The forgotten history of Chinese immigrants in this Mexican border town


MEXICALI, Mexico—Mexicali has all the obvious signs of being a border town: roads pointing the way to the United States, car after car lined up at crossing points from early morning through the blistering hot day and well into the night—currency exchange places dog-earing every corner.

But there’s something about this place that sets it apart in the borderlands. You might notice it first in the Chinese restaurants dotting the streets, in the elaborate pagoda that sits at the border with Calexico, or in the doorways downtown with subtle, sometimes faded, Chinese lettering.

This dusty northern Mexican city of around 690,000 was largely developed by an often-overlooked community of Chinese immigrants, whose roots here trace back to the late 1800s. Tens of thousands of immigrants, mostly from Canton (now Guangzhou), arrived to the area between the mid–1800s and the 1940s, crossing by ship from southern China, often first to San Francisco, sometimes to other Mexican cities like Ensenada and Guadalajara, before choosing Mexicali. Many stayed for generations after and helped build this city into what’s become.

The Chinese-Mexican community here remains very much a part of Mexicali—especially downtown, a historic center of the city’s rich history. There’s a stretch of several blocks called La Chinesca which, after decades of semi-abandonment and disrepair, is seeing the beginnings of a revival as newer generations reconnect, and for some, discover for the first time, their lasting impact on Mexicali culture.

On a quiet Saturday morning, with most of downtown deserted, the sounds of children reciting phrases in Mandarin echo down a hallway at the Chinese Association. It’s an institution that’s been around since 1919, founded when several smaller associations banded together to increase their collective resources and ability to represent the growing community. Over the decades, it’s provided a safe haven and a point of contact for newly arrived immigrants, many of whom did not speak Spanish when they arrived in Mexico. It has, on the other hand, proven elusive for some young Chinese-Mexicans who were born and raised here and never learned Mandarin or Cantonese.

As the students filtered out of their classrooms and into the association’s hallways for a break from their Saturday lessons, I sat down with Esteban León, the association’s administrative and academic director and a third-generation Chinese Mexican, who talks with pride about the impact the Chinese community has had here.

Chinese leaders, he told me, were instrumental in opening the city’s first public hospital, school, and many of the businesses that drove the expansion of the city through the 1900s–from shoe shops and grocery stores to Chinese restaurants serving up Cantonese dishes using local Mexican ingredients.

“If you look at history books, they accept that the pioneers of Mexicali were primarily Chinese,” Leon told me. “That’s one of the characteristics of Mexicali. There’s no other Mexican border town with these characteristics.”

Leon’s own family arrived in Mexico around 1857, changing their Chinese last name, Leung, to Leon, when they arrived. He grew up in Ensenada, on the Pacific coast, and moved to Mexicali in 1978, where he ran photography shops before retiring recently. His grandparents made the journey, he said, in search of new opportunities in Mexico.

He doesn’t think the Chinese community in Mexicali has ever faced outright persecution like in other parts of the country–he thinks it’s just a question of people not wanting to leave their comfort zones.

“I think the biggest problem is the language…not being able to improve their Spanish is a common problem,” he said.

The story of Chinese-Mexican immigration started with the pursuit of agricultural jobs: In 1889, the Chinese and Mexican governments signed a treaty to allow agricultural laborers to live and work in Mexico, a mass pilgrimage undoubtedly encouraged by the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese workers from entering the U.S.

Verónica Castillo-Muñoz, an Assistant Professor in History at the University of California Santa Barbara and author of a forthcoming book about the region, The Other California, told me a trade agreement between the Chinese and Mexican governments made in conjunction with the Colorado River Land Company’s 1904 deal to contract 800,000 acres of land in the Mexicali Valley to grow cotton, or oro blanco (white gold), brought thousands more Chinese immigrants to Mexico. (A decision made partly because the company found it difficult to retain Mexican workers, who were flocking to work in the U.S. en masse.)

But the early 20th century would prove tumultuous for Chinese-Mexicans. In 1910, around the time of the Mexican Revolution, Chinese immigrants were beginning to lay roots in the community, opening businesses and shops, only to be met with a marked increase in nationalist rhetoric toward the immigrants, who were viewed as a supposed threat to Mexican ownership. In 1911, revolutionary leader Francisco Madero attacked a Chinese-Mexican community in Torreón, killing 300 people. By the 1920s, according to UCLA sociologist and historian Eduardo Chao Romero, there were around 26,000 Chinese Mexicans in the country, most of them in the Mexicali Valley.

