I first learned about Korean Mexicans from my hostess, doña Gloria, who told me how her kitchen was remodeled by a Korean contractor 2 decades ago and a few years back a pediatric hospital was built in Merida by the Korean government. I didn’t understand how those two things were related to each other until Don Jose Luis added that in the early 1900s during the henequen boom in the Yucatan, a group of Koreans was brought here to work. Two weeks ago my conversation partner Vera, a history student, helped me put more pieces of this puzzle together when she showed me a book with photos of Koreans working in haciendas. She shared her knowledge of the henequen industry and how Koreans became a part of Yucatecan history. Over the last few days I finally did some research and learned the truth about these Korean immigrants.
Henequen is a cactus like plant whose fiber was used for various products (ropes, rugs, etc) for the first half of 1900 until the invention of synthetic fibers in the 1950s made henequen obsolete. It was called “el oro verde” (green gold) for all the wealth it brought to this part of Mexico where the rocky terrain and hot weather provided the perfect combination for henequen production. To meet the growing demands for all the fiber these tall thorny plants generated, henequen plantation owners looked overseas for additional labor. When they failed to recruit Europeans laborers, they hired an immigration broker named John G. Myers and a Japanese businessman, Genichi Taisho to find workers in China and Japan, and later in Korea. They put advertisements in the newspaper falsely promising high wages, clean water, fertile land, and free access to medicine in a faraway land, and with that they found a willing group of laborers in Korea. Korea had been suffering from a bad harvest, a draught, and years of political threats from China, Russia, and Japan. And with Japan being the victor in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Korea was about to become a protectorate of Japan and once again faced Japanese rule. For many Koreans looking for a better life, Mexico must have seemed like a chance of a life time.
On April 4, 1905 1,033 Koreans (702 men, 135 women, 196 children) left Chemulpo harbor (I believe this is present day Incheon) via the British merchant ship Ilford. The ship arrived at the port of Salina Cruz in southern Mexico on 15 May, 1905. From there they took a train up north and then boarded another boat to their final destination, Merida. Upon their arrival, the Koreans were separated and taken to 22 henequen plantations to work for the next 4 years. This was the first and last Korean immigration to Mexico.
Many came as families with women and children because the Mexican henequen plantation owners wanted to establish a more secure labor force, preferring family units over single men. But the owners required all the workers to live at the hacienda, paid them poorly, and treated them harshly. An adult male was paid 35 cents for 12 to 17 hours of work, beaten if they fell behind their daily quota of henequen leaves (some note 1,000, some figures a lot higher). To make matters worse, they were forced to buy their food from the henequen owners at exorbitantly high prices. It made saving money almost impossible and left most with debts to repay at the end of their 4 year contract period. Understandably, many did not fare well. There are records of at least 10 Korean laborers committing suicide and escape attempts that were met with severe punishments. I think it’s safe to use the term “slave labor” to describe what these Korean immigrants faced.
With no savings they couldn’t return to Korea even when their contract ended. Some tried their luck by going to Cuba and working in sugar plantations but with over-production of sugar and the subsequent decrease in sugar prices, they were forced back to Mexico once again. This certainly wasn’t what was promised to them but even with their bitter disappointment and frustrations, they had to learn to cope and adapt to this new land. So they began to settle down around Merida and beyond, and built a life here in Mexico.
Yesterday I visited the Museo Conmemorativo de Inmigración Coreana in Merida and met a 4th generation Korean Mexican man named Kevin Olsen Aguilar. He led me through the small and modest museum that was created in 2005 to mark the centennial of the Korean immigrants. On the wall were plaques with names of the first Koreans in Mexico (I noted that some had changed their names to Mexican ones), a handful of photos, copies of passports used to enter Mexico, records of wages these workers received, and some newspaper clippings. One photo that caught my attention was of an old man named Don Asuncion with at least 30 family members surrounding him. Some had darker complexion than others, some seemed “more Asian” than others. Kevin explained that Don Asuncion’s mother made the journey to Mexico while being pregnant and gave birth to him here in 1905. He grew up here, married, had a big family, and lived a long life. The photo was taken in 2005 after the museum opened, when he was 100. He has since passed away but he got to see the South Korean government donate $1 million to build a hospital in Merida and erect a monument near Gran Plaza to honor the Korean immigrants.
Kevin went on to tell me, in Spanish, that while there are no “pure” Koreans here but there is a well-known family that has kept the last name “Park Lee.” The Korean immigrants started to mix with the general Mexican population in the 30s. Since they didn’t live in enclaved ethnic communities like those immigrant groups in the U.S. or in Canada, the Korean immigrants in Mexico produced offsprings of Mayan, European, Spanish ancestries. It is estimated that there are now some 40,000 descendants living in Mexico and at least some of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation Korean Mexicans in Merida are trying to keep their culture and tradition alive. Kevin told me that both he and his sister have visited Korea and would like to return again. They have a Korean language class every Sunday and there are people interested in learning traditional Korean dance and music. As for the future, he seemed very excited to mention that there may be plans for a major Korean company to make an investment near Merida. A company like Hyundai building a manufacturing plant here and providing employment for Mexicans… How about that for coming around a full circle?
In the past two months I was absolutely fascinated by the history of Korean Mexicans in Merida. I can only imagine the heartache those Korean immigrants must have felt and how they must have missed their homeland, but I’m glad to have learned about it the way I did, little by little, in person, here in Mexico. This trip has proved to be so much more than just Spanish lessons…
Museo Conmemorativo Inmigración Coreana: Calle 65 No. 397-A Between Calle 44 and Calle 46, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico Open: Tues to Fri: 10AM to 1PM, 2PM to 5PM; Sat/Sun 10AM to 1PM but e-mail prior to visiting: email@example.com