MEXICALI — Once suspected and despised at the turn of the 20th century, Mexicali’s Chinese community is now an integral part of the city’s social fabric.
No better evidence of this transformation exists today than the city’s annual Chinese New Year Festival, a day-long event that celebrates the history and contributions of the local Chinese community.
“It’s a great celebration of how the two cultures (Chinese and Mexican) can coexist harmoniously,” said Tony Woo, president of La Asociacion China de Mexicali (Chinese Association of Mexicali), during the festival on Saturday, February 26. .
Woo’s assessment came as he was surrounded by hundreds of people who filled the intersection of Calle Juarez and Calle Jose Azueta, where a stage was set up for the day’s various performances.
The festivities began at the Kiosko Chino, or Chinese pagoda, located at the Lopez Mateos Boulevard roundabout. From there, several traditional lion and dragon dancers led a parade of festival-goers to the festival site, which had closed sections of Juarez and Jose Azueta streets.
The festival was centered in the city’s historic quarter, in an area known as La Chinesca, which has long been the cultural hub of the city’s Chinese community. The area is known for its Chinese architecture and multiple restaurants, which Chinese Association President Woo described as having also played an important role in the city’s cultural evolution.
“Chinese food has changed traditional Mexican food in Mexicali,” Woo said in Spanish.
Indeed, a long-standing tradition among Mexican families in the city is to frequent Chinese restaurants on Sundays, said Alma Delia Obrego Ceballos, secretary of the Baja California Bureau of Culture.
Next to New York and San Francisco, Baja California’s population of about 14,000 Chinese is considered the largest such population in the Americas, Obrego Ceballos said as he waited for the parade to begin.
The Chinese New Year festival marked the first large-scale public event the city has held since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and was made possible by the dwindling number of positive cases and the city’s easing and the state of COVID-related health and safety restrictions, she said. The pandemic had forced the festival to take a two-year hiatus.
The festival was organized by the city and state governments with assistance from the Chinese community and the city’s historic civic center commission.
It can also be seen as an extension of ongoing efforts to strengthen ties between the Chinese community and government officials, as well as the revitalization of La Chinesca. Recent revitalization efforts have included rebuilt roads, as well as new lighting, signage and drainage systems, the Baja California government reported.
“Today we are building this area that in the near future will surely be called Baja California’s ‘Chinatown’,” Culture Bureau Secretary Obrego Ceballos said at the festival. “Thanks to Chinese migration here, the city of Mexicali was able to develop. Their contribution to the history of the city is considerably relevant.
The festival attracted thousands of people, who were able to enjoy Chinese cuisine, visits to the Museo Wok, which showcases the city’s Chinese cuisine, a tai chi demonstration, as well as piano and violin performances by traditional Chinese songs and music, to name a few. events.
The Chinese New Year is a celebration of the start of a new solar calendar year, which this year began on February 1 and has been depicted as the Year of the Water Tiger.
Celebrating the start of the new year also makes it possible to do without the bad and the old, and to welcome the new and the good, according to the old tradition.
History of Chinese in Mexicali
Outside of Baja California, many Chinese are also found in the Mexican states of Sonora, Chiapas and Sinaloa, said Gilberto Reyes, a history professor at San Diego-Imperial Valley State University who made much research on the history of the Chinese in Mexicali.
After helping to build the American railroad system, many Chinese immigrated to Mexico following the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Reyes said. The law prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering the United States and called for the deportation of those who arrived after 1880.
In Mexicali, at the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese population had established large cotton farms and outnumbered Mexican citizens. Often their immigration to Mexico was facilitated by agreements between the Chinese and Mexican governments, Reyes said.
Relations soured around the time of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1910s. The nation’s emerging nationalist sentiment excluded Chinese communities, even though some Chinese men had married Mexican women and fathered children, Reyes said.
In Mexicali, where many Chinese were employed by the Colorado River Land Company, they were seen as being aligned with a foreign entity and subject to acts of discrimination and violence, Reyes said.
“The Chinese were seen as pawns of the Colorado River Land Company,” Reyes said, referring to the company that essentially enabled large-scale irrigation in the region and owned large tracts of land in Mexicali.
Nor did the Chinese community fare any better in the agrarian land reform movement started by landless Mexican farmers in 1937, known as El Asalto a Las Tierras. Among the land reclaimed by Mexican farmers was land cultivated by members of the Chinese community, Reyes said.
Yet the level of reaction they faced was lower than other areas of Mexico like Sinaloa or, more specifically, Torreon, Coahuila, where revolutionary forces massacred more than 300 members of the Chinese community in 1911.
“It was less aggressive in Mexicali. But there was always some tension,” Reyes said in a phone interview. “For this fact, many Chinese have moved to Mexicali. It was less violent.
Today, Mexicali’s Chinese community is considered an essential part of the city’s cultural heritage.
Particularly interesting and prestigious are the basements and interconnected tunnels that the Chinese community built in La Chinesca around 100 years ago.
They became a popular attraction in the 1920s, when Prohibition in the United States brought many American citizens to Mexicali to drink and gamble, Reyes said.
Although many tunnels have been destroyed by fires and floods, recent attempts have been made to restore others, Baja California State reported. The public was invited to visit some of the tunnels during the Chinese New Year festival.
Although often associated with illicit activity, basements and tunnels served more mundane purposes, such as an escape from high summer temperatures and for storing goods, Reyes said. And, no, notorious Chicago mobster Al Capone didn’t visit the tunnels.
“It’s just an exaggeration of the myth,” Reyes said.