Life behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream

Life behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream

Life behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream

Life behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream


Indian Americans own about half of all the motels in the United States. Even more remarkable, most of these motel owners come from the same region in India and-although they are not all related-seventy percent of them share the surname of Patel. Most of these motel owners arrived in the United States with few resources and, broadly speaking, they are self-employed, self-sufficient immigrants who have become successful-they live the American dream.

However, framing this group as embodying the American dream has profound implications. It perpetuates the idea of American exceptionalism-that this nation creates opportunities for newcomers unattainable elsewhere-and also downplays the inequalities of race, gender, culture, and globalization immigrants continue to face. Despite their dominance in the motel industry, Indian American moteliers are concentrated in lower- and mid-budget markets. Life Behind the Lobby explains Indian Americans' simultaneous accomplishments and marginalization and takes a close look at their own role in sustaining that duality.


You are part of this economy, integral to the health of the U.S.,
accounting for $40 billion in commerce each year…. It won’t be
long before you are known as people and families who are deeply,
passionately, knowledgeably, involved in making our beloved United
States of America what it should be

when former vice president Al Gore spoke these words at a 2002 convention of motel own ers, he was not the first— nor would he be the last— high- profile politician to do so. President Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Dole, Senator Christopher Dodd, Congressman Newt Gingrich, and two- time presidential candidate and publisher Steve Forbes, among other notables, also have addressed this group. Such a lineup is especially noteworthy because the attendees of this convention are not the typical collection of U.S. business owners. Practically all of the audience members were Asian Indian American. These motel own ers have created what likely is the largest ethnic enterprise in U.S. history. They claim about half of all the nation’s motels and hotels, with a concentration in lower- and middle- budget motels. Indeed, these leading Indian American motel own ers have accrued enough wealth and resources to command attention and bring powerful, wealthy, white men in as speakers.

Indian American motel own ers appear as the American dream incarnate—self- employed, self- sufficient, boot- strapping immigrants who have become successful without government intervention. Regardless of their po liti cal ideology, these keynote speakers invoke the . . .

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