Immigrants to a Developing Society: The Chinese in Northern Mexico, 1875-1932

By Evelyn Hu-DeHart

Originally published in the Journal of Arizona History, Volume 21, Autumn 1980, p. 49-86

While the Middle Kingdom has never been truly expansionist or imperialist in a national way, has never accumulated large overseas colonies or built extensive overseas empires, the Chinese people have wandered far beyond the confines of their country. Especially active during the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants reached many corners of the world; most went as coolies or contract laborers, but some went as colonists. They ended up in Southeast Asia, in Africa, and in the Americas-North, South and the Caribbean. 1 They were attracted primarily to frontier or developing areas, where emerging economic needs and activities offered them new and greater opportunities to make a better life.

The Chinese overseas worked hard, lived frugally, and usually prospered, though often only in a modest way. They also acquired a reputation for being resistant to acculturation, preferring to cling to their own kind and their own ways. They often incurred the deep resentment of local populations who perceived them as unduly wealthy and clannish. When strong sentiments were translated into violent action, the Chinese suffered severe persecution.

The Chinese in Mexico, while reflecting the typical pattern of their experience elsewhere in the world, were also distinctive in several ways. 2 During the first quarter of the twentieth century, they had become an important social and economic group in northern Mexico. In the late twenties and early thirties, however, their prospects for continuous prosperity ended when thousands of them were expelled from the northwestern state of Sonora, which had the largest and most influential Chinese colony. Since then their presence in Mexico has been insignificant, their early history all but forgotten.

When they first arrived, the poor but enterprising Asian immigrants found themselves better able than local Mexicans to take advantage of certain new economic opportunities opening up in a developing region. While North Americans, Europeans and some Mexicans with large capital invested in mines, transportation and commercial agriculture -- leading to urbanization, population increase and growth of the wage labor sector -- the Chinese moved into a lower level of the economy, that of local trade and commerce. By the end of the Porfiriato, they had become the dominant component of the new petit bourgeois class. The Chinese did not so much displace Mexicans or other foreigners as they met new demands for goods and services in a greatly expanded society. The turning point was the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which gave rise to a new nation and new nationalism. To the humble, dispossessed masses, it promised social justice; to all Mexicans, it promised national control of the country's resources and economy. Chinese domination of local businesses in much of the north, notably Sonora, became a national embarrassment. Most of all, the Asians blocked the immediate advancement of middle and lower class northerners who possessed newly enhanced social and economic aspirations. Ultimately expulsion was viewed as the only solution to this intolerable situation.

Although Chinese did not immigrate to Mexico in significant numbers until the nineteenth century, they began entering the country two centuries earlier, when it was still a colony of Spain. This handful of tradesmen came to the New World on the ships of the Manila luxury trade between Acapulco. Mexico City and the Philippines, probably as personal servants of

Spanish shipmasters or merchants. While they could hardly be considered an important social group at this time, it is interesting to note that the reactions they stirred among Mexicans presaged their later troubles in this land: Spanish barbers complained of competition ("excesses" and "inconveniences," in their words) from their Oriental rivals and succeeded in having them segregated on the outskirts of town; Chinese shopkeepers were accused of not employing enough Spanish apprentices. Little more is known of these early Chinese arrivals. 3

With the ascension to national political power of General Porfiro Díaz in 1876, Mexico embarked on a course of rapid economic growth predicated upon foreign money, expertise, technology and markets, and firmly based in political unity and stability. The cost, however, was dictatorship and foreign immigration into Mexico. To Mexicans the most desirable colonists were European Catholics; but in the absence of available land or well-paying jobs, they could not be enticed to come in large numbers. Mexico agreed, therefore, to accept some less attractive settlers, including Asians, who had a reputation of being docile, hard-working people. In the beginning, the Díaz government also had hopes of improving trade with countries such as China and Japan. In 1893, after several false starts, Mexico and China signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce which included a "most favored nation" clause. Since the United States had virtually terminated Chinese immigration by the Exclusion Act of 1882, Mexico became an attractive alternative. Actually, by the time the treaty was signed in 1893, Chinese colonies were already established in several northern states: Baja California (then a Territory), Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Sonora. In 1890, Governor Ramón Corral of Sonora reported in a name-by-name census that of all foreign residents in his state 229 were Chinese, second only to the 337 North Americans and well ahead of the Germans, English and Spanish in the state. The total population for the state at that time was about 56,000. 4 From that early date on, the Chinese in Sonora would rank as the first or second most populous foreign group.

Not surprisingly most of the Americans on the Corral census were listed by occupation as minero, mine speculator or owner, followed by rancher, railroad employee, manufacturer, merchant, and skilled tradesmen-such as carpenters, machinists, assayers, doctors. One cook was included. Among the Chinese there was only one minero. Over half of them (161) were zapateros (shoemakers), tailors or ironers, who were employed in the few Chinese-owned shoe and clothing factories in the state. Two of these plants -- Slu Fo Chon and Tung, Chung, Lung, both of Guaymas -- were established as early as 1873.5 Other occupations listed for Chinese were day worker, truck farm laborer, cook, baker, and even cirujano or surgeon (probably a traditional Chinese healer). Only twenty, or less than ten percent, were comerciantes, merchants or businessmen. No Chinese was specifically noted as a mine or railroad laborer, two lines of work typically associated with Asian immigrants in the American West and Southwest in the nineteenth century. In the case of northern Mexico, where most of the mines and railroads were located, Indians and native Mexicans appeared to have met the labor requirements sufficiently.

During the rest of the Porfirtato, a small but prominent group of Chinese entrepreneurs continued to advance their interest in the manufacturing of cheap shoes and clothing for local consumption by the emerging working class. By 1903, Chinese owned at least ten of thirty-seven shoe factories in Sonora, producing over $100,000 (U.S.) in goods each year. 6 The Chinese profile, however, was still low in comparison to other foreign groups and to native Mexican businessmen. When John R. Southworth of Nogales, Arizona, conducted his commercial survey of Sonora in 1897, listing all the important enterprises by district, he included only one Chinese establishment, the shoe manufacturer Siu Fo Chon of Guaymas. 7German, Spanish, French, American and Mexican houses all figured much more prominently as leading retail and wholesale merchants. North Americans, as usual, operated most of the mines. What Southworth considered unworthy of mention was a lower level of local economic activity: door-to-door peddling; small grocery and variety sales; sewing, laundry and cooking services. Poor Chinese immigrants became adept at all of these.

