Punjabi-Mexicans in California: A Story Told Through Dance
Half and Halves, tells the story of Punjabi-Mexican intermarriages in California at the start of the 20th century.
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.
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.
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