In 1911, some three hundred Chinese immigrants were murdered in the northern Mexican city of Torreón. Afterward, their bodies were mutilated, looted, and dumped in a mass grave. More than a century later, a fog of confusion and denial surrounds the massacre. Misinformation and racism abound, and the residents of Torreón remain reluctant to discuss the event. In his new book, The House of the Pain of Others, Julián Herbert sets out to investigate this forgotten atrocity. Below, he examines the roots of anti-Chinese racism in early-twentieth-century Mexico.
Most historians—including both the most scrupulous, such as Chao Romero, and the less rigorous, for example, Juan Puig—take for granted that in Mexico there was a clear correlation between attitudes toward the Chinese diaspora and social class. They establish the notion that Sinophobia arose informally among the poor after the Torreón massacre in 1911. They then theorize that ideology evolved, became formalized, and contaminated the middle class through a sort of anti-Chinese conference (attended mostly by small-business men) that took place in Magdalena, Sonora State, on February 5, 1916. Romero suggests these developments were never supported by the ruling class.
This reading of the situation systematizes the historical discourse but does not reflect reality. Its first fallacy is that a minority ideology, originating among the poorest people in the country, ascended the social ladder at a speed greater than that of any other revolutionary concern (democracy, agrarian and constitutional reform, and so on); I don’t find this particularly convincing. The description also implies that the transnational dimension of the diaspora had no Mexican equivalent: that the anti-Chinese sentiment of the East Coast middle and upper classes and California labor groups did not take root in Mexico during the final third of the nineteenth century. That seems implausible. Many of the first engine drivers to cross López Velado’s “Sweet Nation” (“the train rolling along the track / like a child’s Christmas toy”) were white, English-speaking, and unionized (and very well paid: they earned two hundred pesos a month—between ten and twelve times the minimum wage in La Laguna, and equivalent to approximately 20,000 pesos at current rates). Influential Mexican families (some represented by rich agriculturalists, such as the Maderos in La Laguna, and also the Creels, the Lujáns, the Terrazas, the Mendirichagas, the Gómez Palacios, and the Lavíns) sent their offspring to study in the United States, showing a particular predilection for such cities as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. In 1896 Coahuila gave scholarships to five graduates of the state teacher training college to undertake specialist studies in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. At least one of those youths—Gabriel Calzada—was from La Laguna, had lived for a time in Torreón, and was extremely close to Francisco I. Madero: some of the letters he exchanged with the spiritualist president have been preserved, and oral tradition has him as the style editor of Madero’s The Presidential Succession in 1910.
I’m not speaking of facts but degrees of separation; it is by no means unreasonable to conclude that some members of Mexico’s middle and upper classes must have adopted the anti-Chinese prejudice of the leading United States citizens of the day. The influence can be inferred from the reiteration of certain accusations leveled at Asians—that they were filthy, carriers of disease, lacking in intelligence and a sense of humor, arrogant, ungodly, and so on and so forth—that appeared in Mexican discourse years before the labor-related prejudices.
I believe that what happened was precisely the reverse of the narrative offered by Juan Puig and Chao Romero: Sinophobia in Mexico echoed the geopolitical scheme of its expansion in the United States. What first developed was a more or less fantasized intellectual, middle-class version of the phobia; that prejudice was reinforced by provincial, then by federal governments, and, years later (after 1906), the ideology fitted in with the pragmatic xenophobia of the working class.
Perhaps the oldest anti-Chinese text published in Mexico has its origins in an article that appeared in Coahuila in 1882, the year of the Exclusion Act. It is an article in the state newspaper, the Diario Oficial, which Sergio Corona Páez cites in his Chronicle of Torreón. Among other things, it says:
We have already stated that immigration is a problem that will affect the future of Mexico, and we now add that the extent to which the measures adopted by the authorities in this respect benefit our interests and institutions will determine whether that future is great and rosy.
But it is not for us to address such questions today. We limit ourselves here to stating the general rightness, the pressing need for, the duty of our governors and societies to improve the [indigenous] race, to rouse it from stagnation … What is required is crossbreeding with European races of Saxon, Germanic, or Teutonic descent, never with their own Latin race, much less Mongols.