Rather than displacing established houses, the Chinese apparently moved quietly and quickly to fill the commercial demands created by the opening of mines, the construction of railroads, the growth of towns and the expansion of internal markets. In the 1903 census more than 3000 Chinese residents in Sonora were noted, and although they were spread over a large number of towns, their greatest numbers were concentrated in dynamic urban centers, such as Magdalena, Hermosillo, Guaymas and the mining town of Cananea. 8

Cananea is a good example of exactly the kind of town that attracted droves of Chinese at the turn of the century for the simple reason that it provided many opportunities to make a decent living. Out of a total population of around 4000, the Chinese numbered 800. It was a typical company town, owned and operated by the Greene Consolidated Copper Company. In good times it had all the features of a boom town. Most of the residents were Mexican mine workers, who were also at the bottom of the social scale. At the top of the hierarchy was a small group of American managers and skilled workers. The large Chinese population does not seem to have been actively employed in the mines. If they worked for wages it was likely to have been in American homes as cooks, houseboys and clothes washers. Many opened small stores that required a very low initial investment and provided necessary goods and services to an urban, salaried population. 9

By 1907 Chinese merchants had become more visible in local commerce throughout Sonora. A poll of the state's 'most important businesses," conducted between 1905 and 1907, noted Chinese merchants operating in twenty-one out of eighty-seven towns, accounting for fifty-two of 968 listings. "Business" was defined loosely to include doctors, lawyers, landowners (hacendados) and other individuals of economic means, thus explaining the long roster of names. All the Chinese were described as comerciante. 10 Small businesses, however, were left out and the directory included no Chinese names under the Cananea heading. Oversight based on a certain degree of prejudice might partially explain their exclusion since elsewhere in the same directory it was noted that the prominent Chinese department store Juan Lung Tain of Magdalena had two branch stores in Cananea.

A few of the large establishments took out advertisement space in the 1905-07 commercial directory. Ranging from full-page to quarter-page, these were replete with handsome illustrations, flowery prose, and some information. The fullpage spread on the firm of Quan, Gun, Lung y Cía. is especially revealing about the nature of a big Chinese business, as well as reflective of at least official Mexican attitudes towards these merchants at the beginning of the twentieth century. Established in 1894, this company was one of the principal commercial houses of the town of Alamos in southern Sonora. It sold a wide variety of goods, ranging from groceries and canned goods to clothing and notions; dealing in imported as well as domestic products, it had its own "well mounted factory" to manufacture shoes. In addition, the company served as the agent for Pacific Beer, Pochutla and Pluma Hidalgo coffee (products of Oaxaca in southern Mexico), "La Violeta" cigars (from Veracruz state in southern Mexico), and "El Dorado" rum. Quan, Gun, Lung y Cía. traded directly with New York, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Hamburg, Germany. Within Mexico, its sphere of operation extended beyond Sonora to the adjacent states of Chihuahua to the east and Sinaloa to the south, where a new branch had recently opened.

The owner and general manager of Quan, Gun, Lung was Guillermo Leytón, whose name had been hispanicized. The advertisement described him as:

... an excellent Chinese who enjoys general popularity in the locality. ... In particular he is well loved by the working people, because he willingly and readily helps them out, especially when a poor harvest or some other cause raises the prices of basic necessities; at which time Leytón -- making only a little profit or perhaps none at all -- sells them these articles of primary need at prices they could afford, thereby averting the specter of hunger....

This sympathetic depiction of a generous, sensitive Chinese merchant contrasted sharply with charges, soon to become widespread, that Chinese proprietors were rapacious, mean and exploitive of Mexican employees and consumers alike.

From the advertisement it is apparent that Mr. Leytón had a Chinese assistant manager, Francisco Chon, but a Mexican chief clerk, Modesto J. Lozano, "a conscientious and intelligent employee." That Leyt6n employed Mexicans contrasted with later accusations that Chinese businesses hired practically no native nationals. Finally, the fact that Leytón hispanicized his name was certainly an indication of some inclination to adopt Mexican ways, and to acculturate, even if the primary motive was to promote his business.

Another Chinese firm that took out a full-page advertisement in the directory was Juan Lung Tain of Magdalena in northern Sonora, a town with over 300 Chinese residents. As with other large Chinese general merchandise stores, this too had its own adjoining shoe factory. Founded in 1896, the firm opened branches in Hermosillo and Cananea; the Hermosillo store had its own shoe and clothing factory and in Cananea the outlets were located in the American section called Ronquillo. The lengthy description concluded with the positive observation that the company conducted business with "the best good faith."

Little is known about the small Chinese businesses that seemed to proliferate throughout Sonora and the north during the Porfiriato, but whenever urbanization and population growth appeared, Chinese could be found participating actively in the local economy. Ironically, more information became available when the Mexicans turned against the Chinese at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Before then, only the most progressive political group-the radical, pro-labor Mexican Liberal Party-had targeted Chinese immigration as detrimental to Mexican welfare. The party members reserved their most virulent xenophobic attacks, however, for the imperialist North Americans, against whom they organized the famous Cananea labor strike of 1906." Before the Revolution, racist stereotypes of the Chinese also appeared muted, although such characterizations were not unknown. They were occasionally caricatured as criminal, indolent and cruel by nature; as prone to spread horrible diseases such as trachoma and beri-beri; and as addicted to pernicious vices such as opium and gambling. 12

At the end of the Porfiriato in 1911 it was estimated that some 35,000 Chinese had entered Mexico. Only about half settled in Mexico; the rest found their way illegally to the United States, returned to China, or transshipped elsewhere in the Americas. Contemporary surveys, however, disagreed on the extent of Chinese immigration. One source counted 13,203 Chinese in Mexico at this time, with a third residing in Sonora. United States consuls in Mexico estimated somewhat higher figures that ranged between twenty and forty thousand. In any case, it is apparent that they had become the most numerically prominent foreign colony in Mexico. 13

In 1910, Francisco Madero, a northern landowner and industrialist, led a broad coalition of nationalistic middle-class entrepreneurs, petit bourgeois elements, peons, workers and peasants, to unseat the increasingly repressive dictator Díaz. Besides many legitimate grievances, most Mexicans, especially those in the north and hence close to U.S. investments and influence, felt that Díaz had sold the country to foreign interests. There was a strong racist undercurrent to the Revolution from the beginning. After Díaz fled the country in mid-1911 the loose coalition fell apart, throwing Mexico into a decade of almost constant civil war.

