Sonora’s Anti-Chinese Movement and State Formation


Anti-Chinese Racism, Revolutionary Mestizaje and Hegemonic Struggle (1920-1924)



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Anti-Chinese Racism, Revolutionary Mestizaje and Hegemonic Struggle (1920-1924)


The unstable political situation and social conflicts of the 1920s were accompanied by intense debates about the nature of Mexican national identity. These debates created a fertile ideological and discursive framework for the expansion of anti-Chinismo from its mostly northern base into a movement of national reach and scope. In Sonora anti-Chinese racism was also exacerbated by the difficult conditions produced by the combined effects of the disorder and destruction of the previous decade, the 1921-1922 international financial crises, and the post revolutionary reformist campaigns. Along both sides of the international US-Mexican border the falling price of copper, the closing of mines and the polarization of railway traffic produced massive unemployment, hyperinflation and the deportation of Mexican workers. These factors deepened the already critical situation of a state troubled by fiscal bankruptcy, resistance to the laws controlling religious activities and temperance campaigns, and the municipal restructuring decreed by the central government.40

In this context, México’s Supreme Court decision of 1921 in favor of a group of Chinese merchants and against Sonora’s “80% Law”, had a contradictory effect: On the one hand, it represented a defeat for the anti-Chinese movement. On the other hand, however, it simultaneously galvanized a regional reaction that would quickly rally around a reorganized and increasingly militant anti-Chinese racial movement. For the popular classes, influenced by anti-Chinese propaganda claiming that the 80% Law would create over 5,000 jobs for Mexicans, the ruling was perceived as an unwanted intervention by the central government. The Sonoran press and politicians also considered the Supreme Court ruling as a blow against Sonora’s political autonomy. In the national Congress under the leadership of Sonoran and other Northern representatives a group of congressmen from ten different states formed a self-proclaimed “Anti-Chinese Block” (Cumberland 1960:200; Espinoza 1932:37-38). Through their parliamentary interventions (which were lavishly reported by the newspapers) and their public “open letters” to governors and the president, these congressmen demanded the nullification of the 1889 Mexican-Chinese Treaty of Commerce and Friendship, and the total prohibition of Chinese immigration.

Faced with a severe economic recession and the ravages caused by almost a decade of war, the newly inaugurated Obregón regime did not give priority to the “Chinese problem.” Accepting the anti-Chinese movement’s demands would had introduced yet more new conflicts into an already unstable political situation fraught by bitter and harsh confrontations with Obregón’s political antagonists as well as by worker unrest and tensions with the United States government and investors, and the Catholic Church. A conflict with China, whose interests were at that moment represented by the US, would had further jeopardized the possibility of acquiring US diplomatic recognition (Krauze 1995:93-106).41 Moreover, breaking off relations with China and restricting Chinese immigrant rights would also have created conflicts with both the judiciary and the diplomatic service, both of which had cited constitutional grounds for their systematic opposition to the demands of the anti-Chinese movement. Given the difficult political situation, Obregón thus opted not to jeopardize the already precarious stability of his Cabinet. However, in deference to the anti-Chinese movement --and his restless fellow Sonorans-- Obregón adopted a measure more symbolic that effective: He prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers, while allowing Chinese academics, scientists, tourists, students or businessmen with more than 500 pesos in capital to enter the country. This was, of course, a distinction that was easily circumvented by the Chinese immigrants.

At the same time, antichinismo was also a decisive factor in the political stalemate (or “shared hegemony”) between Sonoran caudillos Alvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles (Cordova 1995). In accordance with his temperament and leadership style--described by his contemporaries as realist, rational, resolute, cold and inflexible (Krauze 1995:39-40)--Calles confidently took on the banner of antichinismo as a means to create political consensus and to differentiate himself from Obregón. Indeed, the racial and patriotic discourse of antichinismo was fully compatible with Calles’ and the other Agua Prieta revolutionaries’ eclectic combination of “progress and Puritanism, anticlericalism, abstinence, statism, and secular education” (Knight 1986 vol.2: 503).



