Brooke Binkowski: Chinese influence growing in Mexico

/Photos by Brooke Binkowski
Nowhere is China’s influence in Mexico more noticeable than in Mexicali, such as at a city plaza near a border crossing with the United States.

Published: 20 February 2015 09:44 PM
Updated: 20 February 2015 09:44 PM

It was an unexpected sight in a desert city on the northern border of Mexico. One recent Sunday, children were pouring out of a school classroom into a hall hung with fringed lanterns and calling out to one another in Mandarin and Cantonese. Others were preparing decorations in another room for this month’s Chinese New Year celebrations.

Outside, restaurants lining the dusty streets displayed signs in Spanish, English and Chinese.

This is Mexicali, home to the largest Chinese community in Mexico and one of the largest in Latin America. It is the face of a new era in Mexico’s relationship with the emerging superpower across the Pacific Ocean.

“People say that Mexicali was founded by Chinese about a hundred years ago,” said Anna Yu, 39, a language teacher at the school.

Yu came to Mexicali from China about 10 years ago to join family who had settled there. “I heard Mexicali was famous for a community like this,” she said.

Since then, she has married a Mexican, learned Spanish and taught her husband Mandarin.

Yu is one of an estimated 20,000 people of Chinese descent living in Mexicali. The school where she teaches is housed in the Asociación China de Mexicali and exists to teach language, writing and history to younger generations in an effort to keep Chinese culture alive.

Chinese immigration to Mexico is rising rapidly. The 4,743 Chinese who arrived in 2013 made up the second-largest group of immigrants after the 12,000-odd Americans who were granted permanent residency.

Mexico is also seen as a prime destination for Chinese foreign investment, thanks to its abundance of natural resources and proximity to the U.S.

Chinese trade with Mexico has also increased in recent years: According to the Mexican government, imports and exports between the two countries grew from about $15 million in 2004 to $65 million in 2014.

“The relationship between China and Latin America is on an upward trend,” China President Xi Jinping told reporters in Beijing in January, during a meeting with Latin American leaders.

Mexico was considered a key part of this relationship, strategically as well as economically, but the relationship has become complicated.

The future of Chinese investment was thrown into question after Mexico recently dropped a major project to be funded by China. A consortium of Chinese firms had won a bid to build a high-speed rail between Mexico City and the nearby industrial hub Querétaro. The $3.75 billion project was to be a symbol of growing Chinese interest in Mexico’s infrastructure.

Instead, the project has become a high-priced boondoggle. The Mexican government abruptly suspended the project indefinitely this month, citing dropping oil prices. Tensions intensified when the China Railway Construction Corp. demanded financial compensation.

The rail project is not the first time that relations have been strained.

Mexico has a little-known history of government-sponsored racism, manifested in the 1911 massacre of more than 300 Chinese immigrants in the northern city of Torreón.

While the antagonism has mostly dissipated, it lingers in business and cultural misunderstandings, said Enrique Dussel Peters, an economist and expert on Mexico-China relations at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. Dussel said that neither country has done enough to make up for the lack of mutual understanding.

“That should be invested in by the two countries,” he said. “Not only by the public sector, but also the Chinese firms in Mexico have done very weak institutional work.” He added that leaders in Beijing all too often look at Latin America as one homogenous group and fail to look at its shared history with Mexico.

Nowhere is China’s influence more noticeable than in Mexicali, just across the U.S. border from Calexico, Calif.

The influx to Mexicali began around the mid-19th century as Chinese tried to escape poverty at home. Some moved to California and then traveled back and forth across the porous border. Many found work as builders on the transcontinental railroad in the U.S. and smaller railroads across the border in Mexico, quickly gaining a reputation for working harder at lower wages than European and American laborers.

As word got back to China, more people arrived in the U.S., aided by an 1868 trade agreement between the two countries, the Burlingame Treaty, which encouraged immigration to the U.S.

Just 12 years later, that treaty was rewritten by the U.S. to suspend immigration from China.

“After the railroad was finished, there were a lot of Asian people involved, and at the time the U.S. actually stopped immigration of the Asian people, Chinese people specifically,” said Esteban León, whose Chinese name is Lenng Sin On. León is a Chinese-Mexican whose family was among the wave of immigrants who crossed the Pacific in search of work three generations ago. Today, he sits on the board of the Asociación China de Mexicali and serves as director of the Chinese school.

While Mexico initially welcomed the Chinese newcomers with land and promises of railroad work, anti-Chinese sentiment soon reared its head there, too, in part because of instability and a shaky economy.

Throughout the country, many were marginalized, deported and even massacred. Mexicali was relatively safe, far enough from the rest of Mexico to escape much of the early-20th-century xenophobia, and within sight of the still-porous border with the U.S.

“Mexicali was always on the periphery,” said historian Jason Chang, a University of Connecticut professor who is working on a book about the Chinese presence in Mexicali. “That allowed it to escape some of the other patterns of development in the rest of the nation — that allowed the Chinese population to get so large.”

The proximity to the border was also a big draw for Chinese immigrants, as well as Chinese companies, a lure that still exists.

Chinese companies invest in iron ore mining throughout Mexico and have been eyeing Mexico as a likely place to set up manufacturing bases.

“There are a couple of things that have stayed true about the relationship with China and Mexico over the last century,” said Chang. “One is proximity to the U.S. — the majority of maquiladoras along the border are Asian companies. That’s no mistake.”

Economist Enrique Dussel Peters believes that the best way to strengthen economic ties is to strengthen personal and political ones as well. To that end, he said, Chinese migrants in other parts of the country may be able to learn from the Asociación China de Mexicali’s example: It’s easy for companies and governments to say more needs to be done to reaffirm trust between the two countries, but they need to do their part, too.

“They complain, how is it possible that we don’t have more students speaking Chinese, et cetera? I know why, because you’re not investing 1 cent,” said Dussel. “So it’s always very easy to complain [about] the public sector, it’s very fashionable — it’s corrupt, it doesn’t work, it’s not efficient, whatever — but what are you doing?”

In Mexicali, members of the Chinese-Mexican community have few qualms at the prospect of playing an integral role in Mexico’s strengthening ties with Asia. They see their dual ties to China and Mexico as a big advantage, and those who have immigrated to Mexico often stay.

“Everything’s OK for me,” said teacher and first-generation immigrant Anna Yu, who has no plans to return to China. “I have a job, I like my job.”

Her children are among the students who on Sundays learn Mandarin, calligraphy and other aspects of Chinese culture. She brings them into the classroom, whispering to them in a rapid-fire combination of Chinese and Spanish.

“The Mexican people, the local people here, they’re already used to us,” she said. “We live together, Mexican and Chinese.”