Sonora’s Anti-Chinese Movement and State Formation

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Political Power and Social Theory. Vol. 14 (2000): 91-140.
Race, Mestizaje and Nationalism

Sonora’s Anti-Chinese Movement and State Formation

In Post-revolutionary México

Gerardo Rénique

Associate Professor

Department of History of the

City College of the City of New York


This article examines the mostly neglected anti-Chinese movement that, supported by Mexico’s official post-revolutionary party, persecuted and finally expelled a large majority of Mexico’s Chinese community. The article analyzes the trajectory of this racial movement from its origins as a social and political movement to its incorporation within the new orthodoxy of the post-revolutionary state. In particular, it examines the relevance of anti-Chinese racism and ideology for the resolution of the hegemonic struggle between the two dominant Sonoran caudillos Plutarco Elias Calles and Alvaro Obregón. Secondly, it considers the importance of anti-Chinese ideology and actions for the creation of consent in the “unstable equilibrium” that shaped Mexican politics between 1928 and 1934. Finally, this article examines the epistemological compatibility between the anti-Chinese ideology, the “cultural revolution” of Mexico’s post-revolutionary regimes and the racial understandings and sentiments of the mestizaje theories informing Mexican revolutionary nationalism. The article suggests that a reconsideration of race offers a better theoretical understanding of Mexican state formation and the cultural processes through which social identities take form in interaction with the state, its institutions and discourses. The treatment of race as a political problem also contributes to a better understanding of the mechanisms and processes that transform diffuse racial sentiments, perceptions and expectations into militant and politically organized racial movements.


In the 1930s, a racial movement sponsored and supported by Mexico's official post-revolutionary party persecuted and, finally, expelled a large majority of Mexico’s Chinese community. Although thoroughly documented by state institutions at the time, as well as in the abundant literature generated by the anti-Chinese movement itself, the tragic events leading up to this expulsion have received scant attention in the literature on Mexico’s post-revolutionary period. One explanation for this neglect is suggested by Jeffrey Gould’s compelling analysis of the ideological weight of mestizaje or the idea of racial and cultural mixture in Central American national projects. Taking Nicaragua as a case study Gould demonstrates how the myth of mestizaje has served to eliminate indigenous history and culture from both intellectual accounts --including those associated with the Sandinista regime—and indigenous historical memory (Gould, 1998). Conceived and popularized by Latin American intellectual and political elites as a means to differentiate Latin American society from the “racial dictatorship” of the United States mestizaje --like the “mulattoization” espoused by the Brazilian and Cuban elites—is widely imagined as the foundation of a Latin American “racial democracy” which is (supposedly) free of the stigma of both race and racial discrimination.1 For the case of Mexico, Knight and others have argued that mestizaje was the vehicle by which Latin American elites have envisioned a political community of culturally and racially homogeneous individuals that is prescribed by modern notions of the liberal nation-state (A. Knight, 1990).

Along with Gould and Knight, I approach mestizaje as both a generalized strategy of racial and national formation, and as a somewhat idiosyncratic version of the ideology of white supremacy. My focus on the anti-Chinese political movement and its relationship to the racial understandings and nationalist projects of the Sonoran revolutionary fraction who laid the foundations of Mexico’s national state, governing party, cultural institutions and nationalist ideology during the 1920s and 1930s, has led me to focus more particularly on the intentioned political deployment of race as a vehicle of state formation.

Specifically, in this article I analyze the trajectory of the anti-Chinese movement from its origins as a social and political movement to its incorporation and officialization within the new orthodoxy of the post-revolutionary state. I am particularly concerned with understanding the relevance of anti-Chinese racism and ideology for the resolution of the hegemonic struggle between the two dominant Sonoran caudillos: Alvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles. Secondly, I focus on the importance of anti-Chinese ideology and actions for the creation of consent in the “unstable equilibrium” that shaped Mexican politics between 1928 and 1934 (Cordova 1995). Finally, I examine the epistemological compatibility between anti-Chinese ideology, the “cultural revolution” of Mexico’s post-revolutionary regimes, and the racial understandings and sentiments of the mestizaje theories informing Mexican revolutionary nationalism. I suggest that a reconsideration of race offers a particular perspective for the better theoretical understanding of Mexican state formation and the cultural processes through which social identities take form in interaction with the state, its institutions and discourses. The treatment of race as a political problem also contributes to a better understanding of the mechanisms and processes that transform diffuse racial sentiments, perceptions and expectations into militant and politically organized racial movements.