The racial perceptions and understandings of Calles and the anti-Chinese movement also resonated with contemporary intellectual and cultural debates on Mexican national identity, popular expressions, and racial and cultural types (Perez Monfort 1994). At the center of these debates was the concept of mestizaje. Since the precursor text of the eighteenth century Jesuit writer Francisco Javier Clavijero ([1780-1] 1974), the concept of mestizaje­ has stood as one of México’s more enduring cultural and political traditions. Nevertheless mestizaje has also shown a conflictual and, at times, contradictory, trajectory.42 On the one hand, as a scientific, philosophical, and representational concept, the notion of mestizaje (and its affiliated image of “the mestizo”) has never occupied a homogeneous field. It has meant many different things to many different people. On the other hand, as an abiding element in Mexican political and nationalist thought, mestizaje has acquired a certain historical centrality as the dominant paradigm of national and racial formation, while the mestizo has acquired certain stability as the unquestioned symbol of Mexican national culture.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Mexican theories of mestizaje were modernized and adapted to the changing demands of an international scene dominated by the language and politics of nationalism. The new academic and intellectual institutions established during the Porfiriato provided fertile ground for the positivist and evolutionary thought (ranging from Spencer and the neo-Lamarckians to Darwin) which fuelled new research and debate on the “social question” and the “Indian problem” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.43 It is important to note that this scientific and intellectual milieu gave shape to both the organic intellectuals of the old regime, and those who came to form the opposition (Knight 1990; Brading, 1988). Among the most important members of this latter group was Andres Molina Enríquez whose idiosyncratic intellectual paradigm balanced Social Darwinism with the intellectual legacy of Mexican radical liberalism. Molina’s (1983[1902]) particular narrative (and strategy) of nation formation assigned a central and dominant place to the mestizo, in accordance with the evolutionist principle of the survival of the fittest. In the best liberal tradition, Molina considered the latifundio (large land-holding) to be a “social cancer” responsible for the rural servitude dominant in the country. As such, he considered it the most formidable obstacle to the development of a democratic society. Instead, he advocated a model of agricultural development grounded in the mestizo ranchers whom he regarded as the paradigm of the progressive small landowner.44 The mestizo excelled, Molina wrote, “not because of his beauty, nor for his culture, nor for the refinements of the races of advanced evolution,” but rather because of “his exceptional adaptation to the environment and the qualities of his portentous animal strength.”45 Because of his opposition to the latifundio, Molina Enríquez was charged with drafting Article 27 of the 1917 Constitution -- the centerpiece of the agrarian legislation-- which gave the nation control over the subsoil and natural resources and subjected property to the modes that public interest demanded. On the other hand, however, as a Spencerian, Molina supported the idea of an authoritarian regime as the only alternative to the innate instability of a hybrid or mestizo society. In later works, where he took into account environmental and regional variations in national culture and “the uneven distribution of the racial mixtures (mestizajes),” Molina created the concept of “geo-ethnic distinctions” which he used to propose a structural division of México’s territory into a “Creole North,” an “indigenous South,” and a “central region” subjected to a “perpetual race struggle.” Following this logic, he suggested that the racial and cultural characteristics of northerners made them more prone to politics, whereas southerners were more interested in agrarian problems.46

Unlike Molina, Manuel Gamio, another prominent revolutionary intellectual, was educated as an anthropologist under the mentorship of Franz Boas, a Columbia University anthropologist who was internationally known for his rejection of both racial determinism and the biological concept of race. In his writings, Gamio insisted on the centrality of the mestizo for the historical and cultural formation of México, remarking at the same time, the importance of indigenous contributions. Like Molina Enríquez, Gamio was also an adamant opponent of the latifundio, but unlike him he favored the collective redistribution of the land and the creation of a crafts industry (industria artesanal) among México’s indigenous populations. His experience as director of the International School of Archeology, the School of Anthropology and the newly created Department of Anthropology of the Secretary of Agriculture gave him the prestige and contacts to conduct the reconstruction of Teotihuacan -- the most formidable archeological monument of its time (Brading 1988).