If the Chinese, for example, come to inhabit and cultivate our lands, rather than benefiting our nation, immigration will become one more evil to add to the many others we already suffer.
The ideological distance between public policy and the viewpoint of oligarchs was practically nonexistent during the Porfirian regime. I state this without any demagogic intention: the press of the day generally held the same opinions (independently of whether they condemned or applauded a given circumstance), and it is enough to listen to such well-informed testimony as that of John Kenneth Turner to understand that the editorial of an official organ at the end of the nineteenth century represented, if not the interests, at least the thinking of the Mexican upper class.
Killing in the name of racism—always justified through negative emotions: hatred, contempt, and objectification; a degree of farce—is not, in the liberal-romanticized West, a spontaneous practice. First the violence needs to be represented to the point where it becomes denatured, until it is converted into a solemn discourse, a sort of law.
Mexican anti-Chinese sentiment did not begin with the slaughter in Torreón, nor did it end with that event. Before the small genocide, the fantasy of annihilation had set up camp in the press, in coffeehouse conversations, jokes, laws, segregation, public demonstrations, and vituperation until things came to blows. The first murder of a Chinese man by a mob in Mexico occurred in 1881: the Exclusion Act was on the horizon in the United States, and negotiations for the Sino-Mexican Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation were about to open.
What emerged from the 1911 Torreón massacre was not repentance, or even self-criticism, but a symbolic acceptance of transgression: any further ill treatment of the Cantonese now had a historical precedent that not only justified but excused it, since it was less serious than that canonical outburst of violence. This is how the economy of cruelty functions.
The earliest articulation of anti-Chinese sentiment in Mexico was the work of the middle-class and the ruling Científicos, and came from the seat of the federal government. Although it was published in 1911, both its origin and fundamental ideology date from 1903; scarcely four years after the signing of the Sino-Mexican Treaty of Amity. This text is called the Romero Commission Report.
On October 17, 1903, Porfirio Díaz created a special commission to look into the impact of large-scale immigration from China. He did this, to quote Chao Romero, “in response to fears expressed by the Mexican citizenry.” Two questions occur to me. First: If there was no anti-Chinese campaign in existence in 1903, where did the president of the republic get the gruesome idea that such fears had in fact been expressed? Second: From historical experience, and based on such creditable testimony as J. K. Turner’s Barbarous Mexico, whom exactly did the regime see as that “Mexican citizenry” whose fears had to be taken so seriously? It’s my conviction that the term refers to the financial elite that had already begun to be concerned by the extremely generous perks foreign residents enjoyed.
The commission was composed of five men: Genaro Raigosa, José María Romero, Eduardo Liceaga, Rafael Rebollar, and José Covarrubias. Their task was to answer four questions. (1) Does unlimited immigration of Chinese and Japanese citizens benefit Mexico? (2) Are the effects of the immigration of Chinese nationals the same as those of the Japanese? If not, should different policies be adopted for each group? (3) Should norms be established discouraging Asian immigration, notwithstanding the agreements in place with China and Japan? (4) What constitutional, legal, and diplomatic reforms does the commission consider appropriate in relation to this topic?
None of the questions addresses the Magonista Sinophobic agenda, and since this had not even been formulated in 1903, it is chronologically impossible for the tacit anti-Chinese sentiment of the Romero Commission to have had its roots in the working classes. The final 121-page report—published in 1911, written by José María Romero—established that Chinese immigration, whether at an individual or group level, was not to the greater benefit of Mexico. Rather than offering pragmatic reasoning to support its conclusions, Romero closely followed Herbert Spencer’s eugenic theories. He concluded that the Chinese were “undesirables” because they took the place of, and inhibited the immigration of, more “desirable” ethnic groups: white Europeans who the text claims were the architects of economic development in Argentina, Brazil, and Australia (as if geography, history, climate, and internal policies played no role in the situation). He added that the Chinese were incapable of integrating, had irreconcilable differences in their relationship with Western culture, tended to form secret societies, were opposed to the mixing of races, considered themselves superior, planned to return to their country with whatever gains they made rather than settling, and, in general, represented a barrier to the noncoercive integration of Mexican Indians in the general climate of crossbreeding with whites.