Revolutionary disorder, xenophobia and popular anti-Chinese racism

For the positivists who dominated intellectual and political life during the more than three decades of President Porfirio Diaz’s authoritarian regime (1874-1911), foreign immigration was seen as the panacea insuring México’s social progress and economic development. On the one hand, it was believed that foreign immigrants would bring with them the capital, material resources and know-how required to exploit the country’s natural resources. On the other hand, (northern European) immigrants would supposedly be more capable, resourceful and hard working than the backward and degenerated indigenous laborers. This elite xenofilia --a Mexican term for love of the foreign—brought two, contradictory, responses: In diplomatic and political terms, the Porfiran state granted excessive privileges and concessions to foreign investors. On the ground, however, the popular classes in those regions where foreigners would presumably immigrate expressed abhorrence and scorn of their new foreign neighbors. Their xenophobia was partially shared by the middle class opposition who argued that Porfirian concessions to foreigners were gained at the expense of the rights of Mexican nationals. These sentiments, which built on an established tradition of anti-Spanish feeling, fueled resentments towards the Porfiriato’s two largest groups of immigrants: the Chinese and U.S. Americans. Whereas hostility towards United States citizens was grounded, for the most part, in economic, cultural and class factors, anti-Chinese sentiments -- known popularly as antichinismo -- were often overtly racial (Gonzalez Navarro, 1974:57-59).2

These two currents of an emergent xenophobic nationalism were openly expressed during the twenty turbulent years of insurrection and revolutionary disorder that followed the fall of Porfirio Diaz in June 1911.3 Throughout this period, Americans and American property were favorite targets due to their social and political marginality, economic dominance, and frequently abusive and arrogant behavior. The more socially integrated Spanish also suffered attacks on their persons, businesses and properties. Of all the foreign groups, however, Arabs and Chinese were the most frequently attacked. Indeed, these two groups suffered proportionately more casualties during the years of revolutionary violence than either Spaniards or North Americans.4

Xenophobic violence also varied by region. Attacks against both North Americans and Chinese were more serious and frequent in Sonora and the other northern states where a majority of their investments and populations were concentrated. In these border regions, US citizens and corporations were harassed and made to pay “revolutionary taxes.” In addition, they were subjected to livestock theft, destruction of fences, payroll theft, property looting and endemic labor problems. Still others--especially those who either resisted such treatment or reacted with arrogance--were killed.5 Beyond generating a good deal of tension and conflict, these actions had little lasting effect on either the actual presence of North Americans in Sonora or government policies towards them. During the administration of the Constitucionalist president Venustiano Carranza (1914-1920), for example, government actions against US owned businesses were limited to issues concerning labor relations. Government decrees attempted to remedy the abuses, exploitation and discrimination to which US businessmen and foremen subjected Mexican workers. In no case, however, did they have the effect of questioning the imperialist character of US presence in the country.6

The Chinese case was different. The very nature of their principal economic activities -- groceries, services and vending (peddling)-- made the Chinese more visible, and their contact with Sonoran society more intimate and frequent. As in other Northern states, there were more Chinese than either Mexican or other foreign owned stores in many Sonoran towns.7 One small group of Chinese businessmen in particular stood out for their monopoly of imported dry goods and clothing manufacturing. During the years of revolutionary turmoil, these businessmen and small storeowners were a favored target of popular discontent. In addition to looting and destroying their businesses and homes, Sonorans frequently subjected them to public humiliations by insulting their language, culture, dress and racial condition as well as through physical abuse. Although in some cases physical aggression by mobs resulted in unintended deaths, in other cases mobs intentionally sought out and murdered Chinese victims. The most brutal and bloody of these anti-Chinese actions occurred in the northern border state of Coahuila where Maderista troops slaughtered 303 unarmed Chinese in May 1911. In his report for the government, the investigator appointed by President Madero blamed the massacre on “racial hatred.” As I suggest below, this same racial hatred also fueled the many other anti-Chinese actions that occurred in Sonora and the other northern states in subsequent decades.8

