Another Take on the ‘Patel Motel Cartel’

Fourteen years ago, The New York Times ran a magazine story headlined “A Patel Motel Cartel?” The article, by the journalist Tunku Varadarajan, examined the dominance of America’s motel industry by Indians and Indian-Americans — who owned half of all motels in America.  Specifically, Varadarajan found, these owners were Indians from the state of Gujarat — and 70 percent of them bore the surname Patel, indicating that they belong to a particular Gujarati Hindu sub-caste.

Now a new book digs deeper into this phenomenon. Sociologist Pawan Dhingra’s new book, “Life Behind the Lobby,” published by Stanford University Press, was reviewed recently by Greg Varner in Colorlines.

(Photo via Colorlines)

This dominance of the motel business by Indian Americans has been viewed as a characteristically American success story—the American dream realized. The neoliberal state theorizes entrepreneurs as ideal citizens, as Dhingra points out in the introduction to his book, since they are self-reliant workers who expect little or no help from the government. But the brightly shining rhetoric conceals a less sunny reality, since Indian American motel owners are also viewed as second-class citizens, subject to racial and cultural prejudice that sometimes translates into real inequality. (Indian American owners are concentrated in the bottom half of the industry, in lower- and mid-budget motels.)

Many Indian motel and hotel owners take some pains to remove any indication of foreignness from their establishments, Dhingra found.

“For those who can afford to hire staff,” he says, “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?”

This, Dhingra asserts, “reenforces this notion of whiteness as better than brownness. It reenforces the hierarchy. The success is real, but so are the hierarchies they’ve got to navigate.”

Dhingra traces the Indian dominance of the motel industry back to a Gujarati who immigrated to San Francisco in the 1940s and purchased a residential, hostel-like hotel. He tells a story that will sound familiar to anyone who has considered the emergence of a particular immigrant group in a business sector — Koreans in New York City’s grocery stores and delis, for example, or Chinese-owned laundromats.

(Photo via Colorlines)

“Back in the 1940s, motels were not as common. Around 1946, some Gujaratis came in and this guy was already here in San Francisco, who had sent letters home. Social networks play a huge role. A Gujarati moves to the U.S. and he can choose any business, but will go into motels. Why? Because he knows people in the business who can help him out. The sense of community facilitates his entry into that business. He owns a motel, and he works there with his wife and kids, and then his relatives come over, work with him and live with him. They save a lot of money that way, and will then purchase their own motel. And they’ll bring other family members, and then five years later, the same thing happens again.”

As well as his book, Dhingra is also curating an ambitious museum project on Indians in America, Colorlines reported.

Dhingra’s expertise in connection with Indian American motel owners will serve him well as he curates a traveling exhibit on Indian American heritage for the Smithsonian Institution. He has taken a two-year sabbatical from Oberlin College, where he has taught since 2003, to spearhead the HomeSpun project. The exhibit will open in Washington, D.C., in 2013 and then tour around the country.


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