Somewhere along the pancake-flat terrain and the arid landscape of the Southwest juts out a pole-mounted azure sign with a green oasis painted on it. It reads: “Tucumcari Inn.”
The signage below declares the inn “American Owned.” Then, in order of decreasing priority, follow announcements about the amenities that it offers: “HBO,” “Internet,” “Breakfast,” and “Weekly Rates.”
This is one of the many motels strung along one of America’s historic roads, U.S. Route 66—the 2,500 mile-long highway that originates in Chicago and terminates in Los Angeles, after snaking through the eight states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
A product of the Roaring Twenties, Route 66 was opened in 1926 and was the first American highway to be completely paved in 1938. Rodeo cowboys, truckers, vacationers, peripatetic retirees, tourists, and itinerant vendors have all traveled (and still do) along this iconic path. It is the birthplace of the first McDonald’s, in San Bernardino, in 1940. With its neon-lit diners, U-shaped motor inns and a variety of roadside entertainment, Route 66 is an enduring symbol of American culture and history.
The development of the Interstate highway system dealt a crushing blow to this historic route, affecting the businesses that depended on its traffic. Motels along the route changed hands with the changing times. Many were taken over by immigrants, primarily of South Asian descent.
In response, the “American Owned” signage began popping up in several locations along the route. The phenomenon was documented by journalist Hilary Hylton in an article for Time magazine in 2007. She wrote, “While this seemingly innocuous phrase may appeal to many customers, it can also be intended as code for ‘not owned by immigrants,’ an attempt to divert business from upstanding first- or second-generation citizens whose ethnicity distinguishes them from most of their small-town neighbors.”
In an attempt to chart this trend, Anne C. Dodge, an urban planning researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spent long hours on this road for the past one year, driving from motel to motel to interview the people who run them. One of the goals of her 66 Motels project—funded by the Graham Foundation for the Fine Arts and MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning—was to go behind the spread of the “American Owned” signage.
“I began this project thinking that ‘American Owned’ was a label that was used exclusively by white motel owners to promote their properties to customers who were disinclined to rent a room at an Indian-American owned motel,” says Dodge. But what she found surprised her.
Vina and her husband Snehal Parikh run a similarly signed motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. The couple entered the hospitality business in the mid-1990s after selling their liquor store in Houston, Texas. After selling off their first motel in Seligman, Arizona—a classic Route 66 town—in 1997, they moved to Tucumcari, a smaller town, and bought their current motel from its previous owner, also another Indian American.
“Since people are prejudiced because of our skin color, we put up this sign. People walk in … see a nice lobby, and then choose to stay here. Plus, we are Americans. So in that sense too, it’s okay to put up that sign,” Vina argues.
Jagdish Patel, manager of the Imperial Inn, in Bordentown, New Jersey, gives a related explanation.
“Indian innkeepers have an easier time of renting out their rooms in towns that are ethnically diverse and have a sizeable immigrant population than those that are predominantly white. Motel owners in the Northeast seldom foist the ‘American-Owned’ sign,” he says. “By contrast, motels in small towns in the Southwest and the Midwest often do.”
However, Fred Schwartz, president of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), insists, “In displaying the ‘American Owned’ sign, we also want to be patriotic. And we show it in various ways. In one instance, our members offered 101,000 complimentary rooms to our troops in Iraq.”
In a conversation with Dodge during the course of her research, Jack Patel, owner of the Desert Hills Motel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, explained the reasons behind putting up the “American Owned” sign several years ago. “When a customer would walk in and see an Indian owner in the office, he or she would just walk off and try to find another hotel.” As a kid, he and other kids in his family would be prevented from playing outside, lest the sight of Indian children—an indication that the hotel was Indian-owned—deter prospective clients.
Things are a little better these days. “Every customer who walks in here knows that the motel is most likely run by a South Asian proprietor, and they don’t see much difference as far as the services go,” he says.
Today, roughly 40 percent of the motels nationwide are owned and operated by Indian-Americans, according to AAHOA. The Atlanta, Georgia-based organization has 9,800 members who own more than 22,000 hotels that total $60 billion in property value. One need only rifle through its annual report to see why the Indian surname Patel has come to be synonymous with the motel business in the United States.
Alakananda Mookerjee is a New York City-based journalist.