Between 1910 and 1920, Sonora was the state with the greatest number of anti-Chinese incidents in all of México. These actions, which were carried out by Constitutionalist troops, Villista rebels, armed Yaqui groups and urban crowds, consisted of dynamite attacks, arson, stoning and looting of both commercial establishments and private residences. Other forms of aggression included public humiliations such as cutting off queues, forcing victims to march naked, beatings, and cold-blooded murder. 9 The greatest number of attacks occurred in those regions of Sonora that were most favored by Porfirian economic expansion: the mines located in the northeastern regions of the state; and the Yaqui and Mayo River valley settlements in the southernmost parts of the state. Not coincidentally, these were also the regions with the most important participation in the armed Maderista and Constitutionalist movements, and in which there existed the most numerous and economically significant Chinese communities in the state.10

Although these actions were for the most part spontaneous and unorganized, they were both motivated and justified by a “racial common sense” according to which México’s national culture and identity were imagined in terms of biological heredity and physical appearance. According to this widely held understanding of the biological foundations of Mexican national identity, the country’s different racial groups were ranked according to a more or less rigid hierarchy in which the upper echelons were occupied by “whites” or “criollos,” while the lower rungs were made up of Indians, blacks and Asians. The Chinese in particular were believed to constitute an aesthetic, cultural, sexual and religious threat to western and Christian values. They were also considered to be of low morals, as well as natural carriers of contagious diseases. These prejudices were given life in the broad array of popularly held attitudes, folkloric beliefs and daily practices through which the idea of Mexican superiority over the Chinese was sedimented in Sonora’s frontier culture.

Located in the northwestern extreme of Mexican territory, Sonora, despite its vast mineral richness, was one of the last regions to be incorporated into the colonial domain. As in other regions located between the 26th and 32nd parallels (such as the Sahara, Sinai and Gobi), aridity is the main feature of its landscape. Shaped as an inverted triangle, the vertex of which is formed by the conjunction of the Sierra Madre and the coast of the Gulf of Cortes --pointing towards the south—these mountains and unpredictable ocean also served as a natural barrier isolating Sonora from the rest of the country. Sonora’s remoteness was further dramatized by the sheer distance from the center of power, lack of transportation, and enduring Indian—particularly Yaqui—resistance to Mexican colonial rule. Up until the late Porfiriato, local entrepreneurs and landowners never had easy access to local labor force and land. A direct railroad to México City was not established until 1927, more than four decades after the first railway connection between Sonora and California and the southwest United States. During the Porfiriato, however, Sonora was among the states most favored by American investment. Because of its proximity to the United States, American investors found fertile ground for the development of mining, the construction of railroads, cattle rising, and colonization and irrigation projects. Attracted by job openings in railway construction and mining, as well as by the expansion of Sonora’s internal market --above all in the thriving mining regions of the sierra and the agricultural districts in the southern Yaqui and Mayo valleys -- a large numbers of Chinese also settled in the state. 11

In the harsh Sonoran environment, people depended for their very survival on mutual cooperation. Apparently isolated ranches and settlements formed part of an extensive web of familial, political and communal relations that spanned the international border separating México from the United States. The social networks and identities of the people living in these areas were, in turn, mobilized around a shared set of labor experiences and memories of armed resistance from the region’s several indigenous groups, the defense of the state against foreign invasions, and a commonly expressed resentment of central state intervention. 12 Perhaps the most important factor shaping the ideology and culture of Sonoran frontier society, however, was the gulf separating the aspirations and desires of the region’s Spanish, later Mexican, colonists from the indigenous native inhabitants (described as “gente sin razon”). As in the frontier ideology described by nineteenth century Argentinean statesman Domingo F. Sarmiento, this opposition was frequently interpreted as a struggle between the racially and culturally differentiated forces of civilization and barbarism In Sonora, the racial distinctions inherent to this discourse of progress and civilization were heightened by a gendered code of honor in which manliness was defined in terms of the personal valor and fighting skills that were most often realized in the Indian campaigns. Women were esteemed for their sexual purity and virtue.13 The racial underpinnings of this frontier code of honor were refined, codified and popularized during the Porfiriato in an influential series of articles written in 1885 and 1886 by the prominent Sonoran politician Ramon Corral (1959). 14 In this work, which was published in the official gazette of the state government, Corral argued that the degree of civilization of a particular group of indigenous peoples depended, in the first place, on the nature of their military cooperation with the colonialist forces and their acceptance of Mexican state law; and, in the second place, on their degree of adaptation to capitalism as either individual private producers or waged workers.

