10 New Ways to Think about the Asian Latinx Experience

By: Belkis Moreno and Emily Bermudez


What or who do you think of when you see or hear the word Latinx? What or who do you think of when you see or hear the word Asian? Do these two identities ever intersect in your mind? That’s what we investigated for this project. I bet you’re wondering, why should you still keep reading, well here’s why. This listicle conveys the intertwined histories and experiences of Asian and Latinx people by looking at communities such as Chinese Cubans, Chinese Mexicans, Japanese Brazilians, and Filipinos to expand and contribute to the meaning of Asian American and Latinx. We focused on this topic because the experiences and lives of Asian Latinxs are not well known or highlighted. In other words, we want to give a space and resource to make the histories and lives of Asian Latinx more widely accessible, so their identities can be acknowledged, embraced, and understood.

Chinatown in Havana, Cuba. Courtesy of Ernesto Mastracusta.

History of Immigration — The Chinese in Cuba

Under the 1917 provisions for agricultural laborers, thousands of Chinese immigrants entered Cuba, and Soledad Estate in Cienfuegos recruited Chinese laborers for sugar production work. More than half of the immigrants came from Taishan while the rest came from the Sanyi countries Nanhai, Panyu, and Shunde. They would move into Cuba’s capital, Havana, and other provincial towns. By the 1920s, the Chinese immigrants were working vegetable stands, restaurants, groceries, tailors, and photography studios along Havana’s Chinatown. Along with the commercial establishments, ethnic institutions were created such as associations, theaters, four newspapers, a cemetery, language schools, a hospital, and an elderly residence building. Through these institutions, Chinese political, economic, social, and cultural life flourished. Migration would continue into the 1940s and 1950s.

São Paulo, Brazil. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

History of Immigration — The Japanese in Brazil

It was in 1908 when the Japanese started to emigrate to Brazil, and it continued up until the early 1960s. Between 1908 and 1941, there were approximately 190,000 Japanese located in Brazil. What attracted the emigration to Brazil was Brazil’s labor-deficient coffee plantation economy because immigrant workers were needed to work following the abolition of slavery in 1888 as well as the passing of the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1908 which barred immigration to the United States. Post World War II, between 1954 and 1962, 50,000 more Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil due to economic problems in Japan. Currently, close to 1.5 million Japanese immigrants live in Brazil, and their population is mostly concentrated in the southern regions of Brazil. The state of São Paulo has the highest number of Brazilian nikkeijin (around 887,000).

Cover of Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History. Courtesy of Kathleen Lopez.

The Struggle for Chinese Identity in Cuba

The Chinese became part of national identity discourse that paved the way for their incorporation into Cuban Society beginning with the independence movement. Cubans who recently achieved independence from Spain found an affinity with the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Cuban newspapers focused on the significance of October 10th for both Cuba and China which then led to the beginning of an independent Cuba and a modern, republican China. Despite the glorification of the Chinese freedom fighter and the celebration of the republican revolution in China, anti-Chinese images started to surface. The transnational Chinese in Cuba became targets of government repression. A dichotomy formed: the image of the Chinese as an essential individual to the Cuban nation and the image of the Chinese as exotic, alien, and dangerous to the Cuban nation. It was through the press, ethnic associations, and business alliances that Chinese merchants and diplomats came together to protest against anti-Chinese sentiment in Cuba by defending themselves as deserving of cultural citizenship and proper members of the Cuban nation. This went on to shape the struggle for Chinese identity in Cuba.

The Latinos of Asia by Anthony Ocampo. Photo Courtesy of csusm.edu.

Filipino Identity

Labels such as Latinx and Asian can be very limiting and constraining for many communities since they can be so broad that it is difficult to highlight the unique differences between the groups that fall under each category. Filipinos are often thought of as Asian because of the geographical location of the Philippines, but sometimes it is difficult to relate to that label because of the historical and cultural differences with other countries. The Philippines was the only Asian country colonized by Spain for over 300 years and then was under the rule of the United States. The Philippines then has a different history compared to Eastern Asian countries that put them in a unique situation, especially since many Latin American countries were also colonized by Spain for centuries. Due to being colonized by the same imperial power, the Philippines and countries like Mexico have similarities in language, religion, food, and physical appearance. These similarities are then re-emphasized when Filipinos live in an area where they’re around large Latinx populations, such as Los Angeles or San Diego. So even though Latinos and Filipinos may not be considered the same race, there are important cultural similarities. This can put Filipinos in a distinctive position when it comes to how to identify themselves because they fall under a grey area that can lead to ambivalent feelings.

The Mexican and Filipino Flag. Courtesy to CNN Philippines.

