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Punjabi-Mexicans in California: A story told through dance

Vijay Rakhra
"Half and Halves" tells the story of Punjabi-Mexican intermarriages in California at the start of the 20th century. Image source: http://www.dancestudiolife.com/two-halves-one-whole/

California has long been a land of possibility. From the Gold Rush to the promise of fertile farmland, people from all over the world have flocked here for the chance at a new life.

That has created some unexpected immigrant communities. One of those happened in the state’s Central and Imperial Valleys. In the early 20th century, Punjabi men came to the area, by way of Canada, to plant fruit trees, hoping to make their fortune in peaches and plums.

Family life was important, but restrictive immigration policies made it impossible for these men to look to India to find a wife, so many married the Mexican women who worked in the orchards.

The marriages created an unlikely sub-culture of Punjabi-Mexicans. And now, the children of these mixed marriages are reaching the end of their lives.

Credit Sandhya Dirks
Duniya Dance and Drum Company practicing using the saap -- a traditional tool used in the Punjabi dance known as Bhangra.

That's why San Francisco’s Duniya Dance and Drum Company, which specializes in Bhangra, the traditional dance of Punjab, paired up with Ensembles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco, a company dedicated to traditional Mexican folk dance, to create dances that celebrate this unique cultural overlap. They are calling the series of dances Half and Halves.

It gets pretty loud when 25 dancers get together to rehearse. Especially these dancers. The Ensembles dancers practice their footwork, decked out in fancy boots as they stomp their feet in complex rhythms.

But this isn’t a typical rehearsal for Ensembles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco, because soon, the dancers from Duniya Dance and Drum Company come in, jumping and bending in the Punjabi style of Indian dance called Bhangra. Each clutches a sapp — a percussion instrument that looks like one of those accordion-style coat racks — and they bang it together, making a beat. It’s an extension of their bodies as they move.

Joti Singh, the artistic director of Duniya, tells her dancers to step it up. “You guys, the show is in two weeks," she says, "So this is the time to do it at performance level and performance energy.”

The show is a collection of dances from both the Mexican and Indian traditions. It marries traditional cultural dances to tell the story of the couples who met and made lives together in the farmlands of California’s Imperial and Central Valleys in the early 20th century. Thousands of couples made a home there — creating a unique hybrid culture.


Credit Sandhya Dirks
Duniya's Joti Singh and Esembles' Zenon Barron watching their dancers rehearse Half and Halves.

To create the show, Singh and her partner on the project, Ensembles director Zenon Barron, traveled across the state, to talk with the children on the marriages. They recorded many of those conversations, and the interviews are peppered throughout the show.

In the testimonials, the children — now in their 70s and 80s — talk about the genuine love between their parents, a love born out of a shared joy and a love for dance. “They talked about farming life, and how their fathers felt like California resembled Punjab, so much,” she says.

Even though the mothers were Catholic and the fathers were for the most part Sikh, they found a way to merge their traditions while still staying true to their religions. Like the story of a Sikh father who was cremated, and then his ashes laid to rest in the grave next to his wife.

Singh says the cultures overlapped and fused in other ways too: “The food, how it was similar, and how their mothers would learn to make rotis and how their mothers would put carnitas in their saag.”

During the rehearsal, Folklorico dancers, ritually and elegantly swirl and twirl around a couple in the wedding dance section of the show. Joti Singh coaches Rajiv Khanna, who's playing the husband.

She tells him he needs to “convince us that you like this girl.”

Khanna is not a professional, but Singh recruited him after he took few classes at Duniya. Khanna says learning the Folklorico dance has been tough. “I’m not a dancer — so learning these steps has been kind of like a foreign language for me,” he says.

Foreign language is an apt metaphor for the show’s deeper meaning, because these couples didn’t share a native language. Instead, they communicated through English.

Singh says one of the things that drew her to this story was that it upended her idea that mixed and interracial marriages were a new phenomenon.

“To realize that people were doing this so long ago” was a revelation, she says. Especially that it was South Asians who were intermarrying, because she says they are traditionally “very insular in terms of marriage, and marrying within — you have to be Indian, and then you have to be the right religion and the right caste within the religion.”

Singh’s parents are Punjabi, but she grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. “You know, it’s not a mixed marriage, but I felt, 'Oh I don’t belong in one place or the other,'” she says. “I’m not completely Indian, I’m not completely American. I looked at these couples and this history, and I was like, ‘Wow — people have been negotiating this for a really long time.’ And now I’m married to a Guinean, and my daughter is half West African, half South Asian.”

The dancers are also working between cultures, juggling the dance culture they know with the one they are learning. Many of the Indian dancers kept trying to move their hands as they do the Folklorico moves. But Ballet Folklorico dance director Zenon Barron says that is not how they do it in Mexico.

“In our culture we do a lot of footwork, but we never use the arms a lot, so most of the time we use the arms down or in the back,” he says.

Folklorico dancer Meredith Bellamy says that means the dancers have to look to each other for cues. “You have to use your body in a different way that’s not always familiar,” she says. “So when we’re doing their pieces we're looking at them, when their doing our pieces they are looking at us.”  

The thing is, that description of dancing — it sounds a lot like falling in love. When you meet someone, you often look to them to see how to be in that moment. And they do the same with you — you take cues from each other. When your families come from different cultures, you need to look to each other even more because often, your relationship becomes the one thread between worlds.

Crosscurrents San Francisco
Sandhya got her start as a reporting fellow at KALW, working on award winning radio documentaries about crime and justice and education in Oakland. She reported on the 2012 presidential election in Iowa, for Iowa Public Radio, where she also covered diversity and mental health issues.