaces inhabited mainly by men from Punjab.  The Punjabi community was hybrid, involving intermarriage with women of every cultural background.  The relations between the new women arriving from Punjab and the Punjabi-Mexican American wives were somewhat tense due to cultural and language differences.  However, this project uncovers the intimate and lifelong female friendships across cultural and religious differences.  Reflecting the demographics of Yuba City’s Punjabi community before the 1960s, the majority of women featured in this project are Sikh.  Also included are a small number of Punjabi women who are Hindu and Muslim, as well as the Catholic wives of the early Punjabi settlers who came from Mexico.  The women in this project often formed close friendships with other women from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds.

This is the first public history project featuring the individual and collective history of the first generation of Punjabi women who settled in California’s Sacramento Valley after the Second World War.

Sources: Joan M. Jensen, Passage From India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Bruce LaBrack, Sikhs of Northern California, 1904-1975 (New York: AMS Press, 1988); Karen Isaksen Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992); and, Karen Isaksen Leonard, The South Asian Americans (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997).