Mexipinos in San Diego

The Southwest and Mexican borderlands have a history of having large Latinx and Asian populations, however, San Diego is an important area that has consistently had large Filipino and Mexican communities that have worked together. San Diego is home to the nation’s second-largest Filipino community, and Mexican immigrants make up the largest ethnic minority of the city. San Diego is thus an important place to look at in order to understand one community of the Asian Latinx population and their close connections and intertwined histories. Both groups have worked together in industries of agriculture, fish-canning, service work, and wartime during the 1930s, World War II, and the postwar years that have helped make San Diego’s economy into what it is today. In addition to this, Filipino men and Mexican women interacted quite frequently with each other because they belonged to the same living, working, and worshipping spaces and communities. These similarities (often due to their shared Spanish colonial past) brought them together and gave way to a Mexipino population that followed through generations. The intermarriages between these two populations created generations of people with new identities. The Mexipino population in San Diego shows the rich history of collaboration, community, disagreements, but ultimately connections between Mexican and Filipino communities. Generations of Mexipinos show that there has always been a history between Asian and Latinos, and thus bring insight into the history and identity of both groups.

Philip Vera Cruz. Courtesy to the Farmworker Movement Online Gallery.

Philip Vera Cruz — United Farm Workers

Philip Vera Cruz was a Filipino immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1926 and worked in agriculture. He focused on union work and joined the National Farm Labor Union, becoming a labor leader, and eventually joining the United Farm Workers (UFW). He is most notable for his work towards the Asian American Movement, the founding of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), and his criticisms of Cesar Chavez and the UFW for the lack of visibility and emphasis of Filipino workers and issues. He marked this experience as Filipinos being “a minority within a minority” because they were often overlooked or ignored by the larger Mexican population. Many of UFW’s meetings were conducted in Spanish, the slogans they created, such as “Viva La Raza” catered toward a Mexican identity, instead of solidarity between Filipinos and Mexican laborers. By catering the language, missions, and slogans towards Mexican laborers, it ostracized Filipino workers and their needs. Thus, Vera Cruz’s criticisms need to be listened to in order to achieve true solidarity and coalition-building within Asian American and Latinx communities. Even though UFW was not a perfect organization, looking at their history helps show the relationship between Filipinos and Mexicans; their activism and attempts at solidarity brought revolutionary change for workers. In other words, both of these communities were at the margins of society but brought impactful and meaningful change to mainstream society. However, Vera’s criticisms are essential in order to better understand how to improve, unite, and enact change that benefits all.

“Remaining immigration documents and photos from various Chinese immigrant families.” to Mexicali. Courtesy of Erin Lee Holland.

Chinese Mexican Relations in the Borderlands — Manuel Lee Mancilla’s Testimonio

A defining historical connection between Asian and Latino communities can be seen in the borderlands between California and Mexico during the 1900s. During this time many Chinese men immigrated to Mexico and worked as agricultural laborers. This caused varying different reactions and dynamics throughout Northern Mexico, with some of them being racist and harmful, while others were positive and understanding. The complexities between these two communities can be seen through the testimonio of Manuel Lee Mancilla, who was born in Mexicali to a Chinese father and Mexican mother. Through his testimony, he not only provides his own family history but also gives historical context for what he lived through. Additionally, Mancilla’s testimony offers a unique experience of in-betweenness; while he had pride over being Mexican, he witnessed and experienced racism.

Many Mexican farmers found the number of Chinese laborers to be threatening to their jobs, which led them to commit terrible racist acts, such as anti-Chinese attacks and campaigns, a massacre, and even led them to run an entire Chinese community out of Sonora. These were unjustifiable and xenophobic acts committed against Chinese Mexicans around the time of the Mexican Revolution where Mexico was trying to become more nationalistic. However, this often only came to the benefit of mestizo Mexicans because they were the ones that were mostly accepted as Mexican, while Indigenous and Chinese Mexicans were not given the same treatment. Instead, the identity of people like Mancilla was questioned and not broadly accepted. Despite this, in his testimony, he still describes the ways his parents came together, the community he formed with other Chinese Mexicans, the pride he had over being Mexican, and ultimately the sense of belonging he still felt. No matter what, he found pride in his and his father’s Chinese heritage. Even though Mancilla’s testimonio does not illustrate a positive picture, it was a reality that should still take the time to be listened to and understood. His testimony is essential when it comes to questioning and understanding what national and ethnic belonging and identity mean.

Antonio Chuffat Latour. Courtesy of Uma Krishnaswami.

Antonio Chuffat Latour

Antonio Chuffat Latour, an Afro-Chinese Cuban man, worked as an interpreter for the Guomindang and was also a journalist in the 1920s. In 1926, after new immigration restrictions, Chuffat published an article in a Cienfuegos newspaper that defended Chinese merchants, and his goal was to increase understanding of the Chinese immigrant community. He achieved this by describing differences between the many different dialect groups. Articles like these aided the dissemination of the message of Chinese integration and legitimacy. Chuffat was also a messenger and documented the war of words regarding intermarriage, sugar cane labor, anti-Asian riots, and immigration. These works are located in Margarita Engle’s book titled “Lion Island.” One poem titled “The Feast” goes as follows:

Antonio Chuffat Latour

“Forest-green cucumbers, olives, feathery herbs,

yuca, malanga, boniato, quimbombó, fufú,

ginger, five-spice, bamboo shoots,

all the foods of Spain, Cuba, Africa,

and China

mixed together

like music.

