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Latinos from the Far East

By Charo Quesada

When Mexicans or Panamanians say they are “going to the Chino for groceries” they are not talking about some Chinese individual that happened to open a business around the corner from where they live. In their countries, the Chinese store has become an institution with a long tradition, providing a large and convenient selection of basic products, at low cost and with convenient business hours.

Brazil and Paraguay are among the world’s leading producers of soy beans, thanks in part to Japanese immigrant farmers who introduced this and several other kinds of vegetables and fruits to their adopted countries. The sacrifice of thousands of Chinese “coolies”, who were imported into the region as quasi-slaves in the 19th century, lies behind the construction of the Panama Canal, the guano industry in Peru, and the storied cotton and sugar plantations of Cuba.

The vigorous social and economic contribution of Chinese, Japanese and Korean immigrants to the region can also be seen in a profusion of restaurants, dry cleaners, automobile and appliance retailers, agricultural cooperatives, import and export textile enterprises, department stores, artists and even presidents. The importance of Asian immigration to Latin America and the Caribbean is the subject of the study “When the Orient arrived in America”, a joint initiative of the IDB and its Japanese Program that asked historians, anthropologists and sociologists to examine the different national and regional perspectives of this process.

When and how. As part of the great migration movements of the 19th century toward the American continent, Chinese immigrants came to the Caribbean and Latin America for economic and political reasons. For example, Cuba and Peru were in need of a workforce for their plantations. Panama for massive infrastructure projects. The first wave of immigrants were overwhelmingly male. Their physical integration was easier since they married native women and their offspring had characteristics that were racially and culturally more mixed. The number of Japanese immigrants increased after World War II. The Koreans arrived in the last decades of the 20th century.

In contrast with European immigration, Asians did not fit the racial ideal that originally predominated in the region. In most of the countries where they settled, Asian immigrants were the target of rejection and discrimination. In 1931, the Mexican state of Sonora outlawed marriages between Chinese and Mexicans. Official harassment forced the flight of the Chinese community, who had to leave businesses and properties behind.

Rich legacy. With their traditional skills as traders and retailers, many Chinese immigrants set up modest neighborhood stores. Others moved into dry cleaning, baking and restaurant chains. Many would eventually develop prosperous export–import businesses.

In the first decades of the 20th Century, Japanese immigrants started hairdressing, liquor, restaurant and home appliance business. Around the 1930s, they expanded into clothing business and manufacturing. Just in Lima, Peru, these business could be counted in the thousands. In São Paulo, with the largest community of Japanese immigrants in South America, the initial ventures were beauty salons, clothing made by women, pharmacies and dry cleaners.

But the contribution of Asians has gone far beyond imprinting a cosmopolitan character to cities like São Paulo, Panama or Lima. Japanese agricultural workers introduced new crops such as soy, the azuki pea and different varieties of rice. Their command of agricultural technology allowed them to experiment with new species and increase production to meet export requirements. In Chile, the growth of commercial flower crops was one of their most successful ventures.

Social impact. Chinese immigrants have applied Confucian principles that emphasize education, hard work, and savings. These values have already produced several generations of professionals in the Latin American business and political arenas. The business dynamism that has enriched the region in the last decades has also created a social conscience within the Asian communities. Many Korean, Chinese and Japanese organizations tend to the poorest segments of society, specially in educational and medical services. Immigrants who could not find jobs and returned to Japan to work send back remittances that help support the families they left behind.