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Chinese settlements on the border between California and Mexico date back over 100 years and their legacy can still be felt today. Scott Warren, Donna Ruiz E Costello and Wan Yu explore the impact of Chinese immigration to the borderlands, in the context of the ‘hopeful geography’ of Bajalta California.


The desert depression north of the Gulf of California and west of the Pacific coastal mountains is, geographically speaking, a single valley. Politically, however, the Mexico-U.S. border divides the valley into north and south. North of the line it is called the Imperial Valley, and south of the line it is called the Mexicali Valley. This desert has long had a fierce reputation for its inhospitable climate, but irrigation canals brought water and cash-crop agriculture to the area more than 100 years ago. Agriculture and manufacturing, in the form of the so-called Maquiladoras, are today drivers of a cross-border regional economy that operates on a global scale.

The sense of scale is reinforced by the sheer size of those fields and factories. Fields harvested by busloads of farm laborers, factories with hundreds of workers, massive warehouses, and steady streams of semi-trucks give the impression that the expansion of capital and its movement across borders is unlimited. Meanwhile, migrants and laborers face increasing surveillance and restrictions on their movement. In the same year that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) threw open continental borders to the movement of capital, new walls and roving border patrols sealed off traditional crossing routes in the cities and pushed undocumented border crossers out into the deserts and mountains. Thousands of crossers died along the Mexico-U.S. border as a result.

“Chinese migrants played a leading role in building the border town of Mexicali, for example, giving the Mexican community a distinctly Chinese feel.”

This desert, however, has been the site of a cultural encounter ever since those first canals delivered Colorado River water just over 100 years ago. That encounter was colonial, in that an American company diverted water from Mexico and routed it back into a part of the United States that had recently been wrested from Mexican and indigenous control, and it was also global, in that labor and capital from around the world came together to develop the region. Chinese immigrants, for instance, were founding pioneers. Facing pervasive discrimination and having been denied entry to the United States by an act of American Congress, the Chinese found some respite in the somewhat autonomous and geographically distinct Mexican region of Baja California. Chinese migrants played a leading role in building the border town of Mexicali, for example, giving the Mexican community a distinctly Chinese feel.

The Chinese that settled in Mexicali and the surrounding desert were part of a larger network that connected Chinese migrants in Tijuana, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Many Chinese, for instance, arrived in Mexico as contract laborers bonded from San Francisco. Others undertook a more perilous journey. To the south and east of the Mexicali Valley there are place names that commemorate the deaths of Chinese migrants. In some cases these migrants walked well over 150 kilometers to reach settlements in the Mexicali and Imperial valleys, being preyed upon by unscrupulous guides and bandits, and battered by the unrelenting heat and aridity of the desert.

“Even in Mexicali, though, Chinese settlement rested on shaky foundations.”

Even in Mexicali, though, Chinese settlement rested on shaky foundations. The Chinese faced occasional persecution in Mexico, and they used hidden tunnels to travel back and forth across the border into Calexico, Mexicali’s American twin north of the line. As in other cities, the Chinese lived and worked in a tightly bounded district called La Chinesca, or, the Chinatown.

Our own encounter with Mexicali’s La Chinesca began with a field mapping exercise a few years ago. With a map showing the locations of historic Chinese-owned businesses from geographer James Curtis in hand, we visited Mexicali with the intent of completing a new map of the contemporary Chinatown. Much had changed, of course, in the 100-plus years since the founding of the city. Mexicali had grown from an agricultural settlement of a few thousand people to an industrial city with a population of nearly one million. La Chinesca had mostly faded from the urban landscape, as Chinese residents and businesses had diffused outward with the city as it expanded across the desert.

Several Chinese businesses, however, remain in the core area that had once been La Chinesca. Most of these were restaurants, serving a distinctive fare of borderland Chinese food. Across the international line at the landmark Yum Yum restaurant, for example, we enjoyed a traditional Cantonese-style Dim Sum breakfast with Menudo, a slow-cooked Mexican stew.

We chatted with several Chinese residents of Mexicali. Most of these were business owners and employees who spoke Spanish and Cantonese. One restaurant owner explained that many of Mexicali’s current Chinese migrants came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, originating from just two villages in China’s Guangdong province. This restaurant owner herself arrived in Mexicali in 1992, at a time when Chinese foreigners could not open businesses in Mexico nor acquire Mexican citizenship. She related how many Chinese migrants in Mexicali felt their presence on either side of the Mexico-U.S. border to be quite tenuous at the time. In fact, another of our interviewees described how many Chinese migrants found temporary work in Mexicali restaurants, with the intent of crossing clandestinely into the United States.

Michael Dear and Gustavo Leclerc include the city of Mexicali in their hopeful and imaginative geography called Bajalta California. For these authors, Bajalta California spans the Mexico-U.S. border, connecting the cities of Mexicali, Tijuana, San Diego, and Los Angeles into a single urban agglomeration. Mexicali’s remnant La Chinesca and the imprint of Chinese immigrants in this desert city is an example of that hopeful geography, offering an alternative narrative to the discourses of border militarization and separation.

Image | Angélica Portales

Scott Warren Donna Ruiz Y Costello and Wan Yu

About Scott Warren Donna Ruiz Y Costello and Wan Yu

Scott Warren, Donna Ruiz y Costello and Wan Yu are PhD and Masters candidates at Arizona State University. Their research focuses on the Mexico-USA borderlands, particularly the regions of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. Interviews with local residents, research in historical archives, collaboration with photographers, and traveling and living in the Arizona-Sonora-California-Baja California borderlands informs their work.

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