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.


Blogger Estolano in San Diego said...

I'm beginning to research Chinesca for a novel and am curious about whether you've come across any rumors of the underground city in Mexicali.

Email me- maybe there's a way that we can collaberate on our research- since I'm using it only as backstory for my novel and your interest seems to be academic.

I'm planning a field trip to Mexicali in a couple weeks and would appreciate any contacts that you've made.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Jason,
It's Mike of Mike and Julie that live in S.C. I didn't know how to contact you any other way but I read this article you might be interested in as is on an art project on the border. the URL is
Hope things are well.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will there be a third part
for Deconstructing La Chinesca?
I hope so!
I'm really interested on the subject
as I lived in Mexicali for a decade
but didn't know much about this

11:43 PM  
Anonymous KinkyKathy said...

Only thing I saw in Mexicai was Tequila Tequila Tequila...and lots of loose lesbos like me!

6:41 AM  
Blogger sergio said...

i am a film director actually living in monterrey mexico... i am from mexicali... and im doing research for the preproduction of a documentary.. and i wish to contact you and maybe we can work something together.

thanks, hope to hear from you soon!
my email address is

2:02 PM  
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