Señor Lam tells the vegetable vendor

how much he misses peaches, plums, pears,

and apples, northern fruits that refuse to grow

in tropical heat.

The same is true for spinach, celery,

and snow peas, Wing answers, crisp, cool vegetables

that his family grew and sold at their shop in Los Angeles,

town of angels, territory

of death.”

Havana Revamp of Monument. Courtesy of New China TV.

Monument for Chinese Soldiers in Havana, Cuba

It was on April 12, 1946, when Chinese minister Li Dijun and Cuban president Ramón Grau San Martín unveiled the monument dedicated to the Chinese soldiers that participated in the wars for independence from Spain between 1868 and 1898. The monument is a black granite column with an inscription, in both Spanish and Chinese, of the famous words Cuban statesman Gonzalo de Quesada said in 1892: “There was not a single Chinese Cuban deserter; there was not a single Chinese Cuban traitor.” Those living in Cuba still take good care of this monument as it was recently revamped in 2019 shown in the video above.

Restaurant La Única Caridad: Comidas China y Criolla in New York City courtesy of Beth Goffe.

Chinese Cuban Restaurants

Food is one of the most important cultural markers that show and celebrate the existence of an Asian Latinx identity. With every dish created, there is a history behind it. This can be seen in restaurants like La Caridad 78, a Chinese Cuban restaurant in New York City. Everything about this restaurant shows the history, identity, and culture of Chinese Cubans. The menus are in Spanish, English, and Chinese, most of the waiters are Asian Latinos, and the food is not a fusion of both cultures but a coexistence of traditional Chinese and Cuban dishes. The owners and most of the waiters are happy to talk about their family and migration history, detailing their families' journey from China to Latin America, to New York. The amount of history within these restaurants goes even further back than the employees’ migration history, which gives an opportunity to learn more about the coolie trade. Overall, the very existence of Caridad 78 offers visibility to Chinese Cubans and Asian Latinos as a whole and challenges notions of what it means to be Latinx or Chinese. Caridad 78 and other restaurants like it give a brief but insightful and meaningful look into the history and culture of Chinese Cubans.


ChinaViewTV. “Havana Revamps Cuban-Chinese Soldiers’ Monument.” YouTube. YouTube, December 23, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-4IhKlBxLA.

“Feature: Havana Revamps Cuban-Chinese Soldiers’ Monument.” Xinhua. Accessed May 8, 2021. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-12/23/c_138651632.htm.

Fujita Rony, Dorothy. “Coalitions, Race, and Labor: Rereading Philip Vera Cruz.” Journal of Asian American Studies 3, no. 2 (2000): 139–162. doi:10.1353/jaas.2000.0015.

Guevarra, Rudy P. Becoming Mexipino: Multiethnic Identities and Communities in San Diego. Rutgers University Press, 2012.

“Havana’s Chinatown Bounces Back to Life.” www.efe.com, August 27, 2019. https://www.efe.com/efe/english/destacada/havana-s-chinatown-bounces-back-to-life/50000261-4051075.

Lim, Julian. “Chinos and Paisanos: Chinese Mexican Relations in the Borderlands.” Pacific Historical Review 79, no. 1 (2010): 50–85. Accessed May 8, 2021. doi:10.1525/phr.2010.79.1.50.

Lion Island Cuba’s Warrior of Words. Turtleback Books, 2017.

López Kathleen. Chinese Cubans: a Transnational History. Chapell Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

“O Que Fazer No Bairro Da Liberdade? O Japão Bem No Centro De SP!” Transportal, January 30, 2020. https://www.transportal.com.br/noticias/rodoviaria-tiete/o-que-fazer-no-bairro-da-liberdade-sp/.

Ocampo, Anthony Christian. The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race. Stanford University Press, 2016.

Scharlin, Craig, Villanueva, Lilia, and Kim, Elaine H.. Philip Vera Cruz : A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. Accessed May 8, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Siu, Lok. “Chino Latino Restaurants: Converging Communities, Identities, and Cultures.” Afro-Hispanic Review 27, no. 1 (2008): 161–71. Accessed May 8, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23055229.

Tsuda, Takeyuki. Strangers in the Ethnic Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Return Migration in Transnational Perspective. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Uma Krishnaswami. “Antonio Chuffat.” Uma Krishnaswami, November 8, 2016. https://umakrishnaswami.org/tag/antonio-chuffat/.



Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.