A few decades later, the nearby state of Sonora passed laws against intermarriage between Chinese immigrants and other Mexicans, followed by a law in 1919 that required Chinese-Mexican businesses to employ a minimum of 80% non-Chinese Mexicans. In the 1930s, many Chinese-Mexicans were expelled from Sinaloa and Sonora and sent back to China. By 1940, there were just around 6,000 Chinese-Mexicans left in the country, according to Chao Romero.

One of the reasons the Chinese-Mexican community in Mexicali was able to survive in the city, Castillo-Muñoz told me, was through the existence of the Chinese Association.

“That’s basically the reason why they weren’t expelled. They were organized. In Sonora they were expelled. That didn’t happen in Mexicali because the Chinese Association was very strong and well-connected. It still is, their role hasn’t changed,” she said.

But with that drop in the Chinese-Mexican population and several fires that razed parts of La Chinesca to the ground, the legacy of Chinese immigrants in Mexicali was obscured for decades.

Getting a handle on just how many Chinese-Mexicans are left in Mexicali is difficult, because in keeping with a growing trend among young people, fewer third and fourth generation Chinese-Mexicans identify as such in census reporting. León told me there could be anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 Chinese-Mexicans living here now. He estimates around 70% of the Chinese Mexican population either owns restaurants or works in the restaurant industry.

Those painful chapters in Chinese-Mexican history are writ large on the walls of the Chinese Association as soon as you walk in, in the form of a somber mural that watches over the kids running between classes. There’s an old Chinese man, and a woman with tears running down her face. A poem reads:

A passage opens through thorny thickets

Suffering from hunger through the night without shelter

Wasting away their lives with sweat and blood

In desolation, time passes

Alone… miserable… This is the life of a young immigrant

Broken by the years, they cannot return to their land,

Separated by oceans and mountains, they are far away:

Will this anguish I carry within me fade?

Eternal praise for the pioneers and all who joined forces for the progress of Mexicali, this artwork honors them 100 years later.

—Eduardo Auyon

The association now offers people in the community Mandarin, Spanish, and music classes and sometimes organizes parties for festivals. There’s a library on the second floor with an extensive collection of books in Mandarin. Its existence is closely intertwined with the struggles of this community—one that, depending on who you talk to, is either well-placed and revered after starting businesses and structures that built Mexicali from the ground up, or outsiders, in spite of their deep roots here.

The Chinese diaspora in Mexico continues, albeit at a far slower pace than in centuries past. Anna Li, 15, came to Mexicali four years ago from Canton (now more commonly known as Guangzhou) with her family. She helps teach younger kids Mandarin on Saturdays. Sitting in the simple staff kitchen between classes, she told me that she finds most people in Mexicali pretty friendly–just that she still sometimes finds it a little hard to communicate. She feels most comfortable when she’s at the association teaching kids and hanging out with other Chinese-Mexican teens.

“They treat me better here because I can talk a little more normally with them, more than in Spanish school. In the streets, people say hi to me when I pass, it’s OK,” she said.

The city center that exists today, as much as it exhibits the visible vestiges of the last century, has changed drastically from the way it was in the 1920s. By day, there’s a trickle of pedestrians hovering around the handful of shops selling shoes, clothes, watches, and some handicrafts. There are as many boarded up empty shop fronts as there are occupied spaces.

By night, the area turns into a red light district, and groups of homeless men looking for shelter walk the dimly lit streets. Beneath the whole area are dozens of empty basements, once connected by a series of tunnels and filled with casinos, restaurants, and family gathering spaces by Chinese-Mexicans. The tunnels were especially active in the 1920s during Prohibition in the United States, when they served as bars, breweries, and gambling rings for visiting Americans. It’s rumored that Al Capone spent time in Mexicali around that time. The tunnels were used until around the 1970s, when floods forced them shut.

“That really transformed the community in the Mexicali Valley,” said Castillo-Muñoz, the U.C. Santa Barbara historian. “If you look at photographs of that period, you’ll see doors with signs in three languages: in Spanish, in Chinese, and in English. It was also the Prohibition era—so all the gamblers came south of the border to have all these casinos.”