Corral’s prescriptions for Sonoran society conformed to the neo-Lamarckian traditions dominant in nineteenth century Mexican racial theory. According to this stream of evolutionist thought, environmental conditions such as education, nutrition and hygiene were thought to be capable of influencing the inheritance of acquired characteristics15. Thus, Corral believed that the Opatas, Pimas and Papagos had improved their “race” by virtue of their closer relations with Spanish and Mexican colonists and, most importantly, through their cooperation in the colonists’ war against the (hopelessly “barbarous”) Apaches. While this historical experience laid the ground for racial improvement, the Opatas and Pimas’ final incorporation into civilization would be determined by their transformation into farmers or wageworkers, and by their adoption of the language, dress, and customs of the “white race.” Because of their stubborn resistance to colonists and hostility against Mexican military forces, Corral considered Apaches and Seris as “deeply depraved” and lacking the “good qualities” that he perceived in México’s other indigenous peoples.

Corral hoped that the Pimas Bajos who had suffered the expropriation of almost all their traditional lands “would form such a common body with the whites and they will be so well mixed that they will become a homogeneous and thoroughly civilized population.” This particular perspective broke from popular understandings of mestizaje as a racial mixture and cultural synthesis, to propose instead the exclusionary incorporation of the Indians into a Sonoran population that was considered by Corral –and most of the rest of México—as criollo white (blanco-criollo).16 In fact, “blanco-criollo” Sonorans had come to form since the mid-nineteenth century the “majority” population in the state. As a result, the “average” or “prototypical” Sonoran came to be was represented in Mexican literature and the popular imagination as a tall, “white” male with a racial identity and phenotype that differed from those of the mestizo and Indian populations of central and southern México. Sonorans’ collective racial identity was fueled by their contempt towards these other shorter and darker Mexicans who stood as the representative “type” of the rest of the country. Testimony of this attitude was provided during a heated discussion among revolutionary leaders on the nature of the regime that would follow their eventual victory, when Sonoran general Alvaro Obregón proudly proclaimed himself “to be superior to five calzonudos” -- a pejorative term often used by northerners and city dwellers to refer deceptively to those who wear the calzones or breeches used by indigenous men.17 As I will suggest below, this attitude, which endured virtually without change during the revolutionary turmoil following the fall of Diaz, sustained the racial perceptions and understandings of the post revolutionary regime. As late as 1930, the national census asserted, “Being physically better developed ... the northern population has somatic conditions and spiritual expressions,” that determine “its greater capacity for civic ceremonies ... and its less fanaticism.” 18

Sonoran anti-Chinese attitudes were also shaped by the massive participation of Sonoran men in the 1849 Gold Rush and the subsequent formation of the California working class. The concentration of a large multinational and multiracial international labor force around the California gold deposits created the conditions for a sequence of violent confrontations described as “racial wars” in U.S. historiography. During its first stage, white supremacist groups targeted Mexicans, Chileans, Peruvians and other South Americans. Later, resentment towards the massive influx of Chinese and other Asian immigrants, led Mexicans in California to form a common front with their former attackers. Although conflicts continued between Europeans, European-Americans and Mexicans, the Chinese--who, by the end of the 1850s, constituted the largest foreign group in California—were perceived by both Americans and Mexicans to embody a more pronounced and threatening form of racial and cultural difference (Chen 1980:40-47; Saxton 1971:258).