In this protracted period of chaos and violence, the Chinese tried to stay neutral, but under the uncertain, volatile conditions of a revolution, neutrality was not a tenable position. In the end they had no friends and no protectors among the Mexicans, and the breakdown of law and order that Díaz had masterfully maintained for over three decades allowed latent anti-Asian sentiments to surface. Moreover, in the north, Mexicans began to focus a widespread, general hatred of foreigners more narrowly on the Chinese, who were numerous and visible in their capacity as small local merchants, yet totally vulnerable because of China's own internal chaos and weak international position. 14 With no consular representation of its own, the Asian colony in the north had to rely on U.S. consular personnel for protection, a dependence that added an ironic twist to general American-Chinese relations. In 1882, discrimination and resentment against Chinese immigrants, predominantly in California, resulted in the enactment of the Exclusion Act banning further Chinese entry. In Mexico, however, both American and Chinese were aliens in an increasingly hostile environment. Many were bound together by employer-employee, patron-client, or landlord-lessee relations, prompting a sense of responsibility on the part of Americans for the defenseless Chinese.

The experiences of Fong Lewis exemplify the closeness of this relationship. From 1905 to 1908 he cooked for the Booker family in Casa Grande, Chihuahua; later he went to work for the American-owned Madera Company. When the company mills closed down and the Americans fled to El Paso shortly after the Revolution broke out, Fong was thrown out of a job. In 1914, his former employer pressed the U.S. Immigration Service to grant Fong temporary refuge at El Paso. The supervisor of the El Paso station remarked that the Americans were motivated not only by humanitarian concerns, but also because they were loath to lose sight of a good, faithful and cheap servant. 15 Similar requests by Americans on behalf of their present or former Chinese employees for temporary asylum in the United States were common during the Revolution. How Fong's case was ultimately settled is not known, but in situations of real emergency, suspension of the Exclusion Act was usually granted. 16

Even when Chinese were not directly employed by Americans or American companies, they tended to follow U.S. capital in the sense that heavy U.S. investments in mines and railroads stimulated the kind of growth that provided economic opportunities for them. By 1912, for example, the Chinese colony in Cananea had grown to between 1500 and 2000 people -- half or more (800 to 900, according to U.S. consular agent George Wiswall) were "merchants," a broad category that included everyone in business for himself. Other Chinese continued to work for American families, or were also engaged in truck farming on the outskirts of town. 17 Many of the stores, such as the two branch outlets of Juan Lung Tain were located in Ronquillo, probably on rented American property.

Another possible relationship between Americans and Chinese is suggested by an example from the Saltillo area in Coahuila: Fong Sing's restaurant was located within the territory of the Mazapil Copper Company in Concepción del Oro. In fact, Fong Sing owned only half of the restaurant and the American company controlled the rest of the inventory, so the upstart Chinese businessman and the wealthy American company, whose workers the restaurant probably served, formed a partnership. 18 Similar arrangements may have existed in Cananea.

With such a large concentration of foreigners around the Mexicans -- wealthy, privileged, powerful Americans; inscrutable, thriving Orientals -- it is no wonder that anti-foreign feelings ran deep in Cananea. Before the Revolution, the Mexican workers directed their hostility primarily toward the American owners and managers -- as was clearly the case during the 1914 strike -- but during the Revolution, they also turned on the large Chinese colony with a vengeance. Besides arousing resentment by their own activities, the Chinese might well have suffered a "guilt by association" with the much-hated Americans.

Most of the demonstrations in Cananea that resulted in personal or property injuries started out as general anti-foreign rallies, which somehow degenerated into anti-Chinese mob actions. One such incident took place on February 24, 1914. Following an "open letter" in which two Mexican labor leaders accused the managers of the copper company of thievery, a band of Mexican women -- wives of the mine workers -- gathered at the Ronquillo district "making speeches attacking all foreigners." The group grew into an angry mob of almost 500 men and women who marched to a Chinese laundry, ransacked it inside and out, and beat up three Chinese workers trapped on the premises. The police arrived late and did nothing, probably because there were only eight of them. Finally, thirty mounted soldiers managed to disperse the Mexicans.

The gravity of this incident immediately prompted U.S. Consul Frederick Simpich of Nogales to make an on-spot inspection of Cananea, which fell within his jurisdiction. 19 Following State Department instructions to protect Chinese under attack, he made provisions to evacuate them in the event of a crisis to the copper company's "meat packing building ... an extensive steel and concrete structure." Upon receiving a long list of grievances and abuses from the Chinese community -- including seizure of property and excess taxes imposed by revolutionary factions-- Simpich urged them to stay open rather than to close down their businesses. He also noted that should the American company cease to operate -- the managers threatened to do so if Mexican unions became more demanding -- the situation of the Chinese would become "most perilous." In his report to the State Department, Simpich offered this final observation:

... the feeling against all foreigners and against Chinese in particular is very strong; the continued depreciation of money, and the subsequent rise in the cost of food ... and the mistaken idea of the ignorant miners that American capitalists and Chinese merchants are in some way very responsible for this condition, is driving the people to increasing unrest.

