Friday, May 24

Neglected history of Chinese community in Mexico recognized in Assistant Professor Robert Chao Romero’s new book

Assistant Professor Robert Chao Romero recently published his book "The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940."


Assistant Professor Robert Chao Romero recently published his book "The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940."


Swati Padmanabhan / Daily Bruin

Correction: In the original version of this headline, the word recognized was misspelled.

On a spring day in 1911, local merchants went on a rampage in the Mexican city of Torreón, Coahuila. They slaughtered hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants, and 20 years later, most Chinese residents had been driven out of the country.

From 30,000 at its peak, the Chinese population was decimated to a mere 3,000 in Mexico.

Yet history students in Mexico have never studied this massacre, said Robert Chao Romero, an assistant professor in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano studies.

Romero said governments often gloss over the murky details of their countries’ histories.

To address this issue, Romero recently published “The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940,” a book about what he calls “the dark chapter” in Mexico’s history.

“People’s notion about Chicano studies is that we only focus on Mexican Americans. Romero’s book is a great contribution to the expansion of Chicano studies to include the history of the Chinese-Latino diaspora in contemporary Mexico,” said Abel Valenzuela, professor of the Chicana and Chicano studies department.

As a Chinese Mexican child growing up in Los Angeles, Romero hid his Chinese background from his peers. However, he later learned that his maternal grandfather, Calvin Chao, from whom he gets his middle name, was a renowned figure among Christians in China.

“He had played a major role in the spread of Christianity in early 20th century. He was fondly called the “˜Billy Graham of China,’ after the celebrated American evangelist,” Romero said.

However, Chao’s religious ideas had made him unpopular among the ruling Communist party, and he was singled out by the government to be killed. He then fled his native country with his family and came to the U.S. in the 1950s.

Upon learning about his family background, Romero decided to explore the history of Chinese in Mexico. He then applied to the graduate program in Chicano studies at UCLA and graduated in 2003.

Romero found that the history of Chinese people in Mexico could be traced back to the 1880s.

After the passing of the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the Chinese fled to Mexico in large numbers because it would be easy to reenter back into the U.S., Romero said.

Soon, however, the Mexicans began to view the Chinese immigrants as a threat for low-paying jobs, and this hostility led to the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

Romero was intrigued by the strong anti-Chinese sentiment that pervaded the national psyche, even after the end of the Mexican Revolution. Marriages between Mexican and Chinese people, for example, were publicly lampooned in cartoons and Mexican pop culture.

Researching the topic was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, Romero said. He traveled all across the country to find clues in census and immigration interview records.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me and brought forth facts I had never been aware of,” said Leonard Melchor, a world arts and culture doctoral student who had helped Romero translate the Spanish documents into English. The book has been received very well by critics and academics.

“It has been meticulously researched and masterfully crafted. Robert was trained in law, too, and he brings in his legal skill set to analyze how the Chinese were mistreated in Mexico,” Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela added that the book was consistent with the department’s vision for Chicano studies and said every Chicano studies student should read it.

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