While the tunnels are long gone, some locals have begun to open up the old basements, clearing them out and taking people on tours. One of those operators is Ruben Ernesto Hernandez “Junior” Chen.

Aside from spending a few hours fumbling through damp basements, Chen’s tour gave me a glimpse of the attitudes that some locals still hold toward their Chinese-Mexican neighbors: at one point, a middle aged woman in a broad brimmed hat listened to the guide talk about how Chinese families living in the city center tend to live with many family members in small quarters.

“Like rats,” the woman said, followed by laughter from others on the tour group.

Some of the second and third generation Chinese-Mexicans I spoke to said they had definitely experienced the kind of discrimination I witnessed on the tour throughout their lives.

Laura Leticia Chong de la Rosa (Letty to her friends), 35, told me she was constantly bullied at school for having Chinese roots, and that she feels discriminated against when she’s applying for jobs or looking for promotions. She told me she thinks of herself as more Chinese than Mexican, though she was born and raised in Mexicali by her second-generation Chinese-Mexican father and Mexican mother.

“When I was a kid, I was definitely targeted for being Chinese,” she told me. “I was the only Chinese girl in the school.”

We walked around a Chinese supermarket tucked away in a plaza downtown, stacked with teas, candies, curry pastes, noodles, and snacks from all over Asia.

Letty’s father, Luis Chong, 64, is a teacher, writer, and cultural director of the Chinese Association. His grandfather arrived in Mexicali around 1920. Seeing the anti-Chinese violence that unfolded in other states, he told me, his father decided not to teach his children Cantonese or Mandarin. Chong didn’t realize until he was older that his mother spoke Cantonese at all.

He told me he started writing about his family history a few years back, and that prompted him to want to get to know his community better–something he’d always felt a little alienated from because of the language barrier. But he formed a group, he said, of mestizos–people of both Chinese and Mexican heritage–to approach the association and get involved.

“Not speaking Chinese meant that I never really hung out with Chinese people, or at least here in the association. I always had wanted to learn more about the community,” Chong told me. “And then about 10 years ago I started to write about my family, and many things started to come out. I finally realized that so much of our history is connected.”

In recent years, more and more young Chinese-Mexicans–and the broader community in Mexicali–have followed the Chongs’ lead and started searching for a connection with their Chinese heritage and how it’s bound up with the development of this city.

Junior Chen, 36, is a quiet, business-like man at first, who talks animatedly when we get to the subject of his plans for downtown Mexicali, where he was born and raised. He said he’s been working on projects to try to reactivate the city center since he was 16 years old. But starting a historical tour of La Chinesca, and thinking more about his Chinese heritage (his great-grandfather came to Mexico from Canton some time in the mid–1800s) has been more recent for him.

“I have some Chinese roots, I’m mestizaje [mixed]. I’m always sincere with people who know me. To be honest I never had an interest in Chinese culture before. I never wanted to get involved in the Chinese Association. But my mother always wanted to be connected to the community, to have Chinese friends,” he told me. “But what I’m trying to say is that for me I started to get involved with all this and it changed me.”

Through his interest in bringing new life to the city center, he became friends with two neighborhood community leaders, Eduardo Auyon and Carmen Ham, and worked with historian Professor Yolanda Sanchez Hogas to create his tour.

For second and third generation Chinese-Mexicans like the Chongs and Junior Chen, the association allows a sense of reconnection with their roots, and more open dialogue about the hard path their families have had to tread in Mexico to have the kind of significant impact they’ve had.

“I think things have improved since I was a child because I think before we didn’t talk about Mexicali’s Chinese history as much,” Chong told me. “I guess people knew about that part of our history but no one talked about Chinese culture. Now people want to know more, want to engage with it.”

Over a six-course Chinese meal at his favorite restaurant (Golden China Mexicali), where Chinese-Mexican families and other locals lingered over a late Saturday lunch, Chen talked at length about his growing realization about the significance of his neighborhood.

La Chinesca is this: a combination of these physical structures and the stories of the people who have lived here, who marked and represented the vision of the Chinese community,” he said. “You find the essence of Mexicali’s history hidden in these streets.”

On October 15, Univision and Fusion Media Group will host RiseUp AS ONE, where artists and influencers will gather at the San Diego border for a concert celebrating inclusiveness, diversity, and global unity. This content is part of a series in connection with RiseUP AS One, supported by funding from Sprint, and produced independently by Fusion’s editorial staff.

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