Gamio’s national project implied --as was suggested by the title of one his most popular books-- the need to “Forge a Fatherland.” In his understanding, the really existing México because it did not yet constitute a nation lacked the four necessary conditions of the modern nation-state: a common language and character, a homogeneous race, and a common history,” In his vision “the first and most vigorous base of nationalism” was “racial fusion ” which he saw as the only means to overcome “the small fatherlands” (patrias chicas) that fragmented not only México but also the rest of Latin America (Gamio 1992:5-19).47 Gamio’s homogenizing strategy contemplated an “intermediary race” modeled after the white-Creole northerners. This previous stage in the development of the “Mexican race” would then pave the way for the formation of an authentic nation-state. In “backward” regions, such as the Teotihuacan Valley, the site of his largest research project, Gamio’s utopian project called for “the redemption of the Indian” through state-sponsored cultural, sanitary, economic and nutritional programs aimed at the improvement of the material and cultural situation of the Indian. As the next step Gamio envisioned “the ethnic fusion of the Mexican population” and “its cultural integration into a truly Mexican fatherland.” More concretely he proposed the “precipitation of mestizaje” by increasing the white population “to the point that its numbers will match those of the Indians.” This was to be accompanied through the settlement of “millions of selected immigrants lacking racial prejudices.” In this fashion he expected to resolve the “serious problem of the heterogeneity” of the Mexican population by creating a syncretic product that would have more resemblance to the Northerner blanco-criollo, than to the rustic, undernourished, and pre-modern individuals of “backward indigenous civilization” (Gamio 1987:228-229; Gamio (1979: xix-xx).

Northern racial characteristics also occupied a prominent place in the image of a “cosmic race” popularized by the Oaxacan intellectual Jose Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos –who served at different points in his career as president of the National University, secretary of Education (under president Obregón) and enthusiastic supporter of nationalist art—was generally contemptuous of Sonorans (and norteños in general) whom he reviled for their reputed “barbarism” and “apochamiento” (Americanization). His staunch political opposition to the “barbarous” Sonoran caudillos, however, did not prevent him from admiring their racial make-up (Vasconcelos 1983, 295-296). Thus, Vasconcelos described Alvaro Obregón as, on the one hand, an individual “without any culture,” and, on the other, a man whose legendary political acumen and military capabilities could be accounted for by the “robust appearance, high forehead, white complexion, light-colored eyes and above average height” that signaled his “Creole type of Spanish descent”. (Vasconcelos 1997:355)”48 Taken together the political turmoil surrounding Calles’ rise to power and the discursive framework surrounding the debates on mestizaje, immigration and racial improvement created the ideal landscape for the expansion of Sonoran antichinismo.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, cultural nationalism and the search for a national type also galvanized Chinese intellectual and political debates. Particularly active among Chinese overseas communities these debates also reached Mexico. Triggered by the 1911 Revolution and the overthrown of China’s dynastic empire, the conflict between the Kuo Ming Tang (KMT) and the Chee Kung Tong (ChKT) for the hearts, minds and financial resources of their prosperous countrymen abroad, and was violently played out in many northern cities during the summers of 1922 and 1924. These violent confrontations between opposing Chinese factions gave ammunition to the anti-Chinese movement, which spread for the first time to other Mexican states. Although both organizations espoused nationalist policies, the KMT favored a republican and developmentalist strategy while the ChKT hoped to restore the Ming dynasty under the form of a constitutional regime. Whereas in México, as in most diasporic communities, the ChKT had a larger number of followers, the KMT was better organized. Indeed, its more active and educated leadership was described by the Chinese diplomatic envoy Quang Ki-Tseng as representative of the “most prosperous” group in the community “because of their enlightenment and economic resources.49 Due to their political and ideological affinities with the KMT’s nationalism and developmentalism, and because of the fraternal relationship carefully cultivated by their leaders, a number of functionaries, professionals and politicians --including president Obregón—tolerated, and at times openly sympathized with, this Chinese nationalist organization. From the perspective of the KMT’s Mexican sympathizers—who were not immune to racial determinism--its confrontation with the ChKT was political, and hence defensible. 50

