In northern Mexico, after the 1910 revolution, a printing press in the border town of Nogales, Sonora was hired to copy playbills for the “Sumptuous Debut,” of soprano singer M.G. Moreno and the return of the comic-singer Sanchez Molgosa. The playbill enticed possible patrons to attend the “sensational opening” of “Loca de Amor,” a lyrical comic duet embellishing the effects of the Ley de Trabajo, a law requiring all foreign enterprises to employ of at least eighty percent Mexican nationals. The performance was dedicated to Mayor Jose M. Arana and the Cultural Society of Magdalena. Mayor Arana, a local businessman and schoolteacher, was also a pioneer of nativist business associations like Junta Comercial y de Hombres de Negocios and Junta Central Nacionalista “En Defensa de la Raza” (Hu-DeHart). The organizations’ sole purpose was to propagandize and lobby for discriminatory laws against Chinese businesses in Sonora but also throughout Mexico. The Mexican ligas used images such as this one
to convince readers that the Ley de Trabajo specifically meant the ousting of Chinese shopkeepers (Espinoza 1932). The caption of the cartoon reads, “…and the fervor of “the green guards” was more than obvious to her that the town endorsed the government acts.” Ligas antichinos sprang up across the northern border states and as far south as the state of Oaxaca throughout the post-revolutionary period. Sixty years earlier white Americans north of the border formed anti-Chinese groups and passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first immigration law to legally exclude immigrants based upon race. The Chinese Exclusion Laws also formed the first immigration police officers, called "Chinese Catchers" - later to become the Border Patrol in 1924. The Chinese Exclusion Acts in the US were not repealed until 1943, but during that period many Chinese immigrants sought entry to the US through Mexico and many ended up staying in Mexico. By the early 20th century both Mexico and the US had defined thier territorial borders through anti-Asian politics, while implicitly relying upon Chinese immigrant labor.
Prior to the revolution, Mexicans were mostly ambivalent to Chinese immigration (Hu-DeHart); some Mexican officials even made light of US concerns regarding Chinese immigration to the US via Mexico just to spite the arrogance of their American counterparts (Lee). Yet, during the revolutionary period armed conflict often became anti-Chinese violence. Cumberland purports an important “psychological factor,” to explain why “the persecution was a particularly norteño phenomenon.” He continues by emphasizing a periodization, noting that
“especially prior to 1916 – and by that date, the pattern, though not the details, had been set – one can establish a high correlation between discriminatory outbreaks and military action. Defeats, long drawn-out battles, retreats, and sieges were frequently accompanied by violence against Chinese… The Sonorans carried their latent prejudices with them wherever they went; frustrations incident to military action triggered the explosions.”
As stated earlier, the Mexican revolution stirred an intense nationalism leading to bloody struggles for power and control of the Mexican nation-state. Hu-DeHart claims that the Chinese had established a “dominant petit bourgeois class,” that did not compete with Mexicans but, “met new demands for goods and services in a greatly expanded society.” Becasuse of their class position, she posits that,
“[t]o the humble, dispossessed masses, [the revolution] promised social justice to all Mexicans; it promised national control of the country’s resources and economy. Chinese domination of local business in much of the north, notably Sonora, became a national embarrassment.” (Hu-DeHart)
What is important to point out here is that the struggle for control of Revolutionary Mexico included wealthy elites of northern Mexico where the highest concentrations of Chinese immigrants were found. Many of the Revolution’s political leaders like Francisco Madero from Coahuila (President 1911-1913), Venustiano Carranza also from Coahuila (President 1917-1920), Álvaro Obregón from Sonora (President 1920-1924), as well as Plutarco Calles also from Sonora(President 1924-1928) were familiar with, if not ardent supporters of the ligas antichinos. These relationships made critical linkages between national politics and local developments. Linkages such as these meant that ligas antichinos made waves in the national pond, in addition to making national level politics important to promoters within the local ligas.
Unlike the US campaigns, the Mexican ligas were not supported by a groundswell of disenchanted laborers. HuDeHart uncovered quite a different dynamic in the campaign’s formation in the Mexican context.
“Leading the fight against the numerous, ubiquitous and relatively prosperous Chinese business community were small and modest Mexican merchants, school teachers, and other middle class aspirants, with the support of some organized labor. These people basically resented the Chinese for blocking their social and economic advancement. Thus, Sonora’s anti-Chinese persecution had a clear class base.” (Hu-DeHart)
Rather than popular anti-Chinese politics resonating at the national level, as in the US case, the Mexican case follows a recruitment narrative in which the Mexican petit bourgeois class sought support from national and state elites as well as from the lower tier mass of workers. Hu-DeHart emphasizes the particularity of the formation of ligas antichinos in Mexico by pointing out that, “In the absence of firm constitutional grounds, a strong ideological basis had to be established to justify anti-Chinese persecution.” Yet the question remains; what was the constitution of that “strong ideological basis”? In this regard the literature on ligas antichinos lacks sufficient depth, a point that will be developed in depth later.
It is necessary to highlight the peculiarities of Mexico’s relation to US imperialism regarding the formation and maintenance of the ligas antichinos. In the post-revolutionary period many of the attempts to pass local anti-Chinese ordinances like the Americans did were thwarted by US consular pressures on Mexican politicians. American foreign-service agents were keenly aware of how important the Chinese petit bourgeois class was for the US monopolies in mining, cattle ranching, cotton, and transportation industries within Mexico (Hu-DeHart). According to one analysis, 77% of corporations in Mexico were foreign owned, primarily by American industrialists (La Botz). Combined with the financial resources of a transnationally organized network of Chinese merchants, lobbying against discriminatory laws was effective at challenging the legitimacy of legal attacks. By these accounts, it is curious how the scale of economic and political domination by US interests did not over-shadow the comparatively less ominous presence of the Chinese petit bourgeois. Instead, much of the anti-Chinese leaders in Mexico claimed that excluding the Chinese was necessary to be considered among the family of Western nations (Lee).
Addressing this ideological dilemma brings the nation and race together as a useful way to understand the formation and maintenance of the ligas antichinos as well as the racist character of the Mexican state. According to Stern, the post-revolutionary period initiated a public discourse of “mestizofilia,” an intense nationalism based upon a “dangerous genuflection” to the imperial narrative of “one triumphant race.” “Mestizofilia” reinterpreted Spanish colonialism, re-ordering the racial hierarchy, claiming that Spaniards were “indianized and infused with the mythical vitality and resistance of the Aztecs and Mayans.” In turn, public policies and academic departments throughout Mexico used the scientific paradigm of eugenics to support the philosophical renovation of the mestizo – “a national hybrid idol” (Stern) These notions of mestizaje were used in political discourse to unite a supposedly “vigorous, productive, and homogeneous political body” but also as an ideological spring whose waters feed the ligas anti-chinos. By this formulation, recruiting members and soliciting support for the ligas implicitly meant an affirmation of the superiority of Mexican mestizos (Spanish and Indian) as well as resonating with the revolutionary call of “Mexico for Mexicans.”
The height of anti-Chinese sentiment in Sonora resulted in their forced exclusion from the state of Sonora in the early 1930s. Previous attempts to implement this policy underscore the importance of the convergence of political, economic and cultural elements. The political discourse of “mestizofilia” combined with the growing discontent around economic opportunities in Sonora gained resonance with National level politics, especially because the President at the time, Plutarco Calles, was a native Sonoran and thus sensitive to state level issues.