The anti-Chinese feeling of the working class did not take long to surface, in the voice of the social reformer and anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. In 1906 the Mexican Liberal Party Plan clarified its position:
The prohibition of Chinese immigration is, above all, a protective measure for workers of other nationalities, principally the Mexicans. The Chinaman, disposed in general to work for the lowest wage, submissive, petty in his aspirations, is a great obstacle to the prosperity of other workers.
On April 10, 1911—thirty-three days after the slaughter—the Mexico City newspaper El Tiempo published a letter by José Díaz Zulueta refuting a proposal by David Thomatis, which had previously appeared in the same organ, to support Chinese immigration into Mexico. Although the findings of the Romero Commission had yet to be published, Díaz Zulueta endorses them, which suggests it was, among others, the landowning businessmen of La Laguna who were behind the Sinophobic rhetoric. Before resorting to the usual arguments, the letter declares:
I am very sorry to find among Señor Thomatis’s very good intentions the notion of bringing over Chinese immigrants, which, far from benefiting us, would be highly prejudicial. Take the cases of Ecuador and Peru, where such immigration has become a veritable plague. I believe that in order to cultivate the amount of cotton we need for our own consumption and for export, we have no need of the Chinese, and our present cotton producers, the most progressive of Mexican agriculturalists, would not improve their reputations by making greater profit in the short term at the cost of bringing a veritable plague into the country, or so I would say for, at least, the cotton producers of Mexico.
I’m sure Díaz Zulueta speaks on behalf of the large hacienda owners of La Laguna when he identifies (twice in the same paragraph) the Chinese as the source of the plague: this could not be more racist, because plagues, naturally, have to be eradicated. At that time, La Laguna was the principal cotton producer in Mexico, and the polemicist is expressing himself with the confidence of one who has the backing and approval of the social group he defends.
After four paragraphs of deploring what he considers to be the stupidity of the Chinese, Díaz Zulueta finishes with:
Let our enterprising, progressive cotton producers say if all this [the iniquities mentioned above] is what they want for this rich and fertile region, where cities that do us honor are already under construction.
Let foreign capital, most particularly English, come in good time to do its part in adding to the fruitfulness of our grateful regions, and we will welcome it with open arms, and give the investors all kinds of guarantees, but do not bring us Chinamen, since they themselves will not welcome them into their beloved Home [the English word is used in the original—trans.].
Here, the diatribe appears to allude to the burgeoning cities of Torreón and Gómez Palacio, and the reference to “our grateful regions” makes me think the Porfirist gentleman might have been from La Laguna; I did not, however, find any solid facts to support this supposition.
This is sufficient evidence to cast doubt on the declaration of Chao Romero—and many other historians—that those with power and influence in La Laguna did not hold Sinophobic feelings a month before the small genocide.
On April 21, Chinese representatives in Mexico sent a letter to El Tiempo, politely rebutting Díaz Zulueta’s accusations. Twenty-four days later, the bodies of 303 Chinese people lay strewn along the streets and in the market gardens of Torreón.
—Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco in 1971. He is a writer, musician, and teacher, and is the author of The House of the Pain of Others and Tomb Song, as well as several volumes of poetry and two story collections. He lives in Saltillo, Mexico.
Christina MacSweeney is the translator of Tomb Song, and has published translations, articles, and interviews on a wide variety of platforms and contributed to several anthologies. She was awarded the 2016 Valle Inclán Translation Prize for her translation of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth. She lives in England.
Excerpted from The House of the Pain of Others, by Julián Herbert, translated by Christina MacSweeney, out now from Graywolf Press.
Excerpt from The House of the Pain of Others. Copyright © 2015 by Julián Herbert. English Translation copyright © 2019 by Christina MacSweeney. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.