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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Chinese - and Mexican?

from the Sept. 1, 2021 Bulletin

labor immigration Mexican history Asian-Mexicans

Historian Jason Chang, in his 2017 book Chino: Anti-Chinese Racism in Mexico, 1880-1940, explores how the racial image of the Chinese has shifted since the Mexican Revolution — and how anti-Chinese racism, antichinismo, has influenced the evolution of México’s mestizo national identity. Chang currently directs the University of Connecticut’s Asian and Asian American Studies Institute.


In many tiny villages around the world, you’ll be surprised to find a Chinese restaurant! When did the Chinese arrive in México?


Chinese laborers began migrating to the Americas in the 1800s, both voluntarily to earn money to send home and recruited as “coolie labor” to work in the toughest jobs for the lowest pay. In the US, racism against the Chinese resulted in the Exclusion Acts of 1882 — legislation that barred them from entry — and this resulted in an influx of Chinese into México. Mexicans at that time could freely go back and forth across the border. Some Chinese took this backdoor route and entered the US disguised as Mexicans!


But starting in the 1890s, under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, British and American companies also gained contracts with the Mexican government to build railroads, and these companies needed workers to lay track. That led to the import of Chinese labor. By the time of the Mexican Revolution, the Chinese had become México’s second-largest immigrant group.


During that Revolution, in 1911, the “good guys” fighting to overthrow the dictatorship massacred hundreds of Chinese in Torreón. What made the Chinese so hated?


Many Mexicans associated the Chinese with the Díaz regime, because President Díaz had imported Chinese labor. So hating them became a way of opposing the dictatorship. Many of the Chinese had also been able to save enough to start small businesses — like, yes, restaurants or grocery stores, gardens, and even a Chinese bank. The more successful they became, the more resentment they felt.


In Torreón, a mob of revolutionary forces, plus townspeople, went on an a spree of atrocities. They viciously killed 303 Asian-Mexican men, women, and children, half the town’s local population. The massacre destroyed the Chinese community. By some estimates, Chinese households lost a million-dollars worth of assets in a horror similar to the 1921 massacre of successful African-Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


The United States denied Chinese workers entry, citizenship, and the right to marry white women. Did México enact similar restrictions?


México never completely banned Chinese immigration or naturalization. And Chinese men could marry Mexican women. But race has always been a tricky concept in México. The first conquistador married an indigenous woman, and their union produced the first mestizo. With no white women around, marriage and rape continued to produce mixed children. Not until the Revolution did the term mestizo get adopted as the national racial identity. That said, the European side, the conqueror side, always remained dominant in terms of cultural norms, and México had plenty of racists who saw mestizaje, intermixing, as a step toward whitening their society.

In the US, Asian-Americans found their identity and voice during the Civil Rights movement. Has México had an Asian-Mexican movement?


No, México has no parallel to the US Civil Rights movement,  partly because racial identity in México has been more fluid than the white/non-white binary. Besides, Chinese immigrants since the 1940s have tended to be business people — pragmatic, accommodating to what the situation is rather than trying to achieve what isn’t. They and their Mexican-born children see education and hard work as the only path to getting ahead.


How integrated into Mexican society have the Chinese in México become?


México City has a Chinatown, but the borderlands have been where the Chinese have had a particular impact. Border communities create a kind of third space where neither the norms of México nor the US apply. The resulting hybrid culture — a Mexican way of being Chinese — involves having an accumulation of experiences with racism and having adapted to it. The Chinese have become a normal part of borderlands culture and have helped make the borderlands what they are.


President López Obrador has issued a formal public apology for the Torreón massacre.


Yes, a population that was invisible has now become more visible. AMLO’s apology partly reflects the desire of both China and México to cooperate economically. But the apology also represents a healthy new recognition of marginalized and oppressed people — and an opening for sharing their histories, their contributions, and their stories.