Week 5 – Asian Diasporas in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Historical Overview

This article, although an introduction, reminds us of two important issues. First, to understand Latin America, we need to look across the Pacific, and not just the Atlantic, as many of us are taught. Second, globalization is a much older phenomenon than many of us are used to.

History, they say does not repeat itself, and although at times it may look that way, there are many similarities as there are differences; globalization is one such phenomenon. Today, we think of globalization as a contemporary issue that began in the 1960s, and took full force in the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union. If we look back however, globalization has expanded and retrenched our world twice before beginning in 1565, when the Acapulco-Manila Galleon first linked the globe, then roughly around the 1850s until the outbreak of World War I.

The article sheds light on a centuries old migration that has been omitted, excluded, or forgotten. It introduces Asian migration to the Americas, which like most migrations, ebb and flow throughout different time periods and geographies.  And although the article only surveys Asian migration, it serves as a good prelude to later readings on Japanese and Chinese communities.

It is interesting to see a glimpse of migration during the globalization of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. After the abolition of slavery, which in itself was gradual, there was still a need for cheap labour by different empires and emerging nation-states to work the vast plantations in different parts of the globe. Moreover, the gold rush taking place in the United States, Australia, Canada, Peru, etc. made the acquiring access to labour that much more pressing. The gold rush attracted a number of Chinese to California, which brought the attention of the Spanish Crown in trying to provide workers for the sugar plantations in Cuba (a Spanish colony until 1898). In 1847, what became known as La Trata Amarilla or Yellow Trade began with Cantonese migrants going to Cuba as indentured workers. The Peruvian government took notice, and by 1849, it enacted its own Trata. By 1874, the end of indentured migration to Peru and Cuba, over 225,000 Chinese had crossed the Pacific in ships that became known as ‘floating hells’. Similar events took place throughout Central America and the Caribbean, where African Slaves were traded for Chinese indentured workers. The history of Chinese migration to the Americas is one riddled with conflict, violence, and exclusion; for example, there is not one single country in the entire continent that did not at one time or another enact anti-immigration laws specifically targeting the Chinese.

On another note, it is important, as the authors point out, the history of the Chinese in Latin America “has been largely hidden in plain sight”. As with any history, the majority it is written by those in power, but I don’t think this answers the entire question. In reading many historical accounts on Latin America, the conflicts between colonizers, criollos (the descendants of Spanish colonizers), Afro-communities, and Indigenous populations is for the most part intertwined. At the same time, with the exception of Cuba, where Chinese-Cubans are viewed as part of those who fought for liberation from the Spanish, Chinese communities elsewhere were regarded through a negative lens. I’m still trying to figure this out.

We can also view this article and make some parallels with what is going on today. The majority of Chinese migrants to Peru and Cuba between 1847 and 1874 (the majority that arrived post-1874 were business people from Hong Kong and California) were for the most part recruited as unskilled labour for the sugar plantations in Cuba, and the cotton and sugar plantations, railroad construction, and mining in Peru. Following the end in the indentured worker program, the majority did not have enough funds to return home (many were cheated from their wages), which propagated an internal migration to the urban centres throughout Cuba and Peru. Like today, many worked in areas that locals did not want to, as well as a number started their own businesses with small restaurants in poor neighbourhoods called fondas being the most popular. Anti-Chinese or antichinismo became evident when people throughout he major urban centres began to blame this community for taking jobs away from native ‘Peruvians’, whatever that means. However, it was not until the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, when other countries in Latin America also began to pass their own versions of this act.

Two reasons, at least in the Peruvian case why the Chinese were viewed in a negative light had to do with the extension of credit and travelling in parts of the country where others did want to such as the Amazon, and setting up shop there. The willingness of Chinese businesses to extend credit and sell things cheaper became a point of contention between locals and the new arrivals. Locals saw this competition as unwanted, and instead of adjusting and competing, they used the scapegoat of ‘job takers’ combined with racism to make the national government enact laws curtailing Chinese migration. The fact that many Chinese moved throughout the country, even to the Amazon, and become successful, also led to their vilification.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Week 5 – Asian Diasporas in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Historical Overview”

  1. I really appreciate having this section in our syllabus, as I also find that the topic of migration from Asia to Latin-America is often neglected both in public discussions and the academia.

    The motifs of discrimination and deportation (from Sonora and Sinaloa, Schiavone: p. 546) of Asian immigrants in Latin-America and the U.S. (see Chinese Exclusion Acts) were surprising at first surprising as Asian immigrants or people of Asian descent are often seen as a “model minority” in the contemporary U.S. American context. It is however important to talk about the prejudices and injustice they had to face throughout the centuries.

    In relation to the case of the Chinese-Peruvians mentioned by Mr. Rubio, although the internment of Japanese-Americans in the U.S. during the Second World War has been more or less subject to various public opinions, there is little information regarding the internments of people of Japanese heritage in Brazil and Peru during that period. In fact, the U.S. government worked with Latin-American authorities and thus, approximately 2 000 Japanese-Peruvians were deported to U.S. American (!) concentration camps during the war. In addition to a political agenda, there was also a racial undertone – with the goal of “whitening” the nation. In this racial perspective, it is shocking how undifferentiated these anti-Asian sentiments are in the region. I recently read an article on Whiteness to Diversity in Bicentennial Argentina (Chisu Teresa Ko: 2014), where the author is discussing the topic of Japanese-Argentinians and how they are still discriminated as “chinos”. This racial slut is as fascinating as it is terrible and primitive, as it forces an ethnic term onto a whole race. Alberto Fujimori, who Mr. Rubio mentioned in the first meeting, former president of Peru of Japanese descent had been also called “El Chino” during the election campaign. This undifferentiated racism at the intersection of nation and race can be also observed in Europe, where people of Asian heritage are often simply referred to as “Chinese”.

    I also found the racial discourse beyond the black-white perspective by Hu-Dehart and Lopez very interesting and how “who is and is not classified as ‘white’ changes within different political contexts” (p. 17). It very much shows the backwardness and senselessness of the concept of “whiteness” or even race in such a multi-ethnic and mixed-race region as the Americas.

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