For Secretary of the Interior Plutarco Elías Calles and other advocates of antichinismo, however, the Chinese conflict was being fought between two “tongs” or “mafias” for control of the opium trade and illegal gambling. In the words of one of México’s most prominent anti-Chinese politicians, Jose Angel Espinoza, KMT actions formed part of a “well-conceived terrorist strategy” whose ultimate goal was to seize control over the opium trade and gambling in México’s Northwest Pacific coast. Espinoza described the conflict described as a criminal “war of mafias” motivated by “Asian ferocity, slyness and perfidy.” This essentialist and sensationalist interpretation was first disseminated in the northern anti-Chinese propaganda. However, as the conflict in the Chinese community deepened and spread to the rest of the country, it soon became the dominant and most popular point of view in the national press (Espinoza 1932:227-232, 241-244, 265).51 The reputed “mafia war” also acted as a vehicle for the propagation and popularization of stereotyped images and perceptions of Chinese history, culture and racial nature. At the same time this conflict also fed into broader public debates on post-revolutionary immigration policies, the nature of the Chinese presence in México and its impact on Mexican racial and national identity.

The attitude of president Obregón and his Cabinet speaks to both the complexity of the “Chinese problem” and its relevance to the larger struggle for political hegemony in post-revolutionary México. The President’s lenient attitude towards the KMT leadership, in spite of their proven responsibility for the assassination of twenty-five ChKT members during the summers of 1922 and 1924, created a rift between Obregón and his fellow Sonorans, and rekindled their anticentralist stance. At the same time, by hardening their stance on the Chinese presence and the racial contour of México’s emerging national project, Calles and his followers created an extraordinary political opportunity to distance themselves even further from Obregón. By the late summer of 1922, .the authorities of Sonora and Sinaloa--where the most violent episodes of the “tong wars” had taken place--had rounded up around 500 individuals belonging to the KMT and the ChKT, as well as a number of undocumented immigrants. The prisoners were transported to the Sinaloan port of Mazatlan for deportation under article 33, which authorized the president to expel from México all undesirable foreigners. A somewhat confusing series of events, however, led to the eventual release of the Chinese prisoners. First, Obregón modified his stance to order the deportation of only the ChKT leadership. The ChKT then took legal action before the Supreme Tribunal. The KMT leadership, meanwhile, were charged with bribing state officials. Finally, after a Mazatlan district judge issued an injunction against their detention, all the Chinese prisoners were released.52 In response, the anti-Chinese movement angrily denounced the central state authorities and their failure to respect the wishes of the Sonoran people and their authorities. Most importantly, the once dormant anti-Chinese committees gained renewed force through protest marches, demonstrations, and petitions demanding that the state governor, federal congress and president enforce article 33 of the constitution by deporting all those “undesirables” involved in the “tong war”, as well as all those “chinero” (or “Chinaman loving”) authorities who had defended them.53

Whereas the early phase of anti-Chinese activism had focused on demands to revoke the diplomatic agreement between China and México and to prohibit Chinese immigration, the newly revived committees emphasized daily and domestic problems. These included accusations of dishonest practices by Chinese merchants, lack of sanitary conditions in Chinese commercial establishments, Chinese monopoly of certain economic activities, Chinese participation in poppy cultivation and opium trade, and even the supposedly bad driving abilities of the Chinese. In some cases, authorities responded to the anti-Chinese demands by enacting highly restrictive sanitary and fiscal legislation against Chinese merchants. A more radical demand-- based on the assumption that the Chinese were “natural carriers” of certain diseases--asked that they be physically isolated in “colonies” or “special neighborhoods.” Given the fact that Sonora had suffered recurring epidemics of influenza, smallpox and measles between 1915 and 1922, these sanitary concerns expressed by the anti-Chinese activists were often very popular.54

