By Barbara Zaragoza / South Bay Compass
Welcome to my “ethnic enclave” tour of the border! I’ve been fascinated by how many different languages, cultures and religious groups exist along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, I focus on the Chinese.
Mexicali is the capital of Baja California and it’s a booming city of around 1 million residents. The city also has a unique claim to fame: La Chinesca or the largest Chinatown in Mexico.
The Chinese influence remains substantial here, even as there are perhaps fewer than 5,000 full-blooded Chinese and three times that number of mixed Chinese-Mexicans.
The Chinese in Mexicali own about 300 restaurants. Their cuisine is also renowned. It’s customary for Mexicali families to frequent the same Chinese restaurant every Sunday for three generations. The Chinese food here also is tailored to the Mexican palate.
A Brief History
After the railroad system was completed, jobs were no longer available for the Chinese in California. They looked toward Mexico and the border city of Mexicali.
The whether was extremely hot and the land was bare. The Colorado River Company leased the land in the valley and then hired mostly Chinese immigrants to cultivate the lands, farming mostly cotton. The Chinese had to give over 50% of their gains to the Colorado River Company.
There was a period of time in the 1930s when the population reached 30,000. There were markets, restaurants and more Chinese than Mexicans. However, government disruptions came into Mexico and the government took over those lands. At that time, many Chinese left.
The few who remained faced accelerating assimilation. Some members of the community wanted to maintain their culture and traditions, so they founded a Chinese-language school and an institute for the study of Chinese culture. Today, the China Association still exists and has about 600 members.
Asociacion China De Mexicali
Originally established in 1919, one of the primary objectives was for new immigrants to receive a start through the community’s helping hand. Immigrants often came with no housing, so the association provided them with a place to stay as well as food.
There were 19 congregations divided either by surnames or Chinese locales. So, for example, if an immigrant arrived from the same village as one association, they would go to that property and be given a place to stay. Or if an immigrant came from a certain family name, they would go to that association with that name for help.
The congregations then united within the larger Chinese Association where they would jointly engage in social events. The Chinese Association would select a President and each congregation would send representatives.
This still remains true today. The associations still exist and come together during events such as Chinese New Year or the Anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, when they have dinner together with raffles and ask for donations.
The Chinese Association’s building was reconstructed in 1972 and today, the building has two floors, which houses classrooms, administrative offices and a large hall for events. Everything has been funded through private donations.
The Chinese Association runs a Chinese school and they have about 200 students who learn Mandarin. At home most of the children speak one of the dialects, but they come here to learn how to read and write in the standard Mandarin. The school has 6 teachers and 80% of the kids are born here in Mexico and are mostly second generation. By the time they reach 6th grade, they are able to know about 2500 Chinese characters, which means they are able to read a normal book and do composition. Chinese teachers also teach them Spanish because they often need to transition into Mexican schools. Their parents are mostly in the restaurant business.
The Association also has a library filled with Chinese books, an altar with Chinese devotions and a small museum upstairs with memorabilia, including a dragon head, a vestment for Chinese Fortune, musical instruments, framed writings from the different associations and even a picture of Mao.
In the hallways, framed pictures remind the students of the hardships and discrimination Chinese immigrants faced when they first came to this country.
The tragic life of Tan Jixing (1887-1976) who migrated to Canada with his wife Yu Huaichun (1887 to 1961), is a typical story of a Chinese family who had to separate. Mr. Tan saw his wife only twice, once when they married and once two years before his wife passed away.
The placard tells the tragic tale: “Arranged by the parents, Tan Jixing married Yu Huaichun in 1904. Soon after the wedding, Huaichun became pregnant and Tan Jixing went to Montreal in Canada together with his fellow villagers to work in a washhouse. The following year, Huaichun gave birth to a baby girl. In 1915, they adopted a son. Tan Jixing’s business in Canada was bad, so he could not save enough money to return home until 1969. The last time he saw his wife was in Hong Kong in 1961, as Huaichun was dying. Tan Jixing had never saw his adopted son during his life. In 1976 at the age of 90, he died in Hong Kong. His family used a kind of local ritual called “Evocation” to summon his spirit to back home.”
Chinese Markets and Restaurants
The Chinese food in Mexicali is divine. It’s also catered to the Mexican palate, a fusion of the two cultures. The MUST try are shark fin soup and shark tacos.
There’s also a Chinese cemetery that lies in the middle of the communal Mexicali cemetery.
Mexican cemeteries are interesting places, in general. On the weekends, mariachi come to play and families bring picnic tables to sit and eat next to their deceased loved ones.
The Chinese section has been largely unkept, however. Many of the headstones are crooked or destroyed due to a 7.2 earthquake that rocked the city in 2010.
The headstones go back to the late 1950’s and Chinese characters adorn most of the headstones. The right side of the headstone tells the region from China the person was from. The left side has the dates of their birth and death. The middle characters are their name, including a character to say if the person was male or female.
Many headstones have pictures of the people. Due to the earthquake, very eerily, some of the tombstones have been lifted. Look inside and….. fortunately, you’ll see only dirt.
On February 10, 1995 a pagoda was erected right next to the Mexicali-Calexico border crossing. It was donated by officials of Nanjing and built by Chinese artisans as well as Mexican workers to testify to the friendship between the two respective cultures and their traditions. Although relatively new, it has become a touristy spot.
Getting There: Don’t tell me you’re scared to go to Mexicali alone? Have no fear. Once again, I took the Turista Libre tour. Derrick took us to the association, the cemetery, the Chinese market, the pagoda and then finished at the restaurant. He drove the group in a shuttle from Tijuana to Mexicali and back.
Mexicali was pretty modern and western. Next time, I’d go it alone. Mexicali residents are friendly and the city is very manageable for drivers.