From the Canal Zone to Canal Street: Chinese in America

  By CapitalWirePR

Washington, DC (CapitalWirePR) –

Two recent events give heart to those of us who look for a better understanding

and greater insight into the American people’s history and culture. The

lesser-know Chino Latino story may not follow conventional paths, but it

nonetheless fills some gaps in contemporary understanding.

On October 8, NYU anthropology professor Lok Siu lectured on the Chinese community of Panama at a

Washington, D.C. forum sponsored by the  Smithsonian Latino Center and the Asian Pacific American Program . Siu authored a book in

2005 on the subject and is currently researching Chino Latino culture in New York City.

This past October, during a Hispanic Heritage Month event, entertainers Eva

Longoria and Emilio Estefan announced they will spearhead fundraising for the

new commission laying plans for a national museum dedicated to Latino history

and culture in the U.S.

Both occasions can potentially produce venues that guide public understanding

toward a newer, sometimes refreshing, knowledge about where some of us come

from and how our society is evolving. Latino and Chinese history and culture,

in reality, converge in the Americas

and the fusion, now more than a century and a half old, is starting to enter

the public consciousness.

Part of the story can be found is at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MoCA) in Manhattan. It is the

first fulltime, professionally staffed museum focusing on the histories and

cultures of the Chinese and their descendants in the Western

Hemisphere.  Those with a culinary interest will appreciate

that the Panama-to-New York migration link is also about food, and adds to

an understanding—and appreciation–of the cuisines of New York City.

Panama’s

Chino Latino community is the largest among the Central American countries. Its

history dates to the arrival of laborers 150 years ago to work on the Isthmus’

railroad. The Panamanian Chinese community’s importance today, in the strategically important Canal

Zone, pulls the local community into the politics of Taiwan and the Mainland.

A history by Juan Tam, Huellas Chinas en Panamá,

yet to be translated into English, tells how the Panamanian Chinese community

morphed from an ethnic group to form a national identity. Tam points out how

people—mainly engaged in small-margin distribution and merchant trading, with

an ethic of work and struggle–eventually butted up on the Creole families who

maintained their standing, prominence and wealth from the professions, law and

politics.

Panama

is not altogether unique. Other prominent Chinese communities in Latin America are found in Mexico

City, Buenos Aires, and Lima. The Caribbean, Santo

Domingo, The Dominican Republic and Havana, Cuba

also have large communities.

Our own national story could use a revisit to include, along with the

well-known Chinese migration to the West Coast, the episode when Chinese immigrants

departed the United States

in large numbers and migrated to Mexico during the enforcement of

the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. There they formed communities along the

Mexican Pacific coast and on the border. Mexicali., is one such important border city today, with

the clear markings of its Chinese past and present.

The Chinese experience has a lot to tell us about the global dynamics of

migration and settlement. But distinct from the 19th and 20th

century notions of migration as a static tale about going from the point of

origin to a destination, the Smithsonian’s current exhibits and lectures tell

us that human migration is continuous and new culture morphs from the fusion,

such as the story of the Chino Latinos. And out of such fabric national

identities and cultures are made.  

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