Between the US and Mexico, a Forgotten ‘Desert of the Chinese’

For over 100 years, immigrants from China have thrived and perished within and around the two countries' border zone

Between the US and Mexico, a Forgotten ‘Desert of the Chinese’
Dancers perform on the occasion of Chinese New Year in Mexicali, Mexico, in 2019. (Luis Boza/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)

On one of the hottest days of the summer in 1902, a group of 42 Chinese migrant laborers arrived by boat to a small fishing town in Baja California, Mexico. The migrants had sailed up from Sinaloa, where they had struggled for years to find work. Now, they were headed overland toward Mexicali — a Mexican city bordering California — where word had spread about new agricultural developments cropping up in the area. The journey to Mexicali would be another hundred miles through the heat of the desert, and the travelers planned to walk the remaining distance by foot.

Far from their homes in a foreign land, the migrants looked for someone who could guide them across the arid terrain. According to historical accounts, the group hired an out-of-work fisherman to accompany them on their passage north. But they would find out too late that their guide was far less knowledgeable about the route than he had claimed. By the end of their journey, only eight, including the fisherman, survived. Under the blistering sun of the Sonoran, the bones of the others are still at rest.

This region came to be known by locals as El Desierto de los Chinos — the Desert of the Chinese. Today, the tragedy of the sojourners from China mostly lives on in the murmurs of leyendas, tales that carry myth and memory from one generation to the next.

A kind of mythology inevitably surrounds the United States-Mexico borderlands, even when the story is told in the public sphere. Earlier this year, U.S. border patrol recorded a sharp uptick of Chinese migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border. Many reports have recounted how the migrants fled poor economic conditions and harsh government crackdowns by making their way through Central and South America, winding through treacherous terrain and entrusting their fates to smugglers or social media, until finally arriving in southern Texas to seek entry and asylum in the U.S. This is, of course, how we typically understand the borderlands: as an interstitial space, a perilous corridor, a point one crosses to go somewhere else, a place one remains when a destination is out of reach.

But there is a much broader story about the laborers who perished en route to Mexicali — and the Chinese migrants who continue to arrive to the U.S.-Mexico border each year. It’s a story that goes back to the earliest history of Asian immigration to the region, as tens of thousands of people from China embarked at the turn of the 20th century in search of opportunity along the borderlands. The Chinese were not transient travelers, however; they put down roots in that space between nations, transforming it in a way that few could have possibly imagined. Their presence shaped the trajectory of not just the border region, but also of the two countries who shared it. At the dawn of the new century, both the U.S., on the brink of the First World War, and Mexico, increasingly dissatisfied with its political leadership, tried to work out how the Chinese — who stirred hopes of economic growth, fears of foreign influence, and swells of racial animus — would shape American and Mexican futures, and how they would shape the United States’ and Mexico’s complicated relationship with each other.

Take a trip to certain places on the border and you’ll find that the lives and deaths of the Chinese are still recalled in landscapes on both sides of the divide, from the sloping hillside of El Chinero to the open expanse of the Chinaman Flat. Although many individual bodies of the Chinese were lost quietly to the desert, their collective arrival was seen as a formidable threat and opportunity alike by both the U.S. and Mexico, who reacted with a series of push-and-pull policies that drew thousands of Chinese to the borderlands.

The first major wave of Chinese migration to the continent took place in the mid-1800s, consisting mostly of laborers in search of work with gold mines and railroad companies in the new U.S. territory of California. But it wasn’t long before the newcomers were met with so much vitriol that the U.S. enacted its very first prohibition on immigration on the basis of nationality. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which placed a 10-year ban on the entry of laborers from the country, along with subsequent legislation that increased and prolonged these restrictions, led thousands of Chinese to make their way south of the border. Some entering Mexico were trying to find illicit entry into the U.S., but a significant number were drawn to the economic prospects in Mexico itself, which was increasingly intent on developing the borderlands.

As the U.S. was closing its doors, Mexico was eyeing the benefits of welcoming settlers from China. Under the rule of Porfirio Diaz, who served seven terms as president from 1876 to 1911, the government was anxious to build up the “frontier” territories of northern Mexico, which were perceived as being dangerously susceptible to annexation by the U.S. The Mexican-American War had just concluded, with Mexico losing a staggering half of its land — including Texas, California and practically the entire modern-day American southwest — in the aftermath. The Porfirians believed that a strong regional economy, made possible with foreign capital and immigrant labor, would help them maintain control over the north. Liberal cientificos (scientists) in the administration began warming up to the idea of Chinese migrants, whom they deemed well-suited for the hard labor of exploiting the borderlands’ austere wilderness. Although the Chinese weren’t the white European colonists that the Porfiriato had tried to recruit to the region, they were regarded, however warily, as a cheap and sturdy workforce that could help invigorate a nascent border economy.

In 1899, Mexico penned an agreement that gave Chinese citizens the right to freely live and work in the country, paving the way for some 60,000 migrants to come in the following decades. Asians became Mexico’s fastest-growing immigrant population, with large numbers of new arrivals flocking to the borderlands.