Anti-Chinese actions thus emerged, in part, as a result of the Mexican’s shared perception of themselves as belonging to a common Western and Christian heritage as that of the racially superior United States. Culturalist perceptions of the Chinese’s “unexplainable” or “bizarre” religious, ethic and moral attributes and practices further reinforced a dominant, and largely shared, racial ideology, according to which Africans, “Turks” (referring to all people of Middle Eastern descent), Hindus, Chinese and Native Americans occupied the lowest echelon of racial acceptance. Mexicans, by comparison, were considered to occupy an intermediate position immediately superior to the Chinese (Hum Lee 1960:335-336). It was from this position of relative racial advantage that the Sonorans in California sided with the Americans in their hatred of Chinese peoples. The penetration of this early version of anti-Chinismo into Sonoran popular culture is suggested by the lore surrounding such mythic social bandits as Manuel Garcia (“Three Finger Jack”) and the Sonoran Joaquin Murrieta, both of whom are celebrated in corridos and stories for, among other things, their abilities as killers of Chinese.19

Another factor influencing Mexican anti-Chinismo was the participation during the second half of the nineteenth century of a large number of Sonorans --and northern Mexicans in general-- in the creation of California’s labor force and workers organizations. By the 1860s, Chinese represented almost 60% of the foreign population in California. This process of regional class formation was, in turn, framed by the broader racial issues brought on by national debates about slavery and emancipation. During the same decade Sonoran workers participated in southern Arizona mining with its rigid occupational structure and racially segmented pay scales. These discriminatory practices against the Chinese reinforced a racial common sense articulated around the acceptance of Mexicans’ intermediary position in a racial—and labor--hierarchy whose upper echelons were occupied by “Anglos”, whereas Blacks, Chinese and Indians were relegated to its lower ranks. Under these circumstances the real and just concerns of non-Chinese workers regarding low salaries, poor labor conditions and lack of employment were attributed to competition from cheap and supposedly servile Chinese workers. 20 Such perceptions were also channeled into Mexican political formations. For example, the 1906 political program of the social-anarchist Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), a party popular among Mexican workers on both sides of the border, included a platform calling for the end of Chinese immigration to México due to their low reproductive cost (Gonzalez Navarro 1994:175-176). 21

By 1920, this popular anti-Chinese sentiment had come to encompass a broad spectrum of opinions, perceptions and attitudes. In one of its extremes were all those more outspoken, militant and racist individuals who openly expressed their views and took part in anti-Chinese actions. On the opposite extreme were those who expressed their more moderate positions through contempt or through their unquestioning acceptance of racialized stereotypes. Although anti-Chinese racists had previously constituted a small and marginal sector of the population, with the advent of the new century the dominant attitude of Sonorans was one described in the pioneering study of Cumberland as a “quiescent animosity” towards the Chinese (Cumberland 1980:192). The metamorphosis of this attitude into open xenophobia and militant racism was a product of the core group of Sonoran Anti-Chinese intellectuals and politicians. These men found favorable conditions for the creation of a racial/patriotic social and political movement in the economic crisis that followed the overthrow of Victoriano Huerta in 1915, and in the structure of feeling generated by the reforms and Jacobin rhetoric of Sonoran governor Plutarco Elías Calles.
Crisis, Cultural Revolution and the First Wave of anti-Chinese racism (1916-1920)

As Alan Knight has suggested, the Constitutionalist victory over Villa in 1915 marked both the beginning of a profound economic crisis, and the radical transformation of popular attitudes from an insurgent mode to a relative quiescence that would last until 1920. In Sonora, the destruction of livestock, the closing of mines and railroads, abandonment of properties, hyperinflation, shortages and unemployment fed an intermittent flow of migrants to the United States (Knight 1986, vol.2: 406 ss.).22 This situation was cause for concern among government authorities who found themselves suddenly faced with a severe reduction in the male population. The antecedents of this problem --known locally as the “shortage of men”-- lay in Sonoran participation in the Constitutionalist army and political-administrative apparatus.23 In addition to the difficulties it presented for economic recovery, this “shortage of men” had important consequences for gender relations and identities, as well as for the patriarchal code of honor, that sustained Sonora’s frontier society. In these circumstances, the presence of Chinese men—made even more visible by the almost complete absence of Asian women—was perceived as problematic. At the same time, Sonoran women widened their margin of independence in the economic and political management of family-based production units, and property. Once freed from the traditional surveillance of husbands, fathers and brothers, Sonoran women had greater liberty to establish their own personal relationships. Some of the women’s more important daily interactions were with (the mostly young and single) Chinese storekeepers, grocery owners and peddlers, as well as with the Chinese who worked in the laundries and factories.24 From a Sonoran male perspective, these daily social and commercial contacts—and the opportunities they provided for possible affective or sexual relationships—threatened their masculine code of honor by defiling their ideal of the chaste and submissive woman (Alonso 1995:79-80).

