Excerpt: Chinese Mexicans, by Julia María Schiavone Camacho

At the turn of the twentieth century, a wave of Chinese men made their way to the northern Mexican border state of Sonora to work and live. The ties—and families—these Mexicans and Chinese created led to the formation of a new cultural identity: Chinese Mexican. During the tumult of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, however, anti-Chinese sentiment ultimately led to mass expulsion of these people. In Chinese Mexicans: Transpacific Migration and the Search for a Homeland, 1910-1960, Julia María Schiavone Camacho follows the community through the mid-twentieth century, across borders and oceans, to show how they fought for their place as Mexicans, both in Mexico and abroad.

In the following excerpt from the book, Schiavone Camacho introduces an interviewee whose love for Mexico did not fade even after his mixed-race family was forced to leave the country, and she describes the ties and tensions present in northern Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


“Mexico delights me. Navojoa delights me,” said Alfonso Wong Campoy, the eldest son of a Chinese father and a Mexican mother, with a warm smile. As I sat in his living room in Navojoa, Sonora, in 2004, he described the hardship and tragedy as well as the joy that characterized his family’s experiences. Local hatred for his mixed-race family drove the Wong Campoys out of northern Mexico in 1933, when Alfonso was four years old. Nearly thirty years would pass before he saw Navojoa and Mexico again. He wold ultimately resettle in the same town from which regional authorities expelled his family when he was a boy, and he has subsequently remained there.[1] Wong Campoy’s strong sense of love for his town, Navojoa, and his nation, Mexico, became palpable to me during our conversation. I left wondering how someone who had been through all that he had could love Mexico the way he does. Since then, I have thought about that question, and it has driven this project. Having left at a young age, Wong Campoy learned about Navojoa and Mexico from his mother and father and the community they forged abroad. With his Chinese Mexican compatriots, he yearned for Mexico and struggled for years to return. He became Mexican in China. The expulsion of his family and three decades across the Pacific did not break his ties to his homeland. On the contrary, those experiences fostered his sense of self as a Mexican. Although he and others genuinely loved Mexico, the Chinese Mexican community claimed Mexicanness strategically to leave China during a time of intense social and political turmoil; in turn, that community helped to shape postrevolutionary Mexican citizenship and Cold War politics.

This book is a journey that follows the paths of the Wong Campoys and other Chinese Mexican families. Along the way, it traces the emergence of a Chinese Mexican identity rooted in an imagined Mexican homeland and the memory of that history. Chinese Mexicans pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be Mexican: The expulsion from Mexico and stages of repatriation ensured that these families would forge strong transpacific ties and become profoundly cosmopolitan people: The national identity they developed had a transnational foundation. The book explores the tensions therein and studies what the history of Chinese Mexicans can teach us about nations, borders, and belonging. It examines how the story of Chinese Mexicans has both informed and been erased from the history of Mexico and the Mexican-U.S. borderlands.

[ . . . ]

The complex ties Mexicans and Chinese formed in northern Mexico during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the integration of Chinese men into local communities led to racial and cultural fusion and over time to the formation of a new cultural identity—Chinese Mexican. Racially and culturally hybrid families straddled the boundaries of identity and nation. They made alternating claims on Chineseness and Mexicanness during their quest to belong somewhere, especially as social and political uproar erupted in Mexico, the United States, and China.

During the tumult of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, a group of working and middle-class Sonorans began organizing against the Chinese and those Mexicans with whom they had formed bonds. In particular, they scorned as race traitors the Mexican women who had established romantic unions with Chinese men. A wide gulf between anti-Chinese activists and Mexicans who maintained relationships with the Chinese soon became perceptible in Sonora. Mexicans and Chinese drew on myriad resources to continue with their lives in spite of the movement. But in time, anti-Chinese crusaders infiltrated Mexican local, state, and eventually national politics, using Chinese people as scapegoats for a myriad of social problems. The return of Mexican workers from the United States during the Great Depression brought the movement to its peak, as these Mexicans needed jobs; within two decades of the start of the anti-Chinese campaigns, activists achieved their long-term goal of mass expulsion. Chinese men fled or were driven out of Sonora as well as its southern neighbor, Sinaloa, where the maniacal hatred had spread. Keeping families intact, Mexican women and Chinese Mexican children accompanied their men, whether by choice or by force.

Chinese Mexicans took a number of routes after local and state government officials began mass expulsions from northern Mexico.  Some of the persecuted remained in their communities by hiding with the help of complicit family members and friends. Officials allowed a few Chinese with certain skills to remain but nonetheless confiscated their assets. Sonoran and Sinaloan Chinese moved to areas of Mexico less infected by virulent anti-Chinese campaigns. Some entered the United States and stayed there. Others traveled to China, either via the United States as refugees or directly from Mexico. Settling in communities in Guangdong Province or Portuguese Macau or British Hong Kong, some became part of those societies and never left. Others moved to Portugal or the United States, eventually taking on Portuguese or American identities. Still others developed Mexican senses of self during their years abroad and ultimately returned to Mexico. The book explores these distinct paths but pays particular attention to people who pursued the final course—that is, interracial families who traveled from northern Mexico to southeastern China and finally back to Mexico, some after decades of effort to gain permission to return. Mapping out this geographic and symbolic journey, the project focuses on the politics and history of repatriation and Mexican national identity formation in a transpacific context. The voyages of Chinese Mexicans and the process of becoming Mexican abroad, which encompasses diasporic longing and heartfelt love for Mexico as well as political exigency, helped shape modern Mexico.


From Chinese Mexicans: Transpacific Migration and the Search for a Homeland, 1910-1960, by Julia María Schiavone Camacho. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Julia María Schiavone Camacho is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso.

  1. [1]Wong Campoy, interview. All translations from Spanish into English are by the author unless otherwise indicated; the original recordings or copies of the archival documents are available from the author.