Justifiably or not, because the Chinese grew much of the vegetable crop and owned many of the local foodstores, when food became scarce or too costly, they inevitably got the blame. Frequently, hungry Mexicans reacted by looting Chinese stores of everything they could consume, in one case leaving behind only some exotic drugs. In some small communities where the Asians virtually monopolized local food supplies, desperate mobs sacked the entire town. 20 When well-stocked shops were looted, losses could be substantial. In July, 1915, while revolutionary soldiers and poor Mexicans raided forty large Chinese businesses in Cananea, the proprietors reported losses totaling more than $530,000 (U.S.). 21 Local authorities usually stood by as the pillaging took place, afraid to intervene. Perhaps this was their way to defuse tension. One prefect reportedly advised his people to "help themselves" at Chinese stores if merchants withheld produce in expectation of higher prices."

Besides these mob attacks on their persons and properties, the Chinese suffered another kind of abuse during the Revolution that can be best described as extortion. In search of constant cash to pay for armies and guns, revolutionary generals of every faction imposed forced loans or contributions on wealthy Mexicans and foreigners. In the north, Pancho Villa and his lieutenants appeared especially adept at this practice. Since powerful governments backed up the fierce protests of Americans, Englishmen and other Europeans, only the Chinese could be squeezed with virtual impunity. As early as August, 1911, a Mexican newspaper reported that 216 Chinese had complained of forced loans. 23 Another fairly common pressure revolutionary generals applied on Chinese storekeepers was to force them to sell food and goods at less than cost, that is, at a loss, to appease hungry soldiers and the poor.24 Faced with the loss of property and profits, Chinese merchants responded by limiting orders for new supplies, thereby aggravating already severe shortages. Frustrated mobs often mistook an actual lack of merchandise for the deliberate withholding of goods.

The frequency and intensity of these assaults generally reflected the ups and downs of the Revolution in the north, especially in the camp of Pancho Villa and his allies. When on the winning streak, their armies supported massive numbers of otherwise unemployed Mexicans, alleviating some of the misery caused by the ravages of war. With the decline of Villa from mid-1914 on, anti-Chinese hostility mounted. In the face of all the violence, however, the Chinese persevered and continued to stay in business, even with the loss of lives. In most cases, one or at most a few unfortunates caught in the wrong place at the wrong time perished at the hands of trigger-happy revolutionary soldiers. 25

There was, however, a painful incident in which over three hundred Chinese were killed during the course of one bloody afternoon. To Chinese all over Mexico and through time, the tragic massacre of Torre6n on May 15, 1911, served as a frightful reminder of their extreme vulnerability as unwelcome aliens in a war-torn country uncertain of its own future and identity. 26 Torreón in the northeastern state of Coahuila was an important commercial and industrial town of over 30,000 residents in 1910. The 700 Chinese residents constituted the most prominent foreign colony, in both number and property. Besides the usual small businesses, they operated hotels, department stores, even a bank, housed in its own building. 27 Chinese investment also extended to urban real estate and the city tramway line.

When Maderista soldiers took the city from the federales on the fifteenth, they quickly attracted an unruly mob of four thousand lower class men and women, descended upon the central business district, and pillaged the commercial establishments. In the wake of total havoc and destruction were 303 dead foreigners, almost all Chinese. The looting caused estimated property damages of $850,000 (U.S.), and the Chinese community sustained, by far, the greatest losses, destroying at the outset of the Revolution what had been Mexico's most prosperous Asian colony. It was never to recover.

What could possibly have unleashed this sudden, uncontrollable fury on an outwardly peaceful, law-abiding, hard-working alien immigrant group? Emilio Madero, who commanded the invading army, could never substantiate a charge that the Chinese had invited the massacre by firing first at the rebels. Nor did the unarmed Chinese put up any kind of resistance when the Mexicans sacked their premises. The massive killings were wanton and without direct provocation. The answer to the Mexicans' rage lay not in what the Chinese did to them, but simply in what the Chinese had made of themselves in Torreón. Many Mexicans probably found it intolerable that a relatively recent, upstart, nonwhite immigrant group became so successful in so short a time, and with so much facility. Unlike North Americans and other Europeans who tended to invest in capital intensive enterprises beyond the reach of most Mexicans, the Chinese engaged primarily in modest economic activities that Mexicans could readily identify with. The resentment was made evident in a speech that Jesús Flores, a Maderista, delivered on May 5, ten days before the massacre, at the plaza of Gómez Palacio near Torreón. 28 The Chinese monopolized the garden industry, he charged; they were not good citizens because they sent money earned in Mexico out of the country, "instead of spending it here as other foreigners do." Worst of all, in running laundries and restaurants, they took traditional work away from Mexican women. Flores called for their expulsion from Mexico.

Poor, lower-class Mexican women were particularly susceptible to the kind of inflammatory messages Flores preached. They struggled to take care of their families during the difficult times of the Revolution, when so many of the menfolk were away fighting. Chinese businesses probably did preempt them from taking in laundry and sewing, or cooking for others. In Cananea, a Women's Union was at the forefront of the anti-Chinese persecution. 29

After Torreón, anti-Chinese hostility occurred mainly in the states of Chihuahua and especially Sonora. Although no other single incident even remotely approached the tragic proportions of Torreón, the assaults were frequent, widespread and arbitrary, creating for the Asians what amounted to an atmosphere of terror. 30 By 1916, it was conservatively estimated that a hundred Chinese had lost their lives in Sonora alone. The northwestern state had the largest Chinese population, estimated as high as ten to fifteen thousand, including those born in Mexico, those who were naturalized Mexican citizens, and those with Mexican wives and children. 31 Not surprisingly, it was in Sonora that the persecution was most intense and innovative.