A final factor contributing to the uncertainty and unease of the Sonoran population was the high incidence of disease brought on by the misery and shortages, as well as by the constant movement of troops from one part of the country to another. Between 1916 and 1917 smallpox, measles and typhus caused havoc throughout México. The greatest number of deaths, however, was caused by the influenza pandemic of 1918, an international plague brought on by the movement of troops between Europe, America and the Middle East. In México, the pandemic affected primarily the northern frontier states.25

It was against this background of uncertainty, apathy and resignation, that Plutarco Elías Calles assumed the governorship of Sonora in August 1915 with promises to “reform from the roots” (reformar desde el origen). To do this, Calles--like the governors of other Mexican states--drew on Jacobin tradition, a common faith in developmentalism, and a regional culture built on rationalist and paternalist attitudes. His radical program promised to transform the country and its people through educational reforms, the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, restrictions on the clergy, irrigation projects, and the expansion of rural private property26. Conforming to the concept of “cultural revolution” outlined by Corrigan and Sayer in their influential study of the long process of British state formation, the institutions and activities proposed by Calles sought to shape acceptable forms of social behavior and activity, and to establish new collective and individual identities.27 It was with just these intentions, for example, that Calles rescinded Yaqui and Mayo citizenship due to what he referred to as their “anomalous [social] organization” (Krauze 1999:30) and proposed to segregate the Chinese population in “special neighborhoods” in order to “restrict their contact with the Sonoran population” (Cumberland 1960:196). During his own term of office provisional governor, Adolfo de la Huerta, suspended Chinese immigration arguing that their work in laundries displaced the traditional occupations of Sonoran women (de la Huerta 1915:12)

In this context, during February 1916 in the Villa de Magdalena, capital of a mining and wheat producing district on the railway between the capital city of Hermosillo and the border commercial center of Nogales, a group of approximately twenty men made up of shopkeepers, school teachers, small entrepreneurs and public functionaries founded a Commercial Association of Businessmen.28 Under the leadership of Jose Maria Arana, former school teacher, commercial agent and occasional journalist, the association established as its goal the defense of the Mexican merchant and the “extinction of the Asiatic merchant” whose existence they considered harmful to the youths who “upon graduation are forced to emigrate [to the United States] in search of jobs denied to them [in México] by the Chinese.”29

Arana outlined the nature, principles, ideological foundations and strategic goals of his proposed anti-Chinese movement in a speech delivered in the mining center of Cananea on April 29, 1916. He opened by remarking that, with the victory of “the revolution” the “hour of our redemption had sounded.” Then praised governor Calles for his determination to find a solution “to the most complicated problems hindering the intellectual and material progress of the people of Sonora.” This task--continued Arana—demanded, in the first place, a solution to the problems brought on by “the foul-smelling and sickening Chinese,” whom he saw as “dreadful legacy of the nefarious dictatorship [of Porfirio Diaz],” and whose influence and economic interests he described as “deeply rooted in the arteries of the social organism.” In his long and detailed inventory of what he considered to be the negative consequences of the “insatiable yellow hydra,” Arana mentioned the “corrosive effect” of the “damned race” upon the “national spirit.” He also asserted that the union of Chinese men with “bad Mexican women” produced “weak, feeble, sick and unpatriotic” offspring. This eugenic threat was worsened, he claimed, by the supposedly dishonest Chinese business practices, their alleged avoidance of tax payment, and their practice of paying bribes to functionaries and political authorities. For these reasons, he argued, the Chinese represented a danger to both public health and morality because of their “terrible contagious diseases,” their unhealthy life style, and their consumption of opium and alcohol. Towards the end of his speech Arana pointed to the fact that the Chinese, who had become “owners of the commerce, the agriculture, the industry and the smallest of the businesses” in Sonora, “provided jobs exclusively for workers of their own nationality.” Arana closed by calling the Chinese the “stalwart enemies of the constitutionalist party.” 30

