Chinese immigrants were victims of discrimination in the 1920s. Chinese immigrants were victims of discrimination in the 1920s.

MX should confront its xenophobic past

It's past time for an apology to the Chinese-Mexican community

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.

The writer graduated from Intituto Militar de Estudios Superiores, Uruguay, obtained an MA in Latin American Studies from New York University, and an MA in Political Economy and Ph.D in Political Sciences from Claremont Graduate University. Currently he is professor and director of the Center for Latin American Economy and Trade Studies at Chihlee University of Technology, Taiwan.

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  • Glen Olives

    Admitting that you were wrong and offering a sincere apology is very difficult. It is not a sign of weakness, but rather of strength. Forget, for the moment, the geopolitical advantages for Mexico of doing so. It is simply the right thing to do.

    • SickofLiberalbs9999

      Glen, I sense that many in Mexico, including Mexican politicans, see China as a viable, even attractive, replacement for the long trade and political relationship with the United States.

      Is “screw Trump/ the gringos, we’ll just do more business with China” really a viable policy option for Mexico?

      To me, it appears that Mexican politicans are now captives of anti-American public opinion in Mexico, and are forced to take aggressive, inflexible, even hopeless positions like “we refuse to accept a wall, or a border tax.”

      Those are two losing positions – Trump’s going to do both, no matter what Mexico says.
      And how do Mexican politicans keep a straight face on the border tax issue? Mexico – yes, USA – no?

      So where does Mexico go from here?

      • Glen Olives

        Mexican public opinion aside, it seems Mexican politicians are under no illusion that China can replace the US as its major trading partner. You can’t change geography or a five centuries of interconnected economic history, after all. And I expect that there will be no border wall, no border tax, no significant change of NAFTA. Conservative business interests and their lobbies simply want none of it, and no amount of Trump campaign rhetoric can change a plutocracy. Trump’s Mexico policies are simply bad for business, on both sides of the border.

        • miabeach

          We had wonderful trade relations with Cuba and cut them off. We have cut off many countries in our history and it’s time to leave Mexico in the dust. Mexico is not Canada, Mexico insists on remaining a third world shithole and it’s time we realize it. Before NAFTA we had strong bilateral trade deals with Haiti and DR but political upheaval created obstacles that no longer exist. Cuba won’t be commie much longer and they have much to offer. Conservative American business leaders have had plenty of experience with corrupt Mexican business conventions and now see the folly. The graft and endless shake downs, the threats of violence and tolerance of kidnapping makes Mexico a bad deal. Tax reform and automation in the US will make it possible for manufactures to compete with cheap labor in Mexico and other third world shitholes. Mexico can go take a hike.

        • 46patrick46

          Trump will build the Wall… He will make it Tall… We will deport you all… That’s all y’all.
          One way or another , Mexico will pay for the Wall.

          Deportations of illegal aliens will continue and Mexico will need to build more schools for the young, soon to be returning , Mexicans. Viva México jaaaaaaa

  • Güerito

    Sure Mexico should apologize for racists policies against the Chinese 100 years ago.

    But Mexico should also work on eliminating racism against its own indigenous people in 2017. That’s the reason many of them flee to the US and end up leading better lives with more dignity than they found in Mexico.

    Glen, you’re wrong. Apologies are easy. Taking concrete action to end systemic racism going back centuries is much harder.

    • PRI didn’t exist 100 years ago so it could not have been a PRI government.

      • Güerito

        The PRI party apparatus was certainly in place by the presidency of Álvaro Obregón in 1920.

        Calles, his hand-picked successor, gave a name to an institution already in place.

        Sigue participando.

        • So anyone who points out that you’re wrong is automatically a PRI defender? Exactly where in my post could you possibly deduce my political views or otherwise? Or is this just an attempt to discredit me because you realized you were wrong but wouldn’t just admit to being wrong?

          Another mistake: PRI stands for the Party of Institutional Revolution. Saying “PRI Party” is as idiotic as saying “PIN Number” (ie Personal Identification Number Number), “ATM Machine” (Automated Teller Machine Machine), “Please RSVP” (Please Please Respond).

          • Güerito

            I pointed out that, at the very least, the PRI party (which is how it’s usually referred to in English – your three examples are other illustrations of this), was governing during the worst years of anti-Chinese bigotry in Mexico. And that anti-Chinese racism before 1928, during the terms of Obregón and Calles (the founder of PRI), can safely be attributed to that party as well. Most historians refer to events post-Revolution as occuring during years the PRI party governed.

            I thought that was so clear, that any attempt to state otherwise was an attempt to exonerate the party. There are many in Mexico who do just that. If you’re not a defender of PRI, I apologize.