In mid December 1923, congressman Alejandro Villaseñor presented two proposals to the state legislature. The first proposed to create “Chinatowns”; the other called for the prohibition of marriage between Chinese men and Mexican women. In his presentation, Villaseñor cited the need to protect the population from infectious diseases that he considered to be “proper to the Asian race” such as “beriberi, trachoma, leprosy, small pox and Asiatic bubonic plague.” A newspaper article in which Villaseñor argued that the creation of “Chinatowns” constituted “the first step to solve the Chinese problem” bolstered his legislative initiative. Villaseñor’s proposals, which were unanimously passed by the Sonoran legislature, became Law 27 and 31 respectively.55 The anti-Chinese legislature was enthusiastically received by different sectors of the Sonoran population, including municipal councils, individuals, unions and, of course, the anti-Chinese committees who showed their support through a deluge of letters and telegrams to state and federal executives. By early March of the following year, twelve municipalities had already assigned sites for the resettlement of their Chinese populations and had notified those affected by the new law. In most of these cases the “Chinatowns” were to be located in areas without basic services and far away from the commercial centers of the towns. Opposition to this measure was raised, for the most part, by women who claimed they would be inconvenienced by having to shop in difficult to reach locations. Many women also opposed the marriage laws. In an open letter to the governor entitled “General Sentiments of the Sonoran People,” a group of approximately twenty-five women from the mining center of Cananea demanded that Law 31--the “marriages law”--not be enforced because it “infringed upon the liberties that constitute our rights.”56

However, the major obstacles to the application of the anti-Chinese legislation came from Sonoran governor Alejo Bay, a political ally and staunch supporter of Obregón. Caught between the impossibility of opposing a legislation unanimously approved by the Sonoran congress and enthusiastically supported by the general male populace, and president Obregón’s orders advising him not to enforce the anti-Chinese laws, governor Bay opted for executive inaction.57 The result, as one prominent leader of the anti-Chinese movement lamented, was that enforcement of the laws was simply “never felt.” By the end of March and acting under instructions from president Obregón, governor Bay was able to compel the municipal presidents to refrain from issuing any further decrees against the Chinese. At the same time he demanded that the Sonoran legislature repeal Laws 27 and 31, both of which had, by then, been declared unconstitutional by México’s Supreme Court. Although the laws were never officially repealed, nor were they ever fully implemented. In the opinion of the editor of one local newspaper, “the intrusion of a superior power ... foreign to the state” had created a sort of a “transitory legal incapacity.58” In addition to these interventions by higher instances of the Mexican state, the new laws were also resisted by the Chinese community in the form of both a generalized civil disobedience and a sort of legal guerrilla carried on by their mutual aid societies. 59

In the face of this resistance from both the governor’s office and the Chinese community, the anti-Chinese movement opted to reorient its strategy around public health. Municipal and sanitary authorities had relatively broad autonomy to act on issues of hygiene and public health. Moreover, given its scientific nature, public health was not perceived as a properly “political” terrain. Through the anti-Chinese press and the sanitary campaigns of local and federal authorities, epidemic diseases in the northern frontier and Pacific coast states were racialized and reinterpreted as a latent manifestation of the “Yellow Peril.” One of the first tasks of the newly created Directorate of Public Health (Direccion de Salud Publica) was to devise and execute an “anti-Chinese hygiene campaign.” The campaign, which was enthusiastically supported by municipal authorities and anti-Chinese committees, was launched in March and April of 1924 when six municipalities prohibited the Chinese from selling milk, cheese, meat and “other products that could serve as vehicles of infection.” In agreement with the sanitary authorities, anti-Chinese organizers gave public conferences, formed public health committees, and urged women to create their own “Feminine Anti-Chinese Committees.” In Cananea and other towns, the local sanitary commission was made up almost exclusively of anti-Chinese activists. These commissions were entrusted with the periodical medical supervision and control of the Chinese. They also registered Chinese and issued special identification papers and health certificates. Many also published black lists of “diseased” individuals.60

