Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History by Kathleen López (review)

Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History by Kathleen López (review)

Journal of Latin American Geography
Volume 12, Number 3, 2013
pages 234-236
DOI: 10.1353/lag.2013.0049

Joseph L. Scarpaci, Professor Emeritus of Geography
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Kathleen López, Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013)

The new millennium cast into the academic and general public’s dialect the word ‘globalization’ as well as the call that everyone should ‘think globally and act locally.’ That may be all well and good, but this adage often falls flat when scholars aim to connect the local with global (glocal). Like the words ‘impact,’ ‘effect,’ and ‘affect,’ the terms at once say everything but communicate little. As the graduate coordinator of my doctoral program was fond of harping in front of frightened graduate students many decades back, “perfectly general, perfectly true, but absolutely meaningless.” Clichés, alas, often substitute for deep, critical thinking and analysis.

For these reasons, when one sees a subtitle that includes the ambitiously stated ‘transnational history,’ a little skepticism inevitably comes to mind. Geographers are no doubt even more skeptical because, after all, scale and spatial analysis situate both human and physical geographies in the broader context of social and natural sciences, respectively.

Enter Kathleen López: Assistant Professor of History and Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies (a title that might also give one pause) at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Whereas many Latinamericanist geographers struggle to speak any semblance of Spanish and conduct fieldwork with the assistance of Latin American and Caribbean scholars, Dr. López approaches the study of transnational migration to the island of Cuba armed with fluent Spanish and Chinese. Armed with extensive field work in Cuba, China, and the United States, Dr. López assembles a tour d’force that brings archival, ethnographic, and historic analyses to bear on a story that traces the history of Chinese migrants to Cuba in the nineteenth century, through the alliance with Cuban forces to overturn the colonial yoke imposed by Madrid, to the twentieth century events that include strong xenophobia, the Japanese-China war, WW II, and the Cuban Revolution. Copiously referenced and gracefully written, Chinese Cubans tells the tale of a truly global transnational migration pattern that documents how the Chinese in Cuba used investment, remittances, and return visits to bridge these migrants’ search for the best of Cuba and their homeland. The tale begins with the importation of more than 100,000 Chinese workers – indentured servants often treated as slaves because of Great Britain’s objection to the African slave trade—who build rail lines and work in sugar plantations in ways similar to how Chinese ‘coolie’ workers did in the United States. Chinese Cubans were fiercely loyal to the Cuban independence movement of the nineteenth century, and great accolades were given to them by the fiercest and most venerable of revolutionary fighters. Unlike conditions in Peru, Jamaica, and the especially harsh anti-Chinese movement in Mexico in the 1930s, we learn that Cuba was relatively welcoming (overall) in receiving the Chinese diaspora. They added to the miscegenation (mestizaje) stew (ajiaco) that Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortíz highly praised. However, to López’s credit, she calls into question the much-venerated Ortíz’s description of this marginal contribution to Cuban culture (which Ortíz postulated that, numerically at least, was a European and African fusion). The so-called ‘third founder’ of Cuba (after Columbus and Alexander von Humboldt), Ortíz derided Chinese immigrants for their certain tolerance of homosexuality, their (limited) use of opium. That is why he classified them phenotypically (i.e., “yellow mongoloids”….”and essential otherness” (p. 210).

Readers will find that similar prejudices hurled upon immigrants elsewhere were also cast upon Chinese Cubans. They were often characterized as ‘inassimilable’ just as Jews were in Europe in the twentieth century and much the way Mexicans are portrayed in the current U.S. immigration debacle. When hard economic times fell upon Cuba, anti-nationalism was whipped up against Cubans of Chinese descent, who were often portrayed as perennial strike breakers and ‘scabs.’

Not surprisingly, there are indirect parallels to be drawn between the relationship of mainland (communist) China and Taiwan, on the one hand, and Cuba and the United States, on the other hand. The 1949 Chinese communist takeover of mainland China and the exodus of Chiang Kai-shek to Formosa (Taiwan) generates yet another out-migration of Chinese to Cuba. And in 1959, many Chinese…

Tags: , , , ,