Let’s take a break from my incessant whining about my very flat wallet shall we?
Last Monday, I think it was, Laura and I took off in the Chi Chi for a three hour desert trip to Northern Coahuila. Through the maquila filled pueblo/rancho of San Pedro, the vast expanse of flat desert nothingingness, and finally (or so we thought) to the tourist-dependent oasis of Cuatro Cienegas (four blind women) with it’s handful of upscale restaurants and hotels … and on the otherside of the train tracks, a chalky, colorless grid of crumbling adobe shacks bandaged with rusty iron roofing and PVC pipes sticking out like splinters.
Believe it or not, I’d had a desire to see San Pedro, Coahuila for quite some time. Though I think it might be older than the much larger city of Torreon, it is now nothing more than an agricultural satellite. Well, agriculture used to be the heart of their economy … it’s pretty obvious that landowners these days are eager to sell their lots to foreign investors who are even more eager to find dependable, cheap labor. And in San Pedro there is plenty of it. On the way back – straight out of a 1930’s socialist propoganda movie – we passed by a maquila just as the workers were coming out … by the hundreds. Each one walking out with their Wal-Mart bought bicicyle and obediently showing some sort of identification, attached to a lanyard around their necks, to the security guards at the gate. A small sign – almost unnoticable – said the plant was responsible for making fertilizer. I’m not sure exactly how fertilizer is made, but I can’t imagine it’s work anyone would call ‘fun’. I didn’t recognize the name of the company, but I never do. That’s something I learned while giving English classes to the same types of companies: cheap labor is always kept well apart from valuable brand names.
But it’s not fetishism of the working class that had me interested in San Pedro; it was the Chinese. Chinese immigration has a long, complicated, and even tragic history in Northern Mexico, but you never read anything about it – neither in Mexican nor American academia. Which is precisely why it’s grabbed my attention. Whenever I’m around someone who seems well-informed on regional history, I always ask about the Chinese community and though responses are vague, San Pedro has been brought up a few times as a center of Chinese immigration during the Porfiriato when the cross-country railroads were being constructed.
Laura told me that after Pancho Villa and his revolutionary army began attacking the Chinese – who he claimed were hoarding wealth and ripping off the peasantry – in the 1910’s and 20’s, many of them retreated to San Pedro as a low-key refuge. So I guess, as we approached the small town, I expected a sort of San Francisco-like Chinatown. But it is no such thing. San Pedro is just like any other rural municipality along la libre (the non-toll – and usually pot-holed – highways of Mexico): a church, a plaza, a handful of streets, and an emmigration problem. But not one decent place for the Latin American variant of chow-mein. The late 19th century, early 20th century population of Chinese-Mexicans seems to have been completely integrated into what is today, a very mixed national gene pool.
One of Laura’s best friends is one-quarter Chinese. Her cousin is also one-quarter Chinese. “Huh, yeah, I guess I see it,” is always the reaction, but you’d never guess it otherwise. Walking around Monterrey though, every day I’d come across facial features that were undoubtedly Chinese. But I always felt like the only one who noticed or paid any attention to it. As a liberal American, am I hyper-aware of ethnicity, I’d ask myself. So I started pointing people out to Laura who were obviously part Chinese and she would almost always respond with, “yeah, I guess so, I never really noticed.
A common complaint – not just at the dinner table, but in the media as well – is that recent Chinese immigrants (“pinches chinos“) are stealing the jobs of working and middle class Mexicans. I always make a point to say that many working and middle class Americans say the same thing about Mexican immigrants, but it seems to always go by unnoticed.
I asked Laura if there was overt racism in Mexico against Chinese-Mexicans [PDF – spanish]. She said no, but then remembered a popular saying: chino cochino (literally: Chinese pig, but more like, ‘dirty Chinese’). She said that Chinese immigrants were viewed as dirty and unkempt and that the saying has endured on today. Whether that is racism or Memin Pinguin-like playfulness, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder.
One thing I am sure of though, is that there is a gigantic shortage of research on the Chinese (and Arab for that matter) experience in Mexico. I’d be extremely curious to see genealogical data of Northern Mexico to find out just what percent of Northern Mexicans today have some Chinese ancestry.
In fact, though I doubt I could do any one thing for more than two years, I think it would be a gas to get a Ph.D. in history with an in-depth dissertation on Mexican-Chinese history and then go back into working for a cafe.
Jeff Barry, by the way, has a pretty interesting post on another unknown immigration history – the Irish in Argentina. (Believe it or not, Chile’s independence liberator was an Irish immigrant).
Weird … not what I thought I’d write about at all, but so it goes.