Mi Casa Es Su Casa: Little Seoul in CDMX | English Columnist Sooji Yang
Nestled in La Zona Rosa among popular LGBTQ bars and clubs, is Pequeno Seul (Little Seoul). With a population of 9,000, the diaspora Korean community has found home in Mexico City (Meade 2017). Mexico City is a diverse place, painted with dynamic hues and shades of people and cultures from all over the world. Interestingly enough, Koreans have been adding to this mosaic with their own colors.
However, Korean migration to Mexico did not have such a colorful and beautiful beginning. The late 19th-century to early 20th-century in Korea was marked by “a succession of civil and international conflicts on their soil, increasing Japanese influence on the peninsula, years of droughts followed by years of floods and consequent food crises, outbreaks of epidemic disease such as cholera, monetary instability and economic inflation, repressive tax burden and constant acts of corruption and crime” (Park 2006). These conditions at home forced many Koreans of little means to find another home abroad.
Concurrently, the expanding henequen industry in Yucatán, Mexico necessitated more laborers. The prickly cash crop hand-picked under the hot sun led to a high turnover rate of local, indigenous workers, which prompted Mexico to seek cheap labor elsewhere. As a result, Mexico enlisted British recruiter John G. Meyers of the Continental Colonization Company, LTD to ship Koreans to Yucatán. Allured by the promise of favorable working conditions and wages in the touted “paradise on earth,” 1033 Koreans agreed to a four-year contract with the henequen plantations in the hopes of returning to their motherland with greater financial assets (Patterson 1993).
However prior to their departure in 1905, rumors of slavery in Mexico propelled the Minister of Foreign Office Yi Ha-yong to halt the ship from setting sail (Park 2006). Disregarding Yi’s effort, the British ship departed from Incheon with the 1033 Koreans who had no idea of what awaited them on the shores of Yucatán.
The rumors appeared to be true. Among multiple sources detailing the slavehood the Koreans found themselves in, a Korean ginseng merchant passing through the region reported the long, arduous hours the Koreans worked under the burning sun and the inhumane treatment they received to the point of expressing envy towards the pet dogs of the plantation owners (Patterson 1993). The dark news of the poor conditions reached the Korean government, who demanded to recall the immigrants to no avail (Patterson 1993). Four years passed and the weathered Koreans, who had no money to return to Korea, migrated throughout Mexico and Latin America in search for a new home yet again (Park 2006).
Mexico City was one such destination. The small group of first generation Korean immigrants were later joined by an influx of Koreans during the Asian financial crisis of 1997 (Kim 2006). Many of these immigrants seeked Mexico for greater financial prospects and opportunities for economic growth. Slowly but surely, Korean restaurants, churches, and salons among other services began to appear on CDMX’s landscape. For these immigrants, there was an importance in retaining their cultural identity. A Korean language school as well as a Korean cultural center served as community hubs for these immigrants (Kim 2006).
A survey of 160 Korean residents in CDMX revealed that a vast majority retain cultural characteristics of Korean identity (Kim 2006). In terms of adaptation, Fig. 1 indicates that less than 10% of the surveyed residents knew Mexican history and culture and only 20% could understand and speak Spanish at an advanced level. In addition, Fig. 2 suggests a strong Korean national identity that remains steadfast in the community. Approximately 80% of the respondents would cheer Korea in a soccer match between the two countries and an overwhelming 91.5% primarily speak Korean with family members as opposed to Spanish. The results of this study exhibits the budding experiences of newer immigrants in a foreign country.
Fig. 2 (Kim 2006)
Though Korea has a history of immigration to Mexico dating back to 1905, there is a considerable difference between the status and experiences of the past immigrants and the present immigrants. Descendants of the original 1033 have more or less assimilated and integrated into Mexican culture and society, for some changing their surnames into Latin sounding ones such as from ‘Kim’ to ‘Kin’ (Sullis-Gear 2017). Many of them also claim more association with Mexican identity as opposed to a Korean one, casting a gray shadow over the supposed dichotomy of Korean and Mexican identity (Sullis-Gear 2017).
This represents a stark difference between the descendants of the first wave of immigrants and the recent wave of immigrants. Perhaps as a survival tactic, descendants of the oppressed immigrants were forced to forego their Korean identity in order to evade possible persecution and discrimination. Almost 100 years of this has produced a community in Mexico’s social and cultural landscape that has no easy label. The new immigrants in CDMX, especially the younger generations, may also face varying degrees of hardships of being immigrants in a foreign country, which translates to how they interact with their identities. On a positive note, these immigrants are presented with a growing interest in Mexico of Korean culture due to the Hallyu wave. Reportedly, there are over 70 K-pop fan clubs with 60,000 members throughout Mexico (Cave 2013). Perhaps, outside appreciation for a small part of Korean culture may disregard the need to forego their Korean identity entirely.
The future of inter-Korean-Mexican relations as well as the global implications of the growing Korean community presents exciting possibilities of entirely new colors of identities and cultures. Past and present Korean immigrants in Mexico extend the boundaries of both Korean and Mexican identity, challenging the exclusivity of human identity and experiences. Nonetheless, history has shown that the old and new have mixed and fused their own colors to the Mexican mosaic.
Cave, Damien. 2013. For Migrants, New Land of Opportunity is Mexico. The New York Times.
Contreras, Cintya. 2011. Ocho mil coreanos radican en el Distrito Federal. Excelsior.
Kim, Hyung-Joo. 2006. La Experiencia Migratoria de la Nueva Comunidad Coreana en Mexico. Ibero-America, 8(2).
Meade, Julie Doherty. 2017. Seoul of the City. Roads & Kingdoms.
Park, Hea-Jin. 2006. Dijeron que iba a levantar el dinero con la pala: a brief account of early Korean emigration to Mexico. Revista HMiC, 4.
Patterson, Wayne. 1993. The Early Years of Korean Immigration to Mexico: A View from
Japanese and Korean Sources. Seoul Journal of Korean Studies, 6: 87-103.
Sullis-Gear, Elizabeth. 2017. The forgotten history of the Koreans of Mexico and Cuba. Featureshoot.