Review of Making the Chinese Mexican: Global Migration, Localism, and Exclusion in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Grace Pena Delgado Stanford University Press

Studies of the US-Mexico borderland often note centuries of mingling interests of colonial powers, various tribes, missionaries and Mexicans who lived in the region. However, the Chinese influence in the region is often not recognized, Delgado acknowledges that the community had modest numbers and a fragmented history that was difficult to piece together, but her intervention here is based on the inflexibility of a nation’s racial identity, and its impact on nation-centered history, which leaves “Chinese Mexicans…nearly absent from the Mexican national narrative” (5).  Grace Pena Delgado’s work, Making the Chinese Mexican, does an excellent job of demonstrating how US and Mexican nationalism, heightened particularly at the border, excluded Chinese fronterizos who were established there, some for many generations. She expertly weaves in rich archival evidence to illustrate the Chinese diaspora along the US-Mexico borderlands, focusing on issues of nationalism, immigration, economics, language and race.

She highlights changing immigration policy and ties between ethnicity and nationalism to demonstrate the waxing and waning of Sinophobia between the 1870s to the 1930s, which Delgado says, “corresponds with the rise of nationalism in Mexico and the United States” (7). Although a highly complex subject, this entirely approachable work is essential for grasping the complexity of US-Mexico borderlands, immigration history, and economic flow during this period.

A great deal of focus on research, particularly in borderlands history, is to recapture the interstitial history that has fallen between the cracks.  Delgado’s work reveals the longstanding power that Chinese communities had on either side of the borderland. As many Chinese families developed longstanding transnational relationships, guanxi, these networks also allowed Chinese merchants to successfully supply borderland areas with a variety of merchandise, often at lower prices and greater variety than local suppliers were able to offer. The Chinese [although many would actually become or be born as Mexican or American citizens] supported many of these communities and allowed them to grow. This is not to say that Delgado solely focuses on the experience of merchants; rather the notion that all Chinese were merchants would prove to be a fatal stereotype for some, as violence instigated by various antichinistas and the Junta would show. Her detailing of guanxi is part of her overall strategy to  demonstrate “the reliance on diasporic networks and local structures that linked Chinese migrants from imperial and national projects” (8).

The work is bookended with statements by Delgado noting being served Chinese cuisine instead of  of her grandmother’s “delicious rice and beans” kicked off a long-time desire to trace the ghost of Chinese influence in the region (195). To end, Delgado ties in the outsider status of Chinese residents in Mexico with the experiences of her Mexican forebears in the United States. Although a bit rushed in an eight page epilogue, Delgado concludes by making broader implications of her findings with current explosions of Nativism and along the border, focusing specifically on recent Arizona state, legislature, particularly SB 1070, and the Safe Neighborhoods Act. As her work ends on the note that, “as Chinese fronterizos and countless other borderlandes have demonstrated, national boundaries are fluid, created from relationships as much as etched by global forces” it would have been interesting to see her discuss the maquila operations in Sonora for example (198). Her pleasurable, engaging writing style makes readers wish to hear her thoughts on issues of more recent vintage, but Delgado stays true to her ultimate goal of writing this work to help undo “the silencing of people of Chinese descent…in the prevailing historiography on race in Mexico” (5); “it shows not only how the strategies, adjustments, and practices of Chinese fronterizos reveal nationalism at work along the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, but also how Chinese, British and Spanish imperial influences, regionalism and localism mediated the nation-making process and shaped Chinese Mexican identities” (6).

As a historian, Delgado does a solid job of laying out the history of these contested spaces, which makes this work not only approachable, but a stimulating prospect for further debate. Delgado includes snapshots of the lives of various individuals which would also be of interest for classroom discussion on a variety of more specialized topics within the field, including immigration, economic and political strategies. It would also be an excellent book to use in comparative ethnic studies, in particular, Chapter 4: The First Anti-Chinese Campaign in the Time of Revolution; which, as the title suggests, discusses the consequences of the Mexican Revolution on nation building along racial lines, resulting in anti-Chinese movement.  . Additionally, potential lesson plans could center around the transnational geography, or assessing the language of court cases and legal documents. Deldago includes some in this work, such as court proceedings occurring in the Arizona Territory (68).

Mapping out some individual experiences highlighted in the work, or noting the differing regional and class enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Acts might also be helpful classroom discussion activities for the classroom. The writing style is such that it is open to students from in and outside the discipline. This is a solid book and can contribute to a variety of classroom discussions on US-Mexico borderlands, challenging traditional approaches to history, class and identity formation and immigration history, among many others.


Reviewed by Rahima A. Schwenkbeck, George Washington University
Edited by Tracy C. Barrett

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]