Reviewed by Luis Torres
The first “illegal immigrants” to cross into the United States from Mexico weren’t Mexicans. They were Chinese. A new book by a professor of Chicano studies at UCLA reveals that and other salient and startling anecdotes about borderland history.
In “The Chinese in Mexico 1882-1940” Robert Chao Romero examines a little known realm of United States-Mexico social history. It’s a safe bet that very few Americans know about the rich, intriguing (and sometimes unsettling) story of Mexican Chinese.
It is a social history that is joined at the hip with the story of Chinese Americans. There was a substantial wave of immigration from China to Mexico in the late nineteenth century. The social and cultural consequences of that wave of immigration still reverberate in Mexico and the United States today. As a minor, benign example of that, ever wonder why the best Chinese restaurants in North America are arguably not in San Francisco but in Mexicali? It’s one remnant of a long legacy of a borderland phenomenon of Chinese immigration and transplanted culture.
There are parallels between the way Chinese immigrants were treated in the United States and the way they were treated in Mexico. And there are historical parallels between the way Chinese — as newcomers — were treated and the way in which many Mexican newcomers to the United States were treated. Often, it is an unpleasant story. But it is part of our collective experience. And the Chinese in the U.S. and in Mexico have endured, owing to their perseverance, resourcefulness and strong sense of community.
The Chinese in the United States, of course, provided valuable service in building the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese were encouraged to come here for their cheap labor. There were organized commercial recruitment campaigns, championed by the governments of both the United States and China. But anti-Chinese resentment soon built to a crescendo in the late 1880s. Finally the U.S. sought to ban all Chinese immigration when it passed the nefarious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It made it illegal for Chinese to come to the United States.
But the turmoil and landlessness in such regions as Guangdong (Canton) still forced Chinese immigrants to seek new opportunities outside China. So, many shifted their target from California to Mexico. Streams of immigrants poured into Mexico, beginning in 1882.
Some immigrants intended to seek their fortunes in Mexico, but many used the passage to Mexico as a stop on their clandestine way into the United States. Romero argues that those Chinese, who paid smugglers to get them into the United States and used a variety of sophisticated ruses to enter the U.S., became the first “illegal immigrants” making their way into this country.
Romero writes, “Unknown to most people, the Chinese were the first ‘undocumented immigrants’ from Mexico, and they created the first organized system of human smuggling from Mexico to the United States. As part of their efforts to circumvent the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Laws, Chinese immigrants created a vast transnational smuggling business that involved agents and collaborators in China, Mexico, Cuba and various cities throughout the United States.”
History repeats itself as today we see Mexican undocumented immigrants determined to make their way across the border, often at great risk to their lives.
And history repeats itself in the manner in which anti-Chinese sentiment lead to violent persecution of Chinese — in both Mexico and the United States.
Throughout their history in the Americas, Chinese immigrants were victims of virulent racism and violent attacks. It is a shameful part of Los Angeles history that saw lynchings and wanton murders of Chinese. The most egregious example of that is the infamous Los Angeles massacre of October 24, 1871.
As quoted in Jean Pfaelzer’s seminal book “Driven Out,” the “Alta California” newspaper of the period printed this account: “Twelve hours ago…fifteen staring corpses hung ghastly in the moonlight, while seven or eight others, mutilated, torn and crushed, lay in our streets, all of them Chinamen.”
Actually, when the tally was complete, it was revealed that seventeen Chinese were lynched and two others were knifed to death on the night of October 24, 1871. Pfaelzer writes: “Their mangled bodies were found hanging from a wooden awning over a carriage shop, from the sides of two prairie schooners parked around the corner, from a gutter spout, and from a beam across the wide gate of a lumberyard. One of the victims wore no trousers and a finger had been severed from his left hand.”
A hostile lynch mob attacked the residents of L.A.’s Chinatown, which was then located where Union Station stands today. It was the culmination of growing anti-Chinese hysteria. The Chinese were accused of spreading crime and disease. They were accused of “taking our jobs” and of unfair competition in business.
Familiar accusations aimed at Mexicans by Anglos in the years to come.
But anti-Chinese bigotry reared its ugly head not only in the United States, but in Mexico as well. Romero documents the pernicious case of the Torreon Massacre of 1911 in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. As in the United States, racist hatred of the Chinese was growing. Romero writes, “The most horrendous incident of Mexican subaltern violence perpetrated against Chinese immigrants during the early revolutionary years took place in the city of Torreon, Coahuila, on May 14 and 15, 1911.”
More than 300 Chinese were summarily and brutally murdered by soldiers of the Mexican revolution. Their only “crime” was that they were Chinese. With meticulous research, Romero unearths documents and contemporaneous accounts that name names and provide gruesome details. Romero writes, “The massacre of Torreon was the worst act of violence committed against any Chinese diasporic community of the Americas during the twentieth century.”
All part of a legacy of xenophobia and intolerance.
Not a pretty picture, of course. But it is part of our collective history. And it is something we should know about and bear in mind to help us keep contemporary issues of immigration and “otherness” in perspective.
One significant difference between the Chinese experience in Mexico and in the United States involves intermarriage. Eventually in Mexico many Chinese men married Mexican women. Families of “chino/mexicanos” thrive in Mexico today. By contrast, because of strictly enforced anti-miscegenation laws, mixed race marriages were almost non-existent in the U.S.
Robert Chao Romero ably provides the documented evidence of the treatment of Chinese immigrants. His prose doesn’t have the flair of others who have written memorable social histories, such as Jean Pfaelzer and the unparalleled storyteller Simon Winchester, who makes social history come alive with his finely tuned narrative touches. Yet,“The Chinese in Mexico” provides us with a valuable look into relatively unknown, and significant, chapters of our borderland history.
It is an important milestone in the field, and could serve as a catalyst for further study and illumination about the Chinese in the Americas.