Arana’s speech not only linked the Chinese presence with each one of the sources of uncertainty and anxiety affecting the Sonorans. By ascribing racial meaning to class and gender issues, Arana’s simple, and rhetorically dramatic, explanations for the source of Sonorans’ recent woes also served to anchor his brand of anti-Chinese racism in the political and social imaginations of broad sectors of Sonora’s population. In his speeches, Arana referred constantly to the “chinizacion” of Sonoran women due to their relationships with Chinese men, whose work (in stores and laundries) he devalued by describing it as the work of women and male prostitutes (jotos). Following the same racial logic, he described other low wage jobs -- whether performed by Sonorans or foreigners -- as “the work of Chinese,” and thus, by implication, as demeaning, feminine and low. 31 This conflation of economic, sanitary and moral arguments in Arana’s speeches reveals a racializing logic which helped to cement capitalist hegemony by reinscribing class relations in terms of the popular, moral and biological languages of gender and race (Omi & Winant 1994:68).

Arana’s vision of antichinismo included a clear agenda for mobilizing the racial fears incited by his speeches. Towards the end of 1916 after having visited the main towns and cities in the state during his campaign to organize an anti-Chinese movement, Arana managed to create sixteen “patriotic or nationalist” committees. Under the slogan “por la patria y por la raza” (for the Fatherland and for the Race) these committees established as their main goals “the defense of the Fatherland,” “the protection of the Mexican race,” and “the promotion of national industry.”32 The publication, under Arana’s direction, of the weekly Pro-Patria starting in July 1917, facilitated organization of the committees. It also served as a principal vehicle for the circulation of anti-Chinese propaganda, recruitment of new members, and the overall expansion of antichinismo. The committees’ actions were mostly concentrated in urban and semi-urban centers in the mining districts and settlements in southern Sonora’s large agricultural valleys. In these valleys, capitalist expansion during the Porfiriato had attracted businessmen and workers from abroad as well as from other parts of México.33 Most of the readers, correspondents, organizers, supporters, and “organic intellectuals” of the anti-Chinese movement belonged to the middle and working classes. They included schoolteachers, professionals, mine workers, medium and small businessmen, journalists, housewives, and public functionaries.34 Most of its members had not participated in the political and military insurrections of either the Maderistas or Constitucionalistas. Because of its political organization and orientation, appeals to the society at large, use of propaganda, acknowledgment and utilization of electoral mechanisms, and ideological and strategic coherence, the movement promoted by Arana constituted an expression of what can be called organic antichinismo.

Arana’s election as municipal president of Magdalena for the 1918-1920 period gave more visibility and legitimacy to his anti-Chinese movement. During his term in office, Arana passed laws requiring that Chinese businessmen “comply with the exact fiscal laws and rigorous precepts of hygiene and public health.” He also prohibited Chinese farmers from renting agricultural land or signing sharecropping contracts. Through the anti-Chinese committees and his private correspondence, Arana prodded other municipal presidents to adopt similar anti-Chinese measures. He also gave advice to deputies and governors in neighboring states in matters related to the “yellow peril,” immigration and public health. He used similar means to circulate his own translations of US anti-Chinese literature and legislation.35 These anti-Chinese decrees championed by Arana’s municipal government would served as models for the anti-Chinese legislation adopted in later years by Sonora and other Mexican states.

