Korean Mexicans And Korean Cubans Explore Their Roots

by Guest Contributor Alex Alvarez, originally published at Guanabee

One of the things we love the most about being Latina is being able to claim ties with a vast and varied group of people. Of course, that’s only cool once we kind of gloss over some of the historical aspects of how it that some of these people came to Latino in the first place. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a segment of Latinos often forgotten – Korean Mexicans:

They were the descendants of Koreans lured in 1905 by ship to plantations on the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico. Instead of finding a better life, they were sold to plantation owners and forced to cultivate henequen, a plant whose tough fiber was used to make things like rope.

The Koreans and their descendants would come to be known as the Henequen, in part because they were so hardy and hard-working [Ed. note: Every last one? Really? That name wasn’t given to them because, like. They were forced to cultivate this stuff? No? Ok.]. They had fled a Korea that was under Japanese rule, and despite their struggle, they sent money back home, hoping to help their countrymen gain independence. But few ever saw their homeland again.

History is a funny, funny thing. The LA Times followed one group of Korean Mexicans as they explored their roots during a visit to Lynwood’s “Plaza Mexico:”

Plaza Mexico, which opened in 2002, was the vision of Donald Chae, a Korean American who grew up among Latinos and who has traveled throughout Mexico. Chae tells people that, “I don’t speak Spanish. I speak Mexican.”

“I am a Korean American Mexican,” he quips. “I’m still waiting for my pasaporte.”

The center was built with Mexican stone and boasted touches like a swap meet with a facade designed after the colonial-era governor’s mansion in Guadalajara and a shrine for the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Swap meet? We’re there.

Chae said that when he spoke to the young Korean Mexicans, he could tell they were surprised he spoke Spanish fluently. He in turn was struck by how strongly their identity was rooted.

“They’re real Mexicans,” Chae said. “They have a real Mexican way of talking. They use a lot of doble sentidos (double entendres). Mexicans use a lot of double meanings.”

But he said it was important that they learn about the other culture that informed their lives and those of their ancestors.

“When you don’t know your culture,” Chae said, “you get lost.”

There is also, as it so happens, a small group of Korean Mexicans who made their way to Cuba:

They are, technically, Latin Americans, not just in appearance [Ed. note: Sigh.] but in their way of thinking, culture, customs and language. A Cuba-Korea culture center was built in 1921 that taught Korean writing and history in an attempt to remind the descendants of their heritage. But lack of funding shuttered the center and now it’s hard to find a Henequen offspring who can speak the language.

About 800 descendants of Korean henequen farmers live around Havana, Matanzas and other areas of Cuba.

So, question: When can we stop the idea that Latino is a race and, instead, an inclusive (Well. Eventually.) and extremely varied cultural group?

Korean Mexicans learn more of their Asian roots on visit to Southern California [LA Times]
Five Generations On, Mexico’s Koreans Long for Home [From Stranger To Kin]