“The First Asians in the Americas: A Transpacific History” by Diego Javier Luis

An 18th-century view of the Parián, or Asian market, in Mexico City's main plaza An 18th-century view of the Parián, or Asian market, in Mexico City's main plaza

Diego Javier Luis hardly bothers explaining to his readers that of course there were Asians in the Americas centuries before the California Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. But given the common and almost automatic conflation of the United States with “America”, it can nevertheless come as a surprise that Mexico had entire Asian communities before the Pilgrims even set foot on Plymouth Rock. They came on the Manila Galleon, a regular shipping route between Asia and Acapulco which lasted for 250 years from the last quarter of the 16th century until Mexican independence from Spain.

Luis’s The First Asians in the Americas is to some extent two books in one. The one he identifies in the introduction is an academic introduction to the racialization of Asians in, in particular, what was “New Spain” and is now Mexico. The second, supporting the first but of possible interest to a wider, less academically-inclined readership, is a collection of stories and anecdotes, drawn from colonial records, about a considerable number of individuals.


The First Asians in the Americas: A Transpacific History, Diego Javier Luis (Harvard University Press, January 2024)
The First Asians in the Americas: A Transpacific History, Diego Javier Luis (Harvard University Press, January 2024)

Luis starts with probably the most well-known of these: the venerated Catarina de San Juan, the so-called “China Poblana”. Despite hailing from India, a victim of a Portuguese slave raid, she was labeled a “china”:


Regardless of their origin, the vast majority of Asians who disembarked in Acapulco became known as “chinos,” like Catarina.


This was not, says Luis, confusion or geographical ignorance, but rather that


this invented term slotted Asian peoples into New Spain’s casta (caste) system, alongside more familiar casta designations that variously defined Afro-Mexican and Indigenous peoples as “indios,” “mulatos,” and “negros.” Formally, becoming “chino/a” conditioned Asian peoples’ status within the New Spanish social order.


Readers might notice the irony of Catarina, an Indian from India, being (mis-)labeled a “china” because Mexico already had a group of people (mis-)labeled as “indios”. Luis however has other fish to fry: this gathering together of all Asians into a single group


restricted their ability to work in certain trades and made them legally vulnerable to enslavement and the Inquisition. Informally, in the ears of Spaniards, the word “chino/a” alone often conjured up the expectation of servitude, criminality, and un-Catholic behavior.


Somewhat counter-intuitively, the Asians in the Americas were not limited to those from Spanish possessions.


The people disembarking in Mexico’s torrid Pacific port had come from Gujarat to the southwest, Nagasaki to the northeast, and everywhere in between. Most sailors and free migrants were born on Luzon in the Philippines, while captives had often been ensnared throughout the Philippines or, like Catarina de San Juan, by Portuguese enslaving operations in the Indian Ocean World. Smaller concentrations came from elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Japan, or China.


The status of Asians in the Americas was complex, too complex to be reprised here, but the starting position is that “the majority of ‘chinos’ in Mexico during the seventeenth century were enslaved.” Since the native Americans were not supposed to be enslaved, Asians would sometimes find a way to claim to be “indio”. But since “indios” were not permitted to own guns or horses, “chinos” would at other times be at pains to distinguish themselves.

Blasphemy, again somewhat counter-intuitively, could be used to protest ill-treatment:


In the best of cases, enslaved people could prove that enslavers had failed in their seigneurial obligation to instruct them in the Catholic faith, and the inquisitors could then force an enslaver to sell their blaspheming slaves to a new master.


The classification as “chino” was bureaucracy as well as racism per se:


Through the use of the word “chino/a”—and the numerous sociolegal repercussions of that designation—the colonial bureaucracy effectively collapsed the diverse ethnolinguistic groups that made the Pacific passage into a single, racialized collective.


This was not the case in other parts of Spanish America, such as Peru, where “chino” was not used in this way:


colonial officials in Peru and Spain often did not uphold the Mexican paradigm of chino-genesis established in Acapulco … as distance from central Mexico increased, so too did the instability of the “chino/a” marker. Asians often tried to leave the “chino / a” label behind as they departed from New Spanish shores. Some succeeded in becoming “indio/ a” again, as they had been in the Philippines or the Indian Ocean World…


Of interest to those less au courant with academic discussions of race and racialization, Luis has, in support of his arguments, included anecdotes and other information on a great many individuals. These are, with the partial exception of Catarina de San Juan, sketchy and drawn from such documents as court records. And yet both personalities and an overall picture emerge. Asians were both free and enslaved, were sailors, entrepreneurs, hired hands, mule drivers, engaged in witchcraft, intermarried, struggled and in some cases succeeded. There are hints of memories of places and family left behind. Some went back and forth; for most, it would have been a one-way trip. More of this would be fascinating; perhaps there isn’t “more” than can be gleaned from the sources.

One is left wondering what happened to them down the generations. Are the descendants of those early 17th-century “chino” barbers in Mexico City, the ones that were the subject of a long-running trade and competition dispute,  still in Mexico? One would have thought so. But tracking Asians seems to be hard, not just because the sources are scanty but also because unlike those who came in later waves, 16-18th-century arrivals almost always seem to have taken Spanish names. Intermarriage was common. Assimilation seems to have the goal.

Belying its somewhat narrow academic slice through the subject matter, The First Asians in the Americas is a broadly thought-provoking book. One such thought is that Luis has a bit of his own “Columbus discovered America” problem, because the “first Asians in America” didn’t arrive on the Manila Galleon. These, strictly-speaking, arrived many thousands of years earlier via Beringia.

A perhaps more substantive thought is that although the modern Western use of “Asian” is perhaps better (and arguably more benign) than the colonial use of “chino” as an identifier, it suffers from much the same problem of “collapsing” various “diverse ethnolinguistic groups” to the benefit of some, perhaps, but the detriment of others. Luis’s book is a salutary reminder that all this started long ago.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books and co-author of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565-1815.