            But the real question is why you felt the need to display your pedantry, making the point about the official date the PRI party was founded. If this is all you were doing, your real quibble is with my “100 years” instead of “88 years.” Not that’s real silly. But you got your 2 up votes. Congrats!

          • Just because many make that mistake doesn’t mean it’s now correct. Not to mention I’m not sure why Spanish speakers somehow set the standards for English now.

            If you don’t want to face pedantic scrutiny, don’t post on the internet. Or at least don’t respond – insisting to be wrong is just embarrassing.

  • Commander Barkfeather

    On a somewhat related subject, La Cochinita is a Mexican owned (?) purveyor of Japanese cuisine with restaurants located throughout Mexico. Their logo is Tojo-like face with slanty eyes, glasses, and buck teeth, against a rising sun Japanese battle flag used during WWII. Am I alone in finding this logo as offensive as caricatures of blacks with big lips, Jews with hook noses, or Mexicans with bandoleros and a gold tooth?

    • Güerito

      Do a Google image search for “el negrito bimbo.” It’s a junk food like twinkies for kids. The current image replaced an earlier more outrageous image. You’ll see the older image there with the newer one.

    • 46patrick46

      Yup, looks like you’re all alone.

    • Güerito

      Do a Google image search: bimbo negrito.

  • Mexico has always been a nation strongly divided by blood lines. Peninsulares were tossed out after the revolution to be replaced by pure blood Spaniards born in Mexico – Crillos – who are still the ruling caste today. Mestizos – half bloods – have little say in how things are run outside the cartels and los Indos are totally screwed. So, if Mexico truly wants to change things, it needs to take a long, hard look at what is going on today!

    • cooncats

      Yes, it is quite amusing when these blond, blue eyed Spanish descendants here who basically own and run everything and screw the darker folks to the wall to the point they have to leave the country to survive actually have the gall to yell racist at anyone. Pot, meet kettle.

  • cooncats

    Well, let’s see. The Mexican trade deficit with China is north of $50 billion per year. That doesn’t sound like a trade relationship that Mexico should want to pursue. Rather, they should take responsibility for their erroneous idea they are entitled to a double standard for immigration and trade at the U.S. border and instead join with the Trump administration in a strong focus on bringing back trade and money to this hemisphere from China.

    The U.S. has a $300 billion plus trade deficit with China. That would put a lot of people to work in both the U.S. and Mexico and probably Canada as well.

    The Chinese are a mercantilist nation that uses one sided trade as a form of economic warfare. They are a nation of racists who are convinced they are superior to every other race. They are no one’s friends and all of our nations here need to wake up to this reality. Bring it home to this hemisphere.

  • WestCoastHwy

    All this Mexican History is giving me indigestion. Mexico is a corrupted State, period. whether now or then, Mexicans continue to not see their short comings nor do they even think they are at fault in anyway. Instead of looking at History, stick to Cultural Anthropology; it don’t lie!

  • K. Chris C.

    Translation: In the past, various bankrupt Mexican governments saw an opportunity to rob some subjects with impunity by gaining the complicity of ethnic Mexicans in the crimes by way of nationalistic and ethnic FUDD (Fear, Uncertainty, Dread, and Division) propaganda. Many years later, within the imposed Khazarian Critical Theory/Frankfurt School environment of self-loathing, Mexicans that had nothing to do with the prior thefts and persecutions are to be made to feel ashamed and to atone for their forefathers’ crimes. At least that is what they are being told.

    Ditto Americans over slavery, the Indians and the internment of Japanese-Americans from 1941 to 1945 (All evil behavior of the government). Success in shifting the locus of these prior crimes to the people from the government has then permitted similar crimes against Muslims.

    An American citizen, not US subject.

  • Henry Wilson

    how about its continuing racist national character exhibited against all non mestizos from every nation, including most outrageously the indigenous peoples to whom mexicans are most notoriously racist? nothing gets a bigger laugh from me than when i hear a mexican claim that mexicans are not racists. on the contrary……..racist and xenophobic to the core of their being.

  • 46patrick46

    Well , now that Nieto has apologized for Mexico’s racist past, perhaps Nieto and his government can pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform and open the Mexican Borders to the hundreds of millions of Chinese who harbor a desire to relocate to Mexico. All that Mexican beach front property looks pretty good to Chinese willing to immigrate to Mexico. Come on Nieto , end Mexican xenophobic behavior and allow legal entry to your Chinese Cousins. DNA says y’all are related. Ja ja ja

  • fuzzypook

    Mexico owes the Chinese NOTHING. Just as we owe the Japanese, Blacks, Jews, Midgets, Spotted Dogs…etc. etc…NOTHING!