Mexico Should Confront Its Xenophobic Past

Antonio C. Hsiang, Mexico News Daily, March 11, 2017

Mexico has recently been on the receiving end of an ugly wave of xenophobia from some American politicians and members of the public.

In response, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, standing in solidarity with his country’s diaspora, made it a point to personally receive 135 deported Mexican nationals on February 7. Mr. Peña Nieto declared at the airport, “You are not alone, do not feel abandoned. The doors to this, your house, will always be open.”

The president’s gesture was likely designed to portray Mexico as a principled and moral country. If this was indeed Mr. Peña Nieto’s goal, then perhaps it is an opportune time for Mexico to confront its own historical responsibility for xenophobic and exclusionary policies.

Almost a century ago, Mexico experienced a dramatic rise in xenophobia against immigrants from China, resulting in exclusionary policies and outright violence. Given the fraught political climate today, it is long past time for the Mexican government to apologize to the Chinese-Mexican community.

Doing so would not only help heal deep historical wounds, it would lay the foundations for a stronger Mexican foreign policy going forward.

Mexico has an oft-ignored history of discriminating against Chinese immigrants. “Chinese-Mexicans are nearly absent from the Mexican national narrative,” according to Grace Peña Delgado, professor at UC Santa Cruz.

An anti-Chinese movement emerged during the Mexican Revolution and attained peak influence before and during the Great Depression. While most of Mexico’s anti-Chinese groups were formed between 1922 and 1927, with names such as the Comité Pro-Raza, Comité Anti-Chino de Sinaloa and the Liga Nacional Obrera Antichina, there was a significant amount of animosity against the Chinese prior to the 1920s.

Perhaps the most violent single episode occurred in 1911, when Mexican revolutionary forces massacred over 300 people of Chinese descent in the city of Torreón.

Popular Mexican politicians of the time often fanned the flames of xenophobia. For example, as one of the most prominent national politicians of the era, Plutarco Elías Calles had held strong antichinista leanings since his days as a Sonoran state politician.

He was known as the Maximato, and his powerful position made it easier to expel Chinese with impunity. Not only did he support a special tax on Chinese farmers and merchants in the agricultural towns around the capital, he denied reentry permits to those people of Chinese descent who had traveled to China.

Later, in 1931, his son, Rodolfo Elías Calles, assumed the governorship of Sonora and formed “rural brigades” to search for Chinese hiding in the countryside. Mere association with the Chinese community was enough for these vigilantes to act, and among the victims were many Mexican women married to Chinese men.

As a result of the violence and discrimination, Mexico witnessed a mass exodus of people of Chinese descent. Some 70% of Chinese-Mexicans were expelled to China or, ironically, the United States. While repatriation efforts began almost immediately and lasted until the 1980s, the legacy of the hatred is hard to erase.

A formal Mexican government apology at this particular moment can achieve multiple purposes. First, it would strengthen Mexico’s moral argument in lobbying for immigration reform in the United States. After being elected as president, Mr. Peña Nieto argued that he “would welcome the implementation of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.”

Should he choose to make amends for a particularly xenophobic period of Mexican history, Mr. Peña Nieto would pose a powerful moral challenge to American President Donald Trump to take immigration reform seriously.

Second, such a gesture would be good global statesmanship. An apology would display a commitment to liberal values while at the same time signal a greater level of friendliness towards China.

It would also be in keeping with Mr. Peña Nieto’s own views, having stated that he “intend[s] to start a new era of economic and political cooperation with the Asia-Pacific region.”

In some ways, Mr. Peña Nieto would be following in the footsteps of his NAFTA counterparts. In 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a full apology to Chinese-Canadians for the Head Tax and expressed his deepest sorrow for the subsequent exclusion of Chinese immigrants from 1923 until 1947.

Similarly, in October of 2011, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution apologizing for past discriminatory laws that exclusively targeted Chinese immigrants, in particular the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In June of 2012, the U.S. House of the Representatives also passed a resolution expressing regret for past discriminatory laws. This apology came on a resolution sponsored by Rep. Judy Chu (Democrat-Calif.), the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress.

Making amends for Mexico’s xenophobic past can pay dividends for the country’s future relations with China. As a gesture of goodwill, it can be sold domestically as a sort of prepaid “pilón.”

There is a neat historical symmetry here. Historically, pilón has been an important part of Chinese businesses in Sonora. It refers to the tip of a cone of piloncillo, or brown sugar in a crystallized form.

Chinese business owners in Sonora regularly gave their customers some sort of pilón or small gift with a purchase. Over time, it became a metaphor for something above and beyond the expected: “un detalle” (a little extra), in the words of some Sonorans.

The Sino-Mexican relationship is one with high stakes. An apology served as pilón may be a small price to pay in order to advance Mexico’s moral standing in the world and economic interests with China.

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