Somewhere along the griddle-flat, arid terrain of the Southwest, juts out a pole-mounted azure sign with a green oasis painted on it. It reads: “Tucumcari Inn.”
The signage beneath it makes the declaration: “American Owned.” Then, in order of decreasing priority—maybe—follow announcements about the amenities that it offers: “Nice Rooms,” “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 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, it was opened in 1926 and was the first U.S. highway to be completely paved in 1938. Rodeo cowboys, truckers, vacationers, peripatetic retirees, tourists, and itinerant vendors have all traveled along this iconic path. They still do.
It’s 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 became an emblem of American culture.
But today, roughly 40 percent of the motels nationwide, are owned and operated by Indian-Americans, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.
The Atlanta, Georgia-based organization has 9,800 members, who own more than 22,000 hotels that total $60 billion in property value.
Interestingly, one need only riffle through its annual report to see why the Indian last name, “Patel,” has come to be synonymous with the motel business in the U.S.
For the past one year, Anne C. Dodge, an urban planning researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent long hours on the road, driving from motel-to-motel, stopping in 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 M.I.T.’s School of Architecture and Planning—was to go behind the “American Owned” banner.
When Dodge walked toward a mildly-faded, but hard-to-miss, sepia-toned billboard in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, carrying a rather emaciated Uncle Sam, promising guests a “Sleep American,” experience, she was hoping to find Caucasian proprietors.
“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,” Dodge says.
But the reality is the converse. Such signs have been put up by some Indian owners as part of their advertising strategy to attract white customers.
Vina and her husband Snehal Parikh run the Americana Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. The couple entered the hospitality business in the mid-1990s, after selling off their liquor store in Houston, Texas.
“After I had a child, it was difficult to give a lot of time to the liquor shop. At the time, running a motel appeared to be the ideal business,” Vina says.
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 so that people walk in, see a nice lobby and then, choose to stay here. Plus, we are Americans. So, in that sense, too, it’s O.K. to put up that sign,” she adds.
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 sizable immigrant population than those that are predominantly white areas.
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 so because their businesses are slower than on the coasts.”
Sure enough, the Imperial Inn doesn’t carry the sign.
Nor does the tepee-styled Wigwam Motel in Rialto, California, says Samir Patel, whose family bought the 55-year-old site over five years ago.
It’s hard to tell whether the issue surrounding the signage is more racially-charged or commercially-risky, but most Indian motel owners interviewed by India Currents for this piece, hung up the telephone.
However, Fred Schwartz, A.A.H.O.A. president clarifies: “In displaying the “American Owned” sign, we certainly 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, Jack Patel, owner of the Desert Hills Motel, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said, when his family took over the hotel, they’d no knowledge of the cultural significance of Route 66. “It was a regular street to us,” he said.
He explained their reasons behind putting up the “American Owned” sign: “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—would deter prospective clients.
Today, however, he doesn’t fear losing business.
“A lot has changed since then, of course. Every customer who walks in here knows, that most likely, they’re going to run into an Indian hotelier. Besides, they don’t see much difference as far as the services go,” he told Dodge.