In 1916, a new way of waging the racist campaign emerged in that state -- one which proved in the end more devastating than sporadic murders. For the first time a "studied and deliberate" political movement organized local communities to use legal means in harassing Chinese. Essentially, this consisted of "intolerable discriminatory" local ordinances, some ostensibly intended for everyone but in fact designed with the peculiar conditions of the Chinese in mind. The purpose was to make life so difficult, business so unprofitable, that the Chinese would not want to stay any longer in Mexico. Again, much to the Mexicans' frustration, the Chinese level of tolerance was quite a bit higher than they had anticipated. This campaign moved forward in spurts until it petered out temporarily in 1920, and it failed to achieve the ultimate goal of expelling the Chinese, but it did establish the pattern for all subsequent movements, including the final successful one in 1931.

Early in April, 1916, in reporting the nature of this new campaign to the State Department, Consul Simpich included a list of the kind of local ordinances designed to harass the Chinese communities only. He received the accounting from Francisco L. Yuen of Nogales (Sonora), a prominent businessman and president of the Chinese Fraternal Union, a mutual aid society. Simpich prefaced his report with the ominous warning that these "illegal" laws were in obvious violation of international treaties, property rights and personal liberty, and "if allowed to stand unchallenged by outside governments ... are likely to establish troublesome precedents and encourage the present despotic military government of Sonora to adopt an even more prejudicial attitude towards all foreign interests." 32 Simpich made quite clear his conviction that such discriminatory actions hurt all foreigners, hence the United States should intervene to discourage their implementation.

The ordinances that Yuen enumerated were varied. Some were discriminatory taxes levied specifically on Chinese merchants, such as those in Agua Prieta that raised municipal taxes on Chinese stores from $5 to $30 per month. Some tried to exclude Chinese from engaging in certain economic activities that they had come to monopolize: the Magdalena ordinances, for example, forced Chinese to abandon all truck farming after May 1, 1916, and, in addition, prohibited them from leasing land for agricultural purposes; in Cananea and Nogales, Chinese were ordered to quit dealing altogether in meats, fruits, vegetables, and to cease laundry work. Other laws were aimed at Mexicans doing business with or renting property to Chinese: in Magdalena, Mexicans were authorized to break contracts with Chinese at will and with impunity; in Cananea and Magdalena, the Chinese were to cease occupying premises legally rented, and Mexican landlords were warned not to lease property to Chinese on penalty of confiscation of that property. El Tigre passed an outright expulsion decree; Agua Prieta limited the number of times a Chinese businessman could travel from one town to another, and forbade them to visit each other's houses without prior authorization from the local police. Finally, some laws were aimed at humiliating the Chinese, such as the one in Agua Prieta that required them to take public baths before municipal officers.

Yuen's list certainly did not exhaust the variety of ordinances that local municipalities came up with to intimidate the Chinese business community. Because the merchants, their partners and employees (especially if all were single men), tended to live, eat and cook on the store premises, and because Chinese stores usually doubled as warehouses for- the excess stock, some towns passed sanitation regulations ostensibly to improve general health conditions, but, in fact, the ordinances were directed at undermining certain Chinese business practices that saved them money. Another innovation was the Ley de Trabajo or Work Law, commonly known as the "8o percent law," enacted statewide in 1919. It stipulated that the work force of all foreign enterprises must be at least eighty percent Mexican. Mostly the Chinese were affected, for it was well known that they hired few Mexicans. Reminiscent of the regulation proposed in the seventeenth century, segregation laws attempted to restrict Chinese residents to their own barrio or ghetto outside town. 33

Spearheading the campaign from 1916 to 1919 was José Maria Arana, Magdalena businessman and schoolteacher, who insisted that their methods were strictly legal. He and his associates organized the small Mexican businessmen, with support from local consumers and the working class, to act as a political pressure or lobby group. It was largely through their efforts that town councils passed such discriminatory measures. These propaganda organizations took various names, each quite revealing about its membership and ideology. Arana's own pioneer group in Magdalena was named the Junta Comercial y de Hombres de Negocio, or "Commercial and Businessmen's junta." In Caborca, a similar organization was called the "Junta of National protectionism"; and in Culiacán, Sinaloa, the group was called the Junta Central Nacionalista "En Defensa de la Raza." In Cananea, the anti-Chinese league also had an interesting name, the "Fraternal Union of Salaried Workers of Cananea," which clearly reflected the dominant Mexican social class in the company town. By 1917, Arana claimed he had inspired the foundation of seventeen juntas, with a combined membership Of 5000 in Sonora and several neighboring states such as Sinaloa, Nayarit, Chihuahua, the Territory of Baja and as far south as Oaxaca. 34

In addition to these juntas or leagues, Arana and his fellow believers -- appropriately self-named co-religionarios -- used another effective instrument of propaganda, the weekly tabloid. The most famous was probably Arana's own Pro-Patria. Printed on each issue was the following rousing statement:


Improvement of the race is the supreme ideal of all civilized nations, so that if the Chinese are corrupting our race, we ought to restrict them. The Chinese produce on the towns the same effect that the locust has on the crops: they destroy them. The Mexican that defends the Chinese with detriment to the national good, is a traitor to the country. 35


In loud and clear terms, these words unequivocally equated the anti-Chinese campaign with patriotism, or, more accurately, with a new nationalism.

The local politicians and revolutionary generals in command of Sonora, center of the Arana movement, reacted differently, even as they all agreed in principle to the validity of the Chinese issue. Native Sonoran Generals Plutarco Elias Calles and Adolfo de la Huerta, leaders of the victorious Constitutionalist faction, were generally sympathetic. But in the face of pressure from the United States, transmitted through its consular agents, they were forced to rescind or at least not to pursue vigorously the discriminatory legislation. Cesario Soriano, interim governor during 1917, was quite outspoken in his condemnation of Arana's inflammatory rhetoric and scandalous tactics. He publicly denounced the shrill and vulgar Pro-Patria language, and its cheap appeal to base chauvinism, which amounted to emotional exploitation of untutored lower-class Mexicans. He regarded Pro-Patria "diatribes, insults and parochialisms" as a potential international embarrassment, as well as violations of constitutional guarantees to all persons, including the alien Chinese. 36 In short, outside pressure and internal voices of moderation prevailed, thereby softening the impact of the legalistic campaign.

