Chinese-Mexicans find success in straddling the border between cultures

World Today

Millions of Chinese have made permanent homes in other countries. Some have created communities in the midst of their new surroundings.

CGTN’s Franc Contreras takes us to a Mexican border town grew due to Chinese migrants.

In the city of Mexicali, on the Mexican-U.S. border, the influence of Chinese culture is easy to spot, especially in this neighborhood known as La Chinesca.

Since the early 1900s, thousands of Chinese immigrants have moved here. They gave birth to several generations of children with Chinese blood but Mexican citizenship.

Rosa Elvia Chen and her son Ruben grew up in La Chinesca. Her grandfather, Juan Chen, came here from his home province of Guangdong, a sea voyage that lasted for months.

“His boat left Guangdong and arrived in Salina Cruz, in Mexico’s Oaxaca state,” Chen said. “He visited Mexico City, Guadalajara and the states of Sinaloa and Sonora before finally coming here. But it wasn’t because he was a tourist wanting to see the country. He had to keep moving because in those days Mexico was deporting Chinese immigrants.”

He arrived as Mexico was undergoing a revolution and anti-Chinese violence was widespread, especially in the northern states near the U.S. border. In 1911, at least 300 Chinese immigrants were killed in a massacre in the city of Torreon.

For some, it was only the latest chapter in their troubles. They had come to Mexico in search of a refuge after the U.S. passed a law suspend Chinese immigration in 1882. They had hoped to find a more welcoming atmosphere in Mexico, only to face more disappointment.

Ruben Chen has studied that era of history. He said many Chinese immigrants spent their days in underground caverns connected by a series of tunnels. It was a way to avoid discrimination as well as the desert heat. Chen runs a tour depicting that underground lifestyle. Among the items on display is an altar representing ancient Chinese gods, including Guan-Yu, the God of Martial Arts and War.

Over the decades, many Chinese people left La Chinesa and built prosperous restaurants in other parts of Mexicali, according to Esteban Leon, a leader of Mexicali’s Chinese Association.

“Mexicali’s Chinesca neighborhood grew and began to experience problems,” said Leon. “Then Mexicali began expanding outward and the Chinese community began moving into those areas.”

While the Chinese immigrants may have moved on, their influence on the Chinesca neighborhood remains.