Chinese immigrants, mostly from present-day Guangzhou, first arrived in Mexicali around 1900, contracted by the Mexican government to build the railroad on both sides of the border, according to Víctor Martínez, a researcher who studies Mexicali history. Governments in the Americas prioritized immigrant labor because they made for a more easily exploitable workforce.
"During the 1920s and 1930s, there were more Chinese people than Mexicans in Mexicali, almost all of them men between the ages of 15 and 30. "
Around the same time, in the early 1900s, the Colorado River Land Company began developing the fertile land around the nearby Colorado River for agricultural use. Mexican labor was deemed too expensive, so they exploited the labor of Chinese immigrants to build the irrigation system and canal. The Colorado River Land Company then hired the workers as farmhands, with some Chinese men becoming landholders themselves. Anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States (1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act was made permanent in 1902 with the adoption of the Geary Act) and elsewhere in Mexico cemented Mexicali as a somewhat of a haven for the Chinese, despite periods of relative persecution and harassment.
During the 1920s and 1930s, there were more Chinese people than Mexicans in Mexicali, almost all of them men between the ages of 15 and 30. Today, there are around 5,000 people of Chinese descent living in Mexicali.
Initially, Chinese life in Mexicali was centered in its oldest neighborhood, called La Chinesca, where a bevy of Chinese cultural associations, historic buildings, restaurants, temples and more are still operating today. It’s where I happened upon the Chinese welcome sign, in the Hotel Chinesca. The architecture in La Chinesca had been built to model buildings in the United States, whose construction often included basements, Gutiérrez said.
“We are so cut off from the rest of Mexico here that our truest influence comes from the United States,” he told me. “Basements were an American thing that we copied.”