MEXICO CITY (AP) – Juan Chiu Trujillo was 5 years old when he left his native Mexico for a visit to his father’s hometown in southern China. He was 35 when he returned.
As Chiu vacationed with his parents, brother and two sisters in Guangdong province, Mexico erupted into xenophobia fueled by the economic turmoil of the Great Depression and aimed at its small, relatively prosperous Chinese minority. Authorities backed by mobs rounded up Chinese citizens, pressured them to sell their businesses and forced many to cross into the United States.
Unable to return to their home, hotel and restaurant in the southern border city of Tapachula, the Chius stayed in China and began a new life.
Chiu’s father took a job at a relative’s bakery and his children began learning Chinese. But their life was soon turned upside down as China was invaded by the Japanese, endured World War II and then suffered a civil war that led to a victory by communist forces that persecuted religious people. In 1941, the family fled to Macau, then a Portuguese colony.
They never stopped dreaming of Mexico, and Juan Chiu Trujillo returned in November 1960. He came back with his pregnant wife and four children and with 300 other Chinese-Mexicans after President Adolfo Lopez Mateos, trying to improve Mexico’s global image, paid for their travel expenses and decreed that they would be legally allowed to live in Mexico. They were eventually granted Mexican citizenship.
Twenty-one of those Chinese-Mexicans and their descendants celebrated for the first time on Saturday the anniversary of their return. Gathering at a Chinese restaurant in Mexico City, they shared emotional memories of their lives in China and paid tribute to the late Lopez Mateos.
Adrian Lay Ruiz remembered his father, Ramon Lay Mazo, who was born in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa and who campaigned tirelessly for the repatriation while living in Macau.
“He passed down to me the Spanish language and his great longing to return to Mexico, our homeland,” said Lay, his voice breaking.
For many, the commemoration has brought reflection on their status as Chinese-Mexicans. It’s a group that feels deeply Mexican but also has been scarred by persecution by their countrymen and still faces ethnic prejudice, despite growing acceptance.
“I thought: `My children need to know this history. They need to know where we come from, and they need to know how much hard work it has taken for us to be here,'” said Chiu’s youngest son, Ignacio Chiu Chan, a 46-year-old lawyer.
Chiu Chan began a Facebook page to share photographs of the repatriation that he found in his father’s photo albums and to collect the stories of other Chinese-Mexicans who were brought back by Lopez Mateos. So far, more than 260 people have joined his page, sharing images and recounting family stories.
Chiu Chan, who is married to a Mexican woman of Spanish and Indian descent and has four children, said he struggled with his identity while growing up because of bullying and got into several fights because of name calling.
He was a young bachelor when a group of elders invited him to lunch at a restaurant in Mexico City’s tiny Chinatown. Three young women were at the table and he was asked to say which one he would like to marry.
“I thought, `What are these dudes talking about?'” he recalled. “For the first time I felt Mexican and thought, `I don’t belong to this.'”
Large numbers of Chinese began arriving in northern Mexico in the late 1800s, drawn by jobs in railroad construction and cotton. The country represented a haven from the United States, which had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law that banned Chinese immigration.
But from the moment they began to arrive, they faced racism, which was exacerbated during the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution and its aftermath, when the country was trying to build a national identity that celebrated the mixture of Indian and Spanish cultures.
Mexican women who married Chinese men were considered traitors, and in some cases families disowned them. With the Great Depression, large numbers of destitute Mexicans began returning home from the United States and resentment about the financial success of Chinese people grew.
“Even though there was a small number of Chinese people, their economic prowess and their position in the labor force made them a threat,” said Fredy Gonzalez, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale University who is studying 20th century Chinese migration to Mexico.
In the northern border state of Sonora, anti-Chinese leagues formed and thousands of Chinese were taken to the border with the U.S. and forced to cross. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act they were immediately detained by U.S. immigration officials and sent to China.
In 1930, Mexico had 18,000 Chinese citizens and Mexicans of Chinese descent. By 1940, there were only 4,800, Gonzalez said.
Today, there are at least 70,000 Chinese citizens and Chinese-Mexicans in the country, according to a report in 2008 by the Foreign Relations Department.
In China, Chiu Trujillo’s Mexican mother spoke to her children in Spanish and often sang Mexican ranchera songs so loudly that she could be heard all around the stream where she washed the family’s laundry.
Their mother also instilled in her children devotion for the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint.
“We would recite the rosary in Spanish, she would teach us,” Chiu, 87, remembered during an interview in his small apartment in Mexico City’s rough La Merced neighborhood, its walls decorated with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus Christ, a couple of Chinese calendars and lots of family photographs. “She would tell us, don’t forget you are Catholics, don’t lose your religion.”
Three years after his mother and two siblings returned, Chiu, his pregnant Chinese wife and four children finally were flown to Mexico.
After working at his brother’s grocery store in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, he decided to move to Mexico City, where he worked as a cook and eventually opened his own cafeteria.
“I was able to give my sons an education. The boys all graduated from college,” Chiu said. “The oldest is an accountant, the second is a chemist, the third is a mathematician, and the young one is a musician.”
Chiu said he always felt more Mexican than Chinese.
“I have always thought that wherever you can find tranquility, that’s where your home is,” he said.
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