Juan Chiu Trujillo was five years old when he left his native Mexico for a visit to his father’s hometown in southern China. He was 35 when he returned. As Chiu vacationed with his family in Guangdong Province, Mexico erupted into xenophobia fueled by the economic turmoil of the Great Depression and aimed at its small, relatively prosperous Chinese minority. Authorities backed by mobs rounded up Chinese citizens, pressured them to sell their businesses and forced many to cross into the US.
Unable to return to Mexico, the Chius stayed in China and began a new life. Chiu’s father took a job at a relative’s bakery and his children began learning Chinese.
They never stopped dreaming of Mexico, and Juan Chiu Trujillo returned in November 1960. He came back with his pregnant wife and four children along with 300 other Chinese Mexicans after then-Mexican president Adolfo Lopez Mateos — trying to improve Mexico’s global image — paid for their travel expenses and decreed that they would be legally allowed to live in Mexico.
Dozens of those Chinese Mexicans and their descendants planned a gathering yesterday at a Chinese restaurant in Mexico City to celebrate for the first time the anniversary of their return, share memories and pay tribute to the late Lopez Mateos, who was represented by his daughter.
For many, the commemoration has brought reflection on their status as Chinese Mexicans. It is a group that feels deeply Mexican but also has been scarred by persecution and still faces ethnic prejudice, despite growing acceptance.
“I thought: ‘My children need to know this history. They need to know where we come from, and they need to know how much hard work it has taken for us to be here,’” said Chiu’s youngest son, Ignacio Chiu Chan, a 46-year-old lawyer.
Chiu Chan began a Facebook page to share photographs of the repatriation that he found in his father’s photo albums and to collect the stories of other Chinese Mexicans who were brought back by Lopez Mateos.
Chiu Chan, who is married to a Mexican woman of Spanish and Indian descent and has four children, said he struggled with his identity while growing up and got into several fights because of name calling.
He was a young bachelor when a group of elders invited him to lunch at a restaurant in Mexico City’s tiny Chinatown. Three young women were at the table and he was asked to say which one he would like to marry.
“I thought, ‘What are these dudes talking about?’” he said. “For the first time I felt Mexican and thought, ‘I don’t belong to this.’”
Large numbers of Chinese began arriving in northern Mexico in the late 1800s, drawn by jobs in railroad construction and cotton. The country represented a haven from the US, which had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law that banned Chinese immigration.
But from the moment they began to arrive, they faced racism, which was exacerbated during the 1910 to 1917 Mexican Revolution and its aftermath, when the country was trying to build a national identity that celebrated the mixture of Indian and Spanish cultures.
With the Great Depression, large numbers of destitute Mexicans began returning home from the US and resentment about the financial success of Chinese people grew.
“Even though there was a small number of Chinese people, their economic prowess and their position in the labor force made them a threat,” said Fredy Gonzalez, a PhD candidate in history at Yale University who is studying the repatriations.
In 1930, Mexico had 18,000 Chinese citizens and Mexicans of Chinese descent. By 1940, there were only 4,800, Gonzalez said.
Today, there are at least 70,000 Chinese citizens and Chinese Mexicans in the country, according to a 2008 report by the Foreign Relations Department.
After returning to Mexico and working at his brother’s grocery store in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, Chiu decided to move to Mexico City, where he worked as a cook and eventually opened his own cafeteria.
“I was able to give my sons an education. The boys all graduated from college,” Chiu said. “The oldest is an accountant, the second is a chemist, the third is a mathematician and the young one is a musician.”
Chiu said he always felt more Mexican than Chinese.
“I have always thought that wherever you can find tranquility, that’s where your home is,” he said.