Still, one undeniable result of the Aranistas' crude emotional appeal was to generate and intensify anti-Chinese racism. The movement reinforced old and existing stereotypes, created new ones, and fanned antagonism. Besides the internationally known "yellow peril" image, propagandists depicted Chinese immigration as "an avalanche that has inundated us," or as "an obnoxious octopus." A typical derogatory term for Chinese was chinacate -- chink or chinaman; milder but more sarcastic names were celestials and sons of Confucius. For those who protected or defended the rights of the harassed Chinese was reserved the name chinero or chink-lover. 37 Racism more than anything else underlay the prejudice against Chinese-Mexican marriages. Aranistas charged that such unions debilitated the Mexican race, specifically by producing "feeble, pale and slit-eyed" offspring. In some cases, they actively intervened to ruin a relationship. Miguel Moo and his Mexican fiancée, Francisca Acufia of Nacozari, were so intimidated, for example, that their planned wedding in late 1917 never materialized. The critics claimed that the bride "was not in her right mind," because Moo had numbed her senses with morphine and other narcotics. 38 Bizarre charges, perhaps, but actually quite in conformity with the prevailing stereotype of the evil, drug-wielding Chinaman.

This first anti-Chinese political campaign did not succeed for a number of reasons. First, there was insufficient unity among the Aranistas, state politicians and national political leaders, meaning that the discriminatory ordinances could not be consistently or persistently carried out to their logical conclusion. Second, the United States Government, through its consular representatives, successfully applied pressure on high echelon state officials not to cooperate with the campaign. Third, the Chinese themselves did not stand idly by, but responded immediately with strongly worded protests to high state and federal authorities, alerted their own government and, more significantly, the American government, upon each assault, and retained aggressive legal counsel. Frustrated in turn by the Chinese ability to thwart their efforts at displacing them, Aranistas charged that the merchants greased the palms of corrupt Mexican officials with "el oro chino" -- Chinese gold. Such charges were difficult to substantiate, but they were entirely possible. Also, Chinese storekeepers reminded Mexicans none too subtly that should they be forced out of business, local and state treasuries would suffer drastic decline in revenues with the abrupt cessation of Chinese taxes. 39 Arana died in 1921 (one fantasy had him poisoned by the Chinese), thus depriving the movement of its original inspiration, its dynamic, charismatic and demagogic leadership.

Undaunted by the setback, anti-Chinese forces vowed to try again, no doubt goaded by the galling fact that after 1920, the Chinese were in a stronger commercial position than ever before. Neither the Revolution nor the campaign seemed to have crippled their ability to prosper. In January, 1920, Martín Wong, President of the Guaymas chapter of the Chinese Fraternal Union, acknowledged to U.S. Consul Bartley Yost that "Chinese business has recently increased a hundred percent." Yost himself added that "the trade in groceries, dry goods and general merchandise in Sonora is largely controlled by Chinese." In 1923, U.S. Trade Commissioner P. L. Bell noted that, except for two old Spanish houses in Mazatlán, the Chinese entrepreneurs were the largest food dealers on the Mexican West Coast. Moreover, they dominated the general retail trade in large cities such as Guaymas, Hermosillo and Nogales, and were becoming more influential in Cullacám and Mazatlán in Sinaloa. 40

Another cause for alarm among the Mexicans was the resurgence of Chinese immigration into the country after a decline during the revolutionary period. From 1919 to 1921, more than six thousand Chinese arrived, twice the number during the years 1914 to 1918. In Sonora, the total Chinese population had fallen from 4468 in 1910, to 3639 in 1920, but still composed the largest foreign colony. 41 Nevertheless, in places where the campaign had been particularly virulent, negative consequences were definitely visible. Cananea, for example, witnessed the mass flight of its Chinese residents, many of whom had liquidated their properties and left town by 1920, when only 400 out of a high of 2000 remained. 42 The exodus could also have reflected the slowed-down operations of the copper company.

In May and June, 1922, and briefly in 1924, the Chinese themselves provided Mexicans with a ready excuse to renew the campaign. During those times, rival Chinese political factions fought out their differences openly in the streets of Mexico. The two parties contending for overseas support represented ideological splits in revolutionary China: the republican Kuomintang (KMT), and the Chee Kung Tong (CKT), an old Masonic order that followed the waves of Chinese immigration in the nineteenth century. The KMT hired gunmen in an effort to dislodge the older established CKT and they terrorized the Mexicans and the majority of the Chinese community, most of whom were not involved. The rash of shoot-outs and street wars punctured the long, peaceful record of unarmed Chinese, while adding to the stereotype that these chinacates were by nature criminal and murderous. At the end of the tong wars in 1922, over twenty Chinese bodies were recovered from the streets; 43 significantly, not a single innocent Mexican was killed.

The disturbances provided the pretext for the Sonoran government to round up some 300 Chinese for deportation, with charges that they were aliens engaging in illegal political activities on Mexican soil. Obviously not all those jailed could be implicated in the armed conflict. Yet Sonoran Governor Francisco Elias, an ardent anti-Chinese nationalist, wanted to expel all of them as a prelude to the resumption of the interrupted campaign. Fortunately for the Chinese, the federal government was still not secure or stable enough to support such a movement. President and General Alvaro Obregón, himself a native Sonoran and undoubtedly sympathetic to the common sentiments at home, was still waiting for U. S. recognition of his regime, withheld pending proof of its sense of responsibility. After dispatching a commission to investigate the tong wars, Obregón decided on a compromise. He ordered the deportation of only the handful of known leaders, while releasing the many arbitrarily jailed, some of whom had been imprisoned for over three months. 44

As expected, when the crisis broke out in 1922, U.S. consuls on the Mexican West Coast immediately stepped forward to protect the Chinese and represent their interests. Again, the reasons were not simply humanitarian, but economic as well. As Consul Yost made clear to the state department, the round-up of innocent Chinese merchants was "proving injurious to American trade, both in the sale of merchandise and collection of accounts owed by imprisoned or threatened Chinese to American export firms." In the 1920S, Chinese businessmen had become the major clients of American exporters to the Mexican West Coast. The ever alert Yost made another significant observation during the aftermath of the tong wars. Certain Mexicans wanted to expel these Orientals from the country, he remarked, "as the native merchants are incapable of competing with them." 45 The Mexicans' sense of economic impotence had become more acute with time. Why native Mexicans could not compete effectively with the Chinese -- and hence felt compelled to eliminate them totally -- was the crux of the Chinese problem. Besides their legendary diligence and frugality, the Chinese developed competitive business practices, some culturally rooted, that the Mexicans found impossible to emulate. While not illegal, the Mexicans believed that many of these practices were ethically questionable. They even objected to certain aspects of the Chinese lifestyle as promoting unfair advantages.