When they arrived, however, the Chinese didn’t so neatly fit into Mexico’s plans for its border territories. For starters, Chinese laborers in northern Mexico predominantly worked for agricultural developments owned by American capitalists. In 1901, a diversion of the Colorado River had enabled irrigation in the Mexicali Valley, transforming it into a lush, fertile landscape with tremendous potential for commercial farming, most notably in cotton. Sensing the economic potential of the region, a group of investors from Los Angeles established the Colorado River Land Company, consolidating as many as 850,000 acres of the rich valley basin under its control. Cotton production created a massive labor demand that drew in many Chinese workers and, in a short time, the vast majority of Mexicali’s Chinese residents worked on tracts owned or leased by the enterprise.

The Chinese were also not exactly a transient labor force that worked the land and then went home, as many in the Porfiriato may have hoped. While they came to the borderlands as manual laborers, a significant number came to oversee much of the land themselves. This is because the Colorado River Land Company operated like a landlord, renting out its estate for outside developers to cultivate. Whenever possible, the company preferred to lease to Chinese tenants, who had a reputation for being able to tame even the roughest terrain into obedient farmland. As one report put it, Chinese laborers were capable of work so grueling that “it would probably have discouraged any white man.” Collectively, the Chinese rapidly became among the largest landholders in Mexicali. Many also branched out of agriculture and formed small businesses of their own, including laundries, groceries, dry-goods stores and tailor shops.

Chinese immigrants thus became thoroughly integrated into the broader economy of the borderlands. According to the scholar Evelyn Hu-DeHart, by the time the Porfiriato was overthrown in 1910, the Chinese “had become the dominant component of the new petit bourgeois class.”

But as Chinese communities became more established in northern Mexico, they also became more deeply embroiled in the messy geopolitics of the region. As border territories flourished economically, the question of national sovereignty grew increasingly urgent. Around this time, many border towns were struggling to attract and retain Mexican residents. When the Mexican government tried to fortify its control over the prospering north by encouraging citizens to resettle there from other parts of the country, it found itself in serious competition with the U.S. Post-Chinese Exclusion Act, U.S. immigration law had defined a border that was hardened to arrivals from China — but porous to those from Mexico. Rather than staying and competing with Chinese laborers in Baja, then, many Mexicans simply crossed over to better-paying ranches on the American side.

These tensions escalated in 1914, as war broke out across Europe. A steep rise in demand for goods in wartime stretched workforces paper-thin in the U.S. and Mexico, underscoring the issue of foreign labor for both countries. In California, employers hiked up wages to draw Mexican workers over to the U.S., while in Baja California, businesses were deprived of large swaths of the working population. As record-high numbers of Mexican workers migrated to the U.S., the Chinese were left to fill the gaps. In the words of one newspaper, Mexicali became “an entirely Chinese city. The streets, traveled only by Chinese, the restaurants, filled by Chinese, the fieldwork, absolutely dominated by the Chinese. Everything, everything is completely Chinese in Mexicali.”

The preeminence of the Chinese didn’t go unnoticed in Mexico — not as the fury of revolution was sweeping through the country. Rebels had just ousted the Diaz regime, widely reviled for selling out Mexico’s land and wealth to foreign imperialists. For many revolutionaries, a stark portrait of this injustice was the fact that the borderlands no longer felt like they belonged to Mexico, but to the Americans who claimed the territory and the Chinese who worked it, leased it and, in the eyes of many, came to control it too.

It didn’t help that losing the borderlands seemed again like an acute possibility. American forces had recently occupied the Mexican port of Veracruz, and a vocal senator from Arizona was agitating for the purchase of Baja California and parts of neighboring Sonora, which he called the “Achilles heel to the United States.” Although these expansionist efforts ultimately fell flat, they seemed to signal to Mexicans that decades of rolling out the red carpet for outsiders hadn’t worked to secure the country’s claim to its future or its land. The days of the Porfiriato were past, the welcome extended to foreigners was over, and Mexico’s tolerance for the Chinese was wearing thin.

Anger toward the Chinese intensified, often erupting into bloody assaults on communities and businesses. Antichinismo was especially ferocious in Sonora, where at least 100 Chinese residents were killed. The final nail in the coffin, however, was the economic devastation of the Great Depression. There would be no work for anyone — not for the Mexicans who returned from the U.S. in droves, nor for the Chinese. Nationalists called for the removal of the Chinese, whom one labor union described as an “everlasting yellow octopus, who continues to suck Mexican workers’ blood.” In 1931, fueled by class-based resentments, the Sonoran government enacted discriminatory laws that effectively banished the Chinese from the state altogether. Five years later, dispossessed Mexican farmworkers seized the Colorado River Land Company, forcing many Chinese inhabitants out of the Mexicali Valley. As work dried up, others simply left of their own volition.

When the story of El Desierto de los Chinos is remembered, perhaps it should be remembered like this. One day in 1902, a group of Chinese migrants started on an ill-fated journey to the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico. During this passage, almost all would lose their lives, but the few who survived would become part of a larger community of immigrants whose presence would transform the region on practically every level imaginable. Through years of toil, the travelers who crossed El Desierto stirred profound social and political changes on a continent that still bears witness to their legacy, so many decades after they called it home. When new generations of Chinese arrive at the border of the U.S. and Mexico today, these are some of the footsteps they are following in.

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