The anti-Chinese movement led by Arana climaxed in 1919, during the successful electoral campaign of Adolfo de la Huerta for the office of governor of Sonora. During the campaign --which was supported by the incumbent governor Plutarco Elias Calles--de la Huerta declared himself in favor of the nullification of México’s diplomatic treaties with China, and the expulsion of Chinese nationals and their descendents from Sonoran territory. Arana and his anti-Chinese committees were also incorporated within the ranks of Calles’ and de la Huerta’s Partido Revolucionario Sonorense (PRS). The PRS, which had been created with the purpose of supporting de la Huerta’s campaign, became a sort of dress rehearsal for what later would be the official revolutionary party (the National Revolutionary Party or PNR). Once in office, governor de la Huerta, following a practice established by his predecessor Calles, offered his support for the publication of Arana’s ProPatria and the organization of more anti-Chinese committees.36 More importantly, de la Huerta’s new Labor Law (Ley de Trabajo y Prevision Social - Ley n. 67), which he decreed in March 1919, included an article requiring foreign owned enterprises to offer 80% of their jobs to Mexican nationals (defined both racially and in terms of citizenship). Although it did not explicitly refer to the Chinese, the “80% law,” coming as it did on the heels of de la Huerta’s and Arana’s well known anti-Chinese initiatives, bore clear, though implicit, reference to the Chinese as the most important foreign community involved in Sonoran commerce and manufacturing. It would later become an important rallying issue in the late 1920s.

Despite these regional initiatives, the early anti-Chinese movement did not have the effect envisioned by its proponents. The country as a whole was going through difficult times due to both the paralysis of the national economy and the United States government’s refusal to extend diplomatic recognition to the new revolutionary regime, and to the paralysis of the national economy. Ironically, economic stagnation was partially alleviated in the northern states by Chinese trade with the United States. In his pioneering study of Sonora’s anti-Chinese campaigns, Cumberland asserts that the most significant impact of the anti-Chinese legislation was an increase in the bribes and extortions imposed on Asian businessmen by local Sonoran authorities (Cumberland 1960). Regional Anti-Chinese legislation was also undermined by the United States government, who represented Chinese diplomatic interests in Mexico, as well as by the unwavering resistance of the Chinese community to the “80% law.” The mysterious death of Arana in September 20, 1920, presumably by poisoning, dealt a final blow to this first wave of anti-Chinese organization.37

As an ideological and cultural force, however, Arana’s antichinismo left a disturbing legacy in the convergence between antichinismo and the anticentralist traditions that had historically shaped Sonora’s regional cultural identity. Sonoran anti-Chinese legislation, promoted by Arana and de la Huerta, was opposed by the national government of president Venustiano Carranza on the ground of its unconstitutionality and its disagreement with the letter and spirit of the 1899 treaty between China and México. Far from dispelling the popular bases of Sonoran antichinismo, central government opposition was instead widely seen as a form of interventionism and, as such, as a threat against Sonoran autonomy. These sentiments were reinforced by other central government dispositions --such as the federalization of the Sonora River, the revision and modification of the administrative boundaries of Sonora in favor of its neighboring state of Chihuahua, and the undermining of de la Huerta’s Yaqui pacification program by a new federal army campaign against the Indians. All of these served to deepen Sonoran resentment of federal government intervention.38

Anti-government sentiments culminated in the Agua Prieta rebellion of April 1920. Taking advantage of president Carranza’s conflictive relationship with other states, his conservative stance towards land reform and other social issues, his appointment to public office of individuals linked to the bureaucratic and professional circles of the old regime, and his opposition to Obregón’s highly popular bid for the presidency in the 1920 elections, the Sonoran government, with the support of most of the revolutionary military headed this brief, but effective rebellion against the Carranza government. In a few days, the rebels had the country under their control and installed Sonoran governor de la Huerta as provisional president. This revolt—which was named for the Sonoran border town of Agua Prieta where the rebels issued their proclamation--not only constituted the last successful rebellion in contemporary Mexican history. More importantly, it also marked the initial institutionalization of the military and political forces that had emerged victorious from a decade of violence and disorder. Over the next fourteen years, the “Sonoran faction” led by Alvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles, laid the ideological and institutional basis of the new Mexican state. In the political and intellectual atmosphere generated by the Sonoran revolutionaries’ efforts to reinvent México’s national economy, identity and educational system, the anti-Chinese movement thrived as an important precedent and model for the mass mobilizations and nationalist rhetoric through which this new revolutionary elite sought to capture the loyalties and support of the Mexican people. 39

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