During the first half of the 1920s, the anti-Chinese movement gained prominence in other spheres of regional politics and culture. The anti-Chinese press, for example, flourished in many important northwest cities. Prominent among these were Nuevos Horizontes from Nacozari, El Eco del Valle from Cocorit, El Nacionalista from Hermosillo, Por la raza from Culiacan, El Intruso and El Nacionalista from Cananea, La Pulga from Nogales and El Nacional de Navojoa. Many of these weeklies and bi-weeklies, including El Nacionalista from Cananea edited by the deputy Jose Angel Espinoza, received financial support from the Sonoran government. Besides news and information related to the anti-Chinese movements, these publications also included poems, jokes, marches, hymns, satires, and corridos (popular ballads). Taken together with the theatrical plays and public demonstrations that featured anti-Chinese themes, these racist and satiric literary publications fed popular racial ideology with a particular image of the diseased and threatening Chinese intruder.61

Anti-Chinese partisans also dominated Sonora’s state legislature and representation to the federal Congress. Representatives like Jose Angel Espinoza, Emiliano Corella, Miguel Salazar y Walterio Pesqueira acted as prominent leaders and organizers of the national anti-Chinese movement. In association with the Sinaloa and Baja California Norte representatives (Juan de Dios Batiz and J.M. Davila respectively), they constituted the leadership of the “anti-Chinese block” in the national congress. This block had powerful allies in president Obregón’s cabinet, most prominently Plutarco Elías Calles.

From his position as Secretary of the Interior, Calles kept a firm stance in favor of the general deportation of all those involved in the activities of the KMT and ChKT, whom he considered traditional criminal organizations or “tongs.” Calles’ position further hardened during the so-called “second mafia war” which coincided with the launching of Calles’s own presidential campaign in the summer of 1924. The war, which began in late July with a spectacular shooting against the ChKT offices in Mexicali, quickly expanded into the neighboring states. In the course of the war, at least 25 Chee Kung Tong (“imperialist party”) sympathizers were killed. With Calles’ prodding, Sonoran and Sinaloan authorities detained hundreds of individuals for eventual deportation. Meanwhile, Obregón, who continued to insist on the political nature of the Chinese wars, insisted on deporting only members of the ChKT. The irreconcilable positions maintained by Calles (as Secretary of the Interior) and President Obregón led to a political stalemate and the eventual release of all but fifty of the Chinese detainees (Espinoza 1932: 277-279).

Months later after his election as President, Calles issued a response to the Chinese diplomatic envoy who had requested an explanation for the abuses. In his reply, Calles predicted-- in a rather crude and inflammatory language--what the future would have to offer to the Chinese. The letter also sheds light on his personal relationship with the anti-Chinese movement. Indeed, his justification for the actions against the Chinese reveals Calles’s affinity to the highly racist language of popular antichinismo. After deriding the Chinese in moral, sanitary and racial terms, Calles states clearly that, although the Mexican Constitution did not explicitly recognize racial difference, he nonetheless saw no inconvenience in “restraining the increase of the Chinese population.” To achieve this goal, Calles continued, “it matters little what method is used.” Otherwise, he concludes, “We will have consciously contributed to the sinking [of Sonora] into the most horrifying depths of degeneration.” Calles’ statement, which was lavishly reproduced in the Sonoran anti-Chinese press, provided his followers with yet more arguments against governor Bay, whom they considered a “weakling” who had given into the central government’s rejection of Sonora’s anti-Chinese legislation.62

The Sonoran legislature responded defiantly to the freedom of the Chinese detainees by approving a 250 peso monthly stipend for the anti-Chinese newspaper El Nacionalista. The legislators also reaffirmed their defense of the state’s Chinatown and marriage laws and their commitment to enforcing these laws as expressions of “the purest nationalism.” Before the year’s end, and a few days before Calles took office, Obregón’s Secretary of Foreign Relations announced an abrupt change in his long-standing assessment of the political nature of the Chinese conflicts. More specifically, he announced the beginning of a study to find the most effective method to deter the formation and activities of “Chinese mafias” in Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California. Shortly after taking office, Calles decreed a one-year deadline for those Chinese who were protected from deportation, to either update their cases in the Supreme Court in México City or lose their legally protected status (amparo).63





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