Saturday, August 11, 2007

Deconstructing La Chinesca: Part 2

With such great luck my first night in El Centro, I couldn't wait to get to Mexicali and see what I could see. My first impression of Mexicali was that it was like other border towns with their railroad tracks dividing the town in half and all the casas de cambios, bus stops, and people waiting in lines. Although, just as you pass the last U.S. Border Patrol agent a large Chinese pagoda comes into view. This pagoda, fenced off from public use, was built in 1995 commemorating a 1991 friendship agreement between Mexicali and Nanjing, China. This monument to the sentiments of intimacy between Nanjing and Mexicali stands at the very pivot point between Mexicali and Calexico's cross border traffic. It's the first thing you see entering Mexicali and its the last thing you see of Mexicali as you enter Calexico (the cars lined up behind the pagoda are entering the US, on the other side of the building to the left is traffic entering Mexico).

The 1991 ceremony was conducted with local officials, members of the Chinese Association of Mexicali, Nanjing officials, and Chinese businessmen with economic ties to Northern Mexico. One of the members, perhaps president at the time, of the Chinese Association of Mexicali, Eduardo Auyon, seemed to have been the MC of the event. Eduardo Auyon is an important person to consider when thinking about La Chinesca, because he has done important historical recovery of the La Chinesca's evolution in addition to providing interesting cultural commentary about being Chinese in Mexico. He has written three books two in Chinese and one in Spanish, El Dragon en el desierto. An important precursor to El Dragon was a film by the same name made in 1986. The film told the story of Li Han a Chinese immigrant to Mexico who evaded the anti-Chinese politics in Sonora (See Orientalism South of the Border) by moving to Mexicali. The film featured local Chinese Mexicans as actors as well as the entire Auyon family. The film was produced through UABC with the help of Sergio Ortiz Salinas, scholar Gabriel Trujillo Munoz, and Angel Norzagaray. Later that year it aired on Channel 3 in the Mexicali area. In many ways, people have become familiar with La Chinesca through Auyon's art, writing, and acting. Perhaps he deserves his own post down the road?

In addition to the pagoda, there are other signs of amity between Chinese and Mexicans. This primary school on the edge of La Chinesca portrays a Chinese child greeting a Mexican child.

The images of the children draw on 19th and 20th century stereotypical motifs in an attempt to illustrate political sociability in spite of perceived differences - a self-essentializing nod to multiculturalism's 'right to difference'. The Chinese with traditional garb and the Great Wall in the background and the Mexican with sombrero and Aztec pyramid in his background. This image also suggests that cultural negotiation is gendered and a meeting of masculinized subjects. A rendering of this image appears in Auyon's El Dragon text as the title page to the chapter on historical relations between China and Mexico. What I find interesting about these expressions of friendship and tolerance is its asymmetrical character. These are efforts by Chinese Mexicans may communicate a desired future, as well as a revisionist history. Many accounts of the historical relations between Chinese and Mexicans speak at length about cultural contact and budding economic ties. However, they often omit the political persecution and disenfranchisment that many Mexican Chinese experienced during the Mexican Revolution, rise of Mexico's welfare state, and its subsequent indutrialization. I have found several Mexican scholars and authors who have tried to reconcile these historical silences (Gabriel Trujillo Munoz, Maricela Gonzalez Felix, Jose Jorge Gomez Izquierdo, Moises Gonzalez Navarro), but it seems to be an interesting site to interrogate the practice of imagining the nation, nationalism, and ongoing racial formations.

From a Gramscian perspective of hegemony, racial formations are always contingent and contestable. At this angle, the cultural production of "historical ties" may represent a repeating "manuevor" against and countering the nationalist forces of erasure and marginalization. Of course a cultural studies approach to political analysis is always subject to critiques of subjectivist relativism but this case remains particularly apt for deconstruction given the dynamism of border culture and the strength of presence of La Chinesca. For instance, not only have the Mexicali Chinese had to cope with the transition from majority to minority (the Chinese outnumbered Mexican nationals in the early 20th century), but they have also been able to remain a prominent "feature" of the Mexicali landscape. It is the material consequences of particular representations that make cultural criticism a useful method of analysis. The following map of La Chinesca dates to 1925.

Since this period, the distribution of La Chinesca has been mostly reduced to those locations south of the railroad. Although many buildings like that of ABSA remain near the old lumberyards on the north side of the tracks it seems that few live on that side. Again, let me reiterate that these thoughts are just reflections on my experience and the information I received through limited interviews. I hope that readers with more information/experience will continue to help me understand La Chinesca and it's evolution.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Deconstructing La Chinesca: Part 1

This past week I spent Sunday through Friday in the Imperial Valley doing some footwork for my research project about Asians in the U.S./Mexico borderlands. The next few posts will cover some of the highlights and some reflections on my experience. Over the past year I have tried to dig up all that I could find on the Chinese population in Mexicali, the state capitol and bordertown with Calexico, CA. Because so little has been written about Imperial and Mexicali Valley's Asian population after 1940, I wasn't entirely sure that there would be a significant population still in existence.
I arrived in El Centro, CA around 7pm rounding off 9 hours of driving from Oakland. The entire Imperial Valley seemed to be ensconced in a thin fog or fine dust. In addition, only a few cars and trucks shared the road with me as I found my way to the hotel. After cleaning up and putting myself back together, I decided to try one of Imperial Valley's Chinese Restaurants - Lucky's on 4th and Orange. As I drove around looking for Lucky's I wondered where El Centro's residents hangout? The parking lots I passed were all empty and the, seemingly recent downtown "revitalization" had not produced a night life to speak of. I turned south on 4th and found Lucky's parking lot full of cars, nearby street parking was also taken up. As I approached the building, a family of seven was just leaving, as I held the door open for them to exit I noticed pieces of paper taped to the entrance window advertising daily specials in English, Chinese, and Spanish. I felt that I was in the right place. Inside the restaurant waiters were running plates of Chinese food to a large group having a baby shower. Some old vaqueros were digging into their lo mein and others families we busy with food and conversation. I heard all three languages being spoken that night.
After eating my "combinacion equis" (mounds of lo mein, char sui, beef broccoli, and fried rice) I went to the counter to pay and introduced myself to the Chinese woman behind the counter operating the register. I told her that I was in the Imperial Valley to research the impact of the border situation on local Asians communities and to learn about their more recent history (1940-present). She immediately perked up and introduced herself and began sharing little-known facts about the Chinese community in Calexico, CA and Mexicali, BC. She proceeded to find her husband who worked in the kitchen. After meeting Jenny and Roman Zhou I found that they own Lucky's and have been in El Centro for 17 years. Prior to settling in Southern California they lived up North near Oakland's East 14th Avenue upon arriving from China's Provence of Canton, a major site of Chinese emigration for the last 200 years. As Roman return to the kitchen, Jenny began to list off other local Chinese Americans I should speak with who's families have been in the valley for several generations. I couldn't have hoped for a better beginning to my research trip - great Char Sui and enthusiastic locals!
Some how I forgot to snap a photo of the place. I'll put some photos up for the next post.