China-Yucatán Ties Date Back 300 Years

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MERIDA, Yucatán — Despite being more than 13,500 kilometers apart, China and the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán have maintained a longstanding relationship that has permeated Maya history and shaped the Yucatecan identity, according to Yucatecan academic Luis Alfonso Ramírez.

Ramírez, a scholar at the Autonomous University of Yucatán, traced the history in his book titled “The Dragon and the Ceiba: The Chinese in the Land of the Maya, 19th to 20th Centuries,” which details the relationship between China and Mexico that began much earlier than some contemporary perceptions suggest, even in states with very marked identities, such as Yucatán.

“Popular culture, immediate knowledge and everyday life think that the relationship with China is being born now in the 21st century, with the international presence of new China and its economy. But China’s relationship with Latin America and Mexico, and with Yucatán, is centuries old,” Ramirez said.

The historical evidence analyzed by Ramirez in his book shows that Chinese presence in Yucatán dates back to the 19th century.

In 1866, Ramírez said, a ship landed in Belize with about 480 Chinese, who came to work in English lumber plantations.

Of these, a little group rebelled due to mistreatment and decided to go into the Yucatan jungle, dominated by the Maya.

The second batch of Chinese migrants to Yucatán was organized to cultivate henequen (an agave plant), which was the pillar of the Yucatan Peninsula economy during the final years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

The number of Chinese in Yucatán and their imprint on local communities increased when some Chinese who were not henequen workers began to arrive on their own during the first decades of the 20th century, Ramírez said.

The Chinese who settled in Yucatán gradually blended with the Maya identity in “a process of syncretism and cultural miscegenation, and creation of a regional identity,” he said.

In this process, Chinese elements were integrated into the modern identity of the region.

As an epitome to this integration, which mostly happened in the first decades of the 20th century, Chinese was the second most-spoken language in Yucatán until at least the 1930s.

The Chinese also created “a small Chinatown behind the Mercado Grande in Mérida,” the Yucatecan capital and one of Mexico’s most distinguished cities, he said.

“They went from being migrants to political actors of the state,” by establishing organizations like the Chinese Association of Yucatan in 1917 and the League of Resistance of Chinese Workers in 1918, Ramírez said.

Ever since China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), Yucatán has witnessed another influx of Chinese migrants, who came to Mexico with large-scale investments.

A tracing of the historical Chinese presence in Yucatán shows that cultural links can overcome long distance, Ramírez said.

Mexicans and Yucatecans “have a perspective and a contact with China that is new and different,” he said, adding that “the way to understand regional identities is to understand that we are mestizos, culturally speaking.”

“We are the product of a lot of influences,” he said.

“Our identity is really a melting pot in which cultural, linguistic and even gastronomic elements that we think of as unique are mixed together.”

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