Most of the immigrants were young and once they arrived in Mexico, they readily found help from prominent members of the established Chinese community to start them off financially in some very small business, most likely vending or hawking groceries on the street. They could find employment with Chinese-owned enterprises, such as the truck farms and the coarse shoe and clothing factories established in Sonora as early as the late nineteenth century. American mine owners and railroad builders, while not inclined to hire Chinese for strenuous or skilled labor, did favor them for service jobs as cooks, launderers and domestics. These workers received extremely low wages, even by Mexican standards. One leading anti-Chinese activist claimed that the Chinese worked for one-third the wages of the poorest-paid Mexican. This led to charges such as those voiced by the radical Mexican Liberal Party in 1906, that these foreigners further debased the already severely exploited Mexican workers.

Even more incredible to the Mexican was the Chinese ability to save money from these abysmal wages and open up their own stores. Mexicans quickly perceived that one Chinese secret was to rely heavily on his family, relatives, co-villagers or other Chinese for help, before he would consider hiring Mexicans. If the proprietor, his partners and employers were all single men, they usually lived on the store premises, thereby saving money on rent and other living expenses. Mexicans assailed both these customs -- as unfair business practices, which furthermore underscored the secretive, clannish, arrogant Chinese character.

Another typical tendency of the Asian merchant was to keep his store well stocked with a great variety of items, ranging from fresh produce to imported luxury goods. Most Chinese mercantiles were listed as variety or general merchandise outlets, but even the groceries, drugstores and bakeries, sold more than just one type of product. Extra supplies were also crowded into the store, rather than warehoused elsewhere, thus saving on overhead expenses. All these practices that Mexicans found deplorable enabled the Chinese businessmen to undersell their Mexican competitors by offering lower prices, and to outsell them by presenting more choices. For the Mexican consumer then, shopping at Chinese establishments meant savings in time and money.

Mutual aid societies were another secret to Chinese success. The Chinese Fraternal Union had several chapters in Mexico and was connected to the headquarters in San Francisco. The same was true of the Chee Kung Tong. These associations served several functions: they provided a social and cultural outlet for the Chinese immigrants, as well as facilitating cooperative business activities among themselves and between Mexico and the United States. The reputable old Chinese firms of San Francisco extended credit and financial capital to their counterparts in Mexico. They also acted as clearing houses for the Mexican stores. Merchants in Mexico purchased most of their merchandise in the United States via the main offices of their mutual aid or commercial associations, taking advantage of the good credit ratings the California firms had built up over time. To the Mexicans these international connections again constituted another unfair advantage for the Chinese.

Even in the best of times Mexicans would have found it difficult to compete in their homeland with any foreign group. They lacked commercial experience, credit and business contacts. The Revolution and civil wars eroded what little chance they had in the late-nineteenth century to improve their fortunes. Before the arrival and the entrenchment of Chinese in local retail trade, Spaniards and Germans had dominated this sector of the economy. After World War I, however, their contacts with suppliers in Europe were seriously disrupted. The Chinese, who did most of their business with North Americans, successfully closed in on the Europeans. In the process, American exporting firms extended their virtual monopoly over the West Coast. Again, this mutually dependent relationship was one major reason why Americans felt so responsible for Chinese welfare. 47

Sonorans launched their final and successful campaign against the Chinese in 1929 during the Great Depression, which had severe repercussions in northern Mexico. 48 American investment in Sonora's key economic sectors -- mining, cattle, commercial agriculture -- all dropped sharply. Mexicans who had previously found work in the United States were thrown back across the border, exacerbating an already explosive unemployment crisis. The rebellions of Generals Manzo and Topete in late 1929 intensified the desperate conditions in the state. Ten years after the Revolution, the Mexicans' lot was still miserable and they deeply resented the relative prosperity of the alien Chinese. The continuous Asian presence became absolutely insufferable.

In Governor Francisco Elías, the anti-Chinese forces in Sonora found their most zealous supporter in the government. Equally significant in finally unifying local and national solidarity behind the movement was the Sonoran who held sway in Mexico City, General Plutarco Elías Calles. If, during 1916, when Calles was military governor, he had felt politically constrained, he rested assured in 1929 that conditions could not have been more propitious to prosecute the campaign to its conclusion.

The leaders of the revived movement realized that their task was really quite a simple one: all they had to do was to dust off the old discriminatory legislation. Consequently, among Governor Elías' first acts was the resurrection of the "80 percent law." One of the campaign's most ardent and outspoken promoters was José Ángel Espinoza, one-time state senator and publisher of El Nacionalista, a leading anti-Chinese propaganda tabloid. According to him, there were 11,000 Chinese residents in the state, 4000 of whom could be considered proprietors of the 2000 or so businesses. The rest, or 700, he concluded had to be employees. 49 Consequently, application of the law would result in 5000 new jobs for needy Mexicans. Since other sources never noted more than 4000 Chinese in the state, Espinoza appears to have grossly exaggerated the figures; perhaps he did so to make his point more forcefully, and to underscore the gravity of the situation for Mexicans. In May, 1931, the governor amended the law to define all partners as employees, and hence subject to the quota. This was in response to a perceived Chinese practice of defining their compatriot employees as "socios," or partners, in order to circumvent the regulation.

