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How Chinese Immigrants Found Their Place in Puerto Rico

By the 1890s, many Chinese immigrants had made their homes in Puerto Rico.

How Chinese Immigrants Found Their Place in Puerto Rico
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

The 2020 Southern Political Science Association Conference was held earlier this month in San Juan, Puerto Rico. One does not go to Puerto Rico expecting to explore the contours of Chinese migration to the Americas, but evidence of those contours nevertheless mark the economic and social history of the island.

As with much of the rest of the Americas, Chinese immigration in the latter half of the 19th century had an impact in the Caribbean. Chinese migration to the Americas came in response to the various economic and political crises that afflicted the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, particularly the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. Some 300,000 Chinese emigrated to the United States, with hundreds of thousands of others finding their way to other parts of the Americas. Historian Jose Lee Borges has extensively studied and written about Chinese immigration into Puerto Rico, a nation whose idiosyncratic history necessarily resulted in a unique experience for immigrants from China.

Spain enabled migration to the Caribbean in an effort to revitalize the economies in the region, as well as to maintain social and political control. Policies designed to attract migrants from Europe were taken advantage of by Chinese immigrants (often as a result of what we now call human trafficking) to effect significant population transfers, especially in Cuba. Borges also connects the advent of Chinese immigration with the wave of abolitionist sentiment in the West in the latter half of the 19th century.

Although formal slavery did not end in the United States until 1865 and in Cuba until 1886, British efforts to crack down on the slave trade made the labor situation untenable from the point of landlords. In the Caribbean especially, where slaves suffered particularly high levels of mortality, this led to labor shortages that local authorities (with middling support from Spain) attempted to resolve by importing Chinese workers. The plight of these workers was barely better than the remaining slaves they worked alongside, as pay, contracts, and working conditions were almost universally terrible.

Indeed, Chinese workers were not, at first, readily accepted by the Puerto Rican elite. Initial efforts at transporting Chinese workers to the island saw little success, with some groups arriving only to leave shortly thereafter for Cuba. The government and landowner class in Puerto Rico had less available capital to bring in new workers, and in any case attitudes were mixed; some argued that the benefits of enlightened Spanish rule and the Catholic Church would bring civilization to the Chinese, while others contended that Chinese were fundamentally unsuited by climate, religion, and temperament from thriving in the Caribbean. Moreover, a general uneasiness with slavery pervaded the island, complicating feelings about the migration of Chinese labor.

In any case, the first efforts to bring Chinese laborers to the island failed. Indeed, Borges argues that most of the Chinese who ended up in Puerto Rico had initially resided in Cuba, and only moved to Puerto Rico after a series of uprisings, labor disputes, and incarcerations. When they arrived, Chinese migrants worked extensively on infrastructure projects, including the Central Highway (critical to linking the different parts of the island), the Lighthouse of Culebrita, and extensive public works in Ponce, Arecibo, Catano, and Rio Piedras. Many of the workers, initially having been brought to Puerto Rico after being convicted of crimes in Cuba, remained after their sentences end and established farms and businesses.

As was the case in the United States and elsewhere, Chinese practices fit uneasily into Puerto Rican culture. In at least one case, children followed around a robe-wearing Chinese immigrant believing that he was a Catholic bishop. The Puerto Rican press periodically reacted with a combination of curiosity and alarm; on September 17, 1890, The Magazine of Puerto Rico related a variety of cultural irregularities about Chinese immigrants, including (deeply troubling in Puerto Rico) that the Chinese were among the only peoples in the world who did not dance. More alarmingly, other reports suggested that the Chinese were incapable of physical pain, that their children were without mischief, and that they were unaffected by loud noises.

Nevertheless, by the 1890s many Chinese immigrants had made their homes in Puerto Rico, and began to have an impact on the socio-cultural fabric of the island. In my next column, I explore the way that the American occupation of Puerto Rico after 1898 affected the balance established in the late 19th century.