New York: Like the Greek owners of many a roadside diner, Indian immigrants predominantly from Gujarat, have become curators of a nice slice of Americana by opening motels, a quintessential feature of America’s serpentine highways dating back to the 1940s.
The so-called “Patel motel” phenomenon began in the 1960s when immigrants from Gujarat, started applying their business acumen to the US motel industry. The 1965 Immigration Act opened the doors to immigrants from more diverse backgrounds and many more Gujaratis came to the US.
“Chances are that anyone who has stayed in motels in the last decade has stayed in at least one owned by an Indian American,” writes Pawan Dhingra, a sociology professor at Oberlin College in his new book “Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream,” out this month from Stanford University.
The Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), which Dhingra explains has virtually all-Indian membership, has 11,000 members who together own 22,000 hotels and motels in the US worth around $128 billion in property value.
Decades after the arrival in the US of the first Indian motel keepers — almost all with roots in Gujarat and most with the surname Patel — Gujaratis now own 60 percent of budget properties. By employing family members, doing most chores themselves, and working all hours, Indian motel keepers have been able to expand and dominate the budget motel industry.
Not that this hasn’t created serious heart burn. In 2007, there was a spurt in motels that hung a sign outside that declared “American owned.” The seemingly innocuous signs reflected a barely concealed prejudice, notably against Indians, who own one out of three roadside motels in America. The signs were intended as code for “not owned by immigrants,” an attempt to divert business from Indian America first or second generation motel owners whose ethnicity distinguished them from most of their small-town neighbours.
Motel owner Yashwant Patel, who is a member of AAHOA, says the signs reflected a grab for competitive advantage cloaked in patriotism — a grab that leaves Indian owners tainted by the absence of an “American-owned” sign and by anti-immigrant hostility. He said many motel owners of Indian descent who are naturalized Americans could put up “American-owned” signs. But they don’t because they’re offended by the idea.
“What is American-owned? Our children are born here, they have graduated from US schools and they work in the business. Even if we are from other countries we take pride in our work,” said Patel, who owns a string of motels and stores in New Jersey. AAHOA launched a letter-writing campaign urging motels to remove the phrase.
Dhingra, who is also the Museum Curator at the Smithsonian Institution, says that “Patel motels” have sometimes been unfairly maligned as smelling like curry. “Customers may still avoid Indian owned motels across all budget levels. Indian American motels can be racialized as dirty, poorly run and managed by ‘untrustworthy foreigners,’” writes Dhingra in his book.
He told Colorlines.com that Indian American motel owners sometimes worked around the problem.
“For those who can afford to hire staff,” Dhingra told Clolorlines.com “what staff they hire, and for what hours, to do what jobs, is a very strategic decision. This is not universal, but often they will hire whites to be their desk clerks during check-in hours in the afternoon. That way, when someone comes to their motel, the visitor won’t know that it’s owned by an Indian. This is one of the subtle ways that they diffuse any possible tension. They’re not ashamed of being owners, but why draw attention to it? Why create possible problems?”
Despite the professional challenges, Indian American motel owners have become very successful and invoke the “model minority” stereotype.
“Indian American motel owners appear as the American dream incarnate — self-employed, self sufficient, boot-strapping immigrants who have become successful without government intervention,” writes Dhingra in “Life Behind the Lobby.”
For many Indian American motel owners, Dhingra says, it’s more than a job. It’s not just a business to them; it’s a way of life.