Also revived were the equally infamous Código Sanitaria and the ban on Chinese-Mexican marriages. To enforce the health code with more vigor, the state government created the new General Public Health Agency in 1930. Admitting that its vigilance concentrated "above all" on the Chinese, the agency enacted restrictions on their establishments. They were to limit their stores to selling one principal item -- groceries, meats, drugs, bread -- but not a mixture of these. To curtail the Chinese ambulatory trade in foodstuffs, new sanitary laws barred meat and vegetables from being sold other than in properly inspected and licensed central market stalls. To undercut Chinese frugality and hence savings, other laws prohibited anyone, even the proprietor, from sleeping on the premises, while stipulating that stocks of merchandise must be kept in rented warehouses, not jammed into stores or residences.

Moving full steam ahead, in June, 1931, Governor Elías directed all municipal presidents to fix a date for the Chinese in their jurisdiction to comply with the Work Law. Most of them set a limit of fifteen days to one month for all Chinese merchants to submit a list of employees, Mexican and foreign. Another decree specified the amounts of fines for each infraction or delay in compliance.

During the 1929-1931 campaign, popular support was more fully mobilized than ever before. Local juntas or ligas antichinas organized loud and massive demonstrations; even vigilante groups surfaced to terrorize Chinese storekeepers -- to help enforce the law, according to these thugs. In the face of international criticism and even some from Mexico City, this time Governor Elías and his successor, Rodolfo Calles, did not even flinch. Instead, they defended the campaign as entirely legal, moral and in the highest national interest. For the first time, Chinese appeals to both Mexicans and Americans were no longer effective. Sympathetic Mexicans felt politically constrained to intervene on behalf of the Chinese. The United States, on the eve of its new Good Neighbor Policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of Latin American countries, insisted that the Chinese government must begin to take care of its own nationals overseas. 50

Unable to comply with the work and sanitary laws, intimidated by the ban on marriage and harassed by Mexican immigration officials, the Chinese who had survived so many persecutions in Mexico admitted defeat in 1931. In August, they announced plans to abandon the state, as soon as they could sell their goods, lands and properties. For fear that departing Chinese would drain all of Sonora's liquid wealth, the state dealt them the coup de grace: they had to sell before a quick deadline at wholesale prices, consequently at a great loss. Still, some were able to withdraw savings from Sonora and Arizona banks. 51

By October, 1931, with most of the Chinese out of the state, new Governor Rodolfo Calles triumphantly declared the campaign successfully concluded. Throughout early 1932, however, vigilante groups rounded up remnant Orientals, took them by the truckload to the border, and dumped them on U.S. soil. As many as 225 Asians were counted in the Nogales, Arizona, jail in March, 1932. Faced with this unexpected influx of "illegal immigrants," the United States bore the heavy cost of deporting them to China from San Francisco. 52 Although Sonoran and federal authorities denied that they expelled the Chinese, by leaving them no choice but to abandon the state, the persecution by legalistic means was tantamount to an expulsion. Internationally the Chinese exodus was certainly characterized as such.

It is difficult to trace the course of the dispersal. With the Exclusion Act still in effect in the United States, that route was legally closed; the number of Chinese who managed to slip across the border cannot be easily counted. The United States government did grant the refugees temporary transit visas to cross from Mexico to San Francisco, there to catch the slow boat to China. Some returned to their homeland with Mexican wives and children, creating the curious Mexican barrios outside certain south China villages. Many probably fled to other parts of Mexico, such as Mexico City, Sinaloa and Chihuahua although these other northern states were definitely not hospitable -- and especially to the district of Baja California Norte, which already had a sizeable Chinese colony. According to one propagandist, 6000 of the 15,000 residents of Mexicali in 1932 were Chinese. For obvious reasons, this border town picked up the anti-Chinese movement where the Sonorans had left off, forming in 1932 a Partido Nacionalista Anti-Chino; thecampaign did not, however, end with the expulsion of the Asians. 53 Although the persecution spread momentarily, the impact of the campaign in Sonora was sufficient to neutralize any further Chinese influence on local Mexican economies.

For the Mexicans of Sonora, eliminating the Asians did not instantly improve their conditions. The local economy, in fact, went through a difficult transition period, during which certain small communities were forced into a system of barter when severe shortages of supplies, caused by the sudden closing of Chinese stores, became apparent. Also, just as the Chinese had predicted and warned, the state treasury suffered a drastic reduction in revenues when the destruction of Chinese businesses cut off a lucrative source of taxes. Nevertheless, the Mexicans gradually moved into the vacuum and nationalized the petit bourgeoisclass of local society. 54

In the late nineteenth century, northern Mexico provided exactly the kind of environment that attracted Asian immigrants. It was a frontier region in the process of rapid social and economic development, made possible primarily by foreign capital, technology and markets. On the top of this relatively simple society was a landed elite, some of whom also owned mines and engaged in commerce. For the most part Mexican, its ranks included a number of Europeans and North Americans. At the base of this society was the bulk of the population, Indians, peons, workers and landless peasants who were the wage laborers. The subsistence agrarian culture was in a time of transition toward a more modern cash economy, which included expanded domestic and international markets and led to population growth and urbanization. When the Chinese first arrived on the scene, the niche they quickly occupied did not entail displacing any well established social group, which would surely have provoked violent reaction. Rather, they answered the need to expand an incipient petit bourgeoisie -- small capitalists and businessmen -- a class they dominated in a short time.

If the Mexican population was unaware of what was happening at first, the 1910 Revolution woke them up and instilled in them a much stronger sense of racial and national identity, and they protested strenuously. Ironically, the very modesty of Chinese economic success made them ready targets; unlike large American and European capitalists, what the Chinese had attained was within the grasp of most Mexicans by the 1930s. After the Revolution had raised their hopes and their position in society, it became socially feasible, if not politically expedient, to displace and replace the Chinese, to sacrifice them for the sake of Mexican nationalism. For the Chinese, theirs was a small success story with a tragic ending.

View the Notes section

Permission to present this electronic version of Immigrants to a Developing Society was granted by the author and the Arizona Historical Society

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