Copyright © Shutterstock; All Rights Reserved

A Very Long Engagement: 400 Years of Sino-Latin American Relations360°ANALYSIS

Chinese immigrants have a history in many Latin American countries that vastly predates China’s demand for the region’s resources.  Their presence has been a point of cultural enrichment, as well as social tension.

From wandering under the red paper lanterns that decorate the Barrio Chino on Calle Dolores in Mexico City to tasting the rich, ginger-laced fusion cuisine served in Peru, China’s historic influence in Latin America is culturally and deliciously clear.

Yet, amid the history of mutual beneficence, relationships with immigrants from China have been fraught with uneasiness and at times outright xenophobia. Amidst a complex 400-year history, residual ties and tensions between diasporas continue to impact social relations today.

Mexico: The Silk Road of the Sea and Sinophobic Backlash

Historians claim Sino-Latin American relations go as far back as 1575, when the “silk road of the sea” saw 20 to 60 ships sail between China’s coastal regions and Mexico’s Acapulco every year. Via a stopover in the Spanish colony of Manila in the Philippines, goods like silk, cotton, jewelry and gun powder were shipped to the New World in exchange for shoes, olive oil and wine, creating a trade route that persisted until 1815. During the late 19th to early 20th century, Chinese immigrants arrived as indentured manual laborers known derogatorily as “Coolies.” Beyond their toil, these immigrants came to further shape the societies they inhabited.

The history of the Chinese in Mexico remained relatively unexplored until the publication of Roberto Chao Romero’s The History of the Chinese in Mexico 1882-1940. Chao, an Assistant Professor in Chicana and Chicano studies at UCLA, chronicles a fascinating yet dark chapter in Mexico’s history.

The book notes that many Chinese nationals arrived in Mexico as personal servants of Spanish merchants. These servants later went on to establish their own shops, restaurants and trades in segregated areas of major cities. However, the boom in Chinese migration did not occur until the late 19th century, after which Chinese immigrants were legally barred from entering the United States, following the Chinese exclusion act of 1882.  About 60,000 Chinese immigrants drifted to the “Big Lusong” – a nickname given to Mexico – with hopes of entering the US illegally.

The Mexican government saw the wave of migrants as a source of exploitable labor and signed a treaty with China to recruit Chinese peasants to work the agricultural sectors of northern Mexico. By 1920, Chinese immigrants comprised one of the largest immigrant groups in the nation at 26,000, second only to natives of Spain.

The story of the Chinese in Mexico was soon tainted by an emerging sinophobia, which inspired a wave of persecution. As nationalist fervor swept through Mexico in 1910, outsiders were seen as a detriment to Mexico’s development. Against the backdrop of the political turmoil that would eventually devolve into the Mexican Revolution, mounting xenophobia sparked a bloody anti-Chinese mob in the city of Torreón, Coahuila, killing 300 Chinese immigrants.  Five years later, in the neighboring state of Sonora, malicious propaganda, enforced segregation and violent repression, drove Chinese immigrants from the town of Magdalena. By 1940, despite a loosening of immigration restrictions by the Mexican government in response to an exodus of refugees fleeing Communist rule, anti-Chinese violence deterred many immigrants from staying or further migrating from China.  Since then, few new Chinese migrants have landed on Mexican shores.

Today, descendants of Chinese immigrants can be found in Mexico City, Tapachula and most predominantly in Mexicali. Only 500 meters south of the U.S. border, Mexicali claims the highest concentration of Chinese residents in Mexico to date.

Chinese Peruvians: From Indentured Servants to Local Faire

In South America, countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Suriname boast large concentrations of ethnic Chinese. However, Peru maintains the largest and most vibrant community.

With the slave trade from Africa all but extinguished, Peru began to transition from Indigenous and African slaves to free labor. The first Chinese immigrants were brought to Peru in 1849 as contract laborers to till the sugar and cotton plantations along the coastal valleys and dig the guano mines of the Chincha Islands; guano, used as fertilizer, served as Peru’s most profitable export for four decades.

Yet the abysmal conditions faced by many on the four-month journey from Macau to Peru, became a foreboding indicator of things to come. Underfed, subjected to poor ventilation, little exercise and unsanitary conditions, many did not make the journey to the port of Ataco along the Peruvian coast. Once in Peru, most Chinese laborers served as virtual slaves in dangerous work environments.

By 1874, Peru had imported 100,000 Chinese laborers. The majority were Cantonese males who made the journey across the Pacific Ocean alone. As they worked, paid-off the debts, and made plans to migrate to the United States, Panama and Cuba, many intermarried with the local population and instead settled in their new home.  Slowly, a solid community took root. In 1912, this established community welcomed a wave of refugees fleeing Sun Yat-Sen’s newly founded republic.  A third wave soon followed, prompted by the imposition of Communist rule in 1949.

Currently, Asian Peruvians make up 3-5% of the country’s total population of 29.4mn.  Their influence is felt in the communities and businesses their ancestors helped establish. But, the most significant indicator is the fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cooking. Known as Chifa, this style of cuisine originated from laborers who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th century. Due to a lack of Chinese ingredients, workers were forced to adapt their cuisine to Peruvian supplies. Recipe’s include Fu chi fu Soup, Tipa Kay Chicken and the famous Arroz Chaufa, or Chaufa fried rice. With over 6,000 Chifa restaurants in Lima alone, the popular cuisine is enjoyed by Peruvians from all socio-economic levels and can be tweaked to cater to everyday consumption or more refined palettes.

Central America: Small Business and the Grand Canal

In Central America, Nicaragua and Panama boast significant Chinese populations. 

The presence of Chinese nationals in Nicaragua can be traced back to 1920, when a census recorded approximately 400 Cantonese immigrants living along the Atlantic regions of Bluefields, Puerto Cabezas, Waspam and El Rama. The majority set up small businesses or worked in the mines of Rosita, Bonanza and Siuna. Many went on to found small businesses and eventually became leaders in Nicaragua’s textile, transportation, agricultural, industrial and hospitality industries. However, during the 1978 Sandinista Revolution that overthrew the autocratic Somoza Dynasty, Chinese businesses, became the targets of nationalist fervor and served as scapegoats of the socialist government.  Though many fled, a few Chinese communities continue to compose a vibrant part of Nicaraguan society.

In Panama, Chinese immigrants arrived to work on the construction of the Canal.  Their descendants echo previous patterns of integration and industrial achievement by intermixing with the local population and economy. In recent years, Panama hosted the Chinese Association of Central America at the Panama Convention, a supranational support network for the Chinese diaspora. Founded in 1965, the network continues to strengthen ties and partnerships between Chinese communities and Taiwanese nationals. 

However, this continued partnership with Taiwan has been a source of tension amid the backdrop of mounting trade relations with mainland China.  Considered the “missing link” in China’s bilateral trade strategy, Central American nations are slowly being integrated into China’s economic plans.  Central America has long been a bastion of diplomatic support for Taiwan and China is eager to sway the region against its sovereign rival. In 2007, Costa Rica became the first Central American country to enter into a trade agreement with mainland China. Many Central American nations are looking to Costa Rica as a bellwether for possible economic partnerships with China in the near future.  China’s recent proposal to help fund and implement the construction of a second transoceanic canal through Nicaragua, may be an indication of significant developments to come.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.