For many Mexicans, Chinese New Year comes and goes with little fanfare. But there’s one city in Mexico that will be celebrating Chinese New Year in earnest. Mexicali, which is located in Baja California, MX, is home to the largest Chinatown — a.k.a. La Chinesca — in Mexico. It is estimated that nearly 5,000 citizens of Chinese descent currently live in Mexicali, though that number used to be larger. In fact, Mexicali was once a Chinese majority town. Here’s a little background on Mexicali’s Chinese community.
When the U.S. signed off on the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Chinese immigrants were banned from entering the U.S. for a decade.
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Thanks to overwhelming anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. at that time, the U.S. closed its borders to Chinese immigrants. Some Chinese immigrants were able to migrate to the U.S. through Mexico. However, many stayed in Mexico, usually finding work in labor-based projects.
During this time, Mexicali provided a sanctuary for Chinese citizens, who provided the workforce necessary to keep the region competitive.
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By 1910, Mexican resentment of Chinese immigrants had begun to increase.
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The governor of the Baja region, Estaban Cantú, showed Chinese workers preferential treatment for their willingness to work on cotton plantations for low wages. Because Chinese immigrants provided cheap labor, they were favored over Mexican workers, which created a wealth gap between the two cultures. Naturally, tensions between the two groups led to the Chinese being persecuted by Mexican citizens. Some were only chased out of Mexico, while many others were slaughtered.
Chinese immigrants living Mexicali were also not used to Mexico’s summers. To cope, they began building underground tunnels and rooms to escape the heat and violence from locals.
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Thanks to Mexicali’s reasonably hospitable environment and flooding that made underground living impossible, the Chinese eventually moved back above ground, creating “La Chinesca.”
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By this time, there enough Chinese immigrants living in the Mexicali area that they entered the political world, and they even formed their own union: Asociación China de Mexicali.
Today, Chinese influence in the town is easy to observe.
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Tourists in Mexicali can take guided tours to explore the extensive underground network where these Chinese immigrants lived. Vice even wrote a full piece about one of these underground tours, which you can read here. There are many reminders that despite one-time persecution, the Chinese that endured have left their lasting mark on Mexico’s history.
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