BYLINE: Kalimah Knight

Newswise — When most people in the U.S. think about Asian immigrants coming to the Americas, they often picture immigrants from China coming in the 1800s. The story, though, is much more complicated—and interesting. 

As Diego Javier Luis, assistant professor of history, describes in his new book The First Asians in the Americas, the full story starts with Spanish galleon ships traveling back and forth from Acapulco in Mexico to Manila in the Philippines in the mid-1500s, trading silver from the Americas for silks and other trade goods from Asia.

But it wasn’t only goods. People from Asia, from as far afield as Gujarat in India to the Philippines, including some from China and Japan, came to colonial Mexico, many of them enslaved, some free. They were the first Asians in the Americas, and slowly fanned out across the continents. 

He delved deep into archives held in Spain, Mexico, the Philippines, and the U.S. to find the stories of those individuals and groups. He had learned Mandarin while working in Xian, China, for a few years after college, and learned Spanish as an adult—languages that came in handy for his research. 

For Luis, who grew up in Nashville, the story was in some ways personal, too. His paternal grandfather was Chinese, and he has Afro-Cuban as well as Ashkenazi Jewish roots.

Below is a Q&A with Luis to learn more about his personal connection to his research, and how as a historian he found sources on people who are usually hidden in the archives. 

My Chinese grandfather came to Cuba directly during the early 20th century. We don’t know exactly when, perhaps in the 1920s or 1930s. We also know that his grandfather had already been coming and going to and from Cuba. There’s a long history of the Chinese in Cuba during the period of indenture, starting when the transatlantic slave trade was ending in the 1800s.

There was a massive convergence of people coming to the Caribbean and South America to work. In Cuba, they’d work alongside enslaved and recently liberated Afro-Caribbean people. From 1847 to 1874, 120,000 Chinese were brought to Cuba as indentured laborers, and we think the grandfather of my grandfather was likely one of them.

Where did your paternal grandmother come from? 

She is the daughter of a man who fought during the wars of independence against Spain—a socially mobile Black man named Ventura Santos Santos, who moved to Havana from a small town called Caibarién. My grandparents met in Havana, and then my Chinese grandfather convinced my grandmother to come with him to New York City, to the Lower East Side near Canal Street in Chinatown. He had a laundromat there, and that’s where they had my dad and his brother.

It is very much a global story, and it is complicated because growing up in Nashville, I didn’t know what any of that meant. I only knew that I looked different from my other classmates, and they didn’t know how to categorize me, either. I was mostly just “Mexican” to the people in that environment. 

I later lived in China for a while, traveled to Cuba, and it took a while to really understand what it meant to be someone who has connections to those places, even if that connection is more ancestral than something that’s lived in my own life. 

And then there’s my mom’s side of the family, which is from Vermont and has roots in the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora by way of Lithuania. That’s a whole other thing to come to terms with.

How did you decide to focus your doctoral research, and this new book, on the first Asians in the Americas? 

Part of it was coming from this personal journey of not really knowing what it meant to have a family history that connected these places—to make some coherence out of something that’s very fragmented. I think a lot of mixed people discover that there is no way really to put everything into perfect harmony. You have to accept the fragmentation of it.

Another reason was to broaden how we think about Asians coming to North and South America, not just the U.S. I think for a very long time, the canon of Asian American history and studies was geographically focused mostly on the West Coast of the U.S. It’s very much an East Asian dominated story.

What’s remarkable about this early period is that the people who are showing up in colonial Mexico, free and enslaved, are from all over Asia, mostly people from the Philippines and the Bay of Bengal area and elsewhere in South Asia. There are also smaller concentrations from Japan, Korea, China, and other places in Southeast Asia. 

It is an extraordinarily diverse movement, and it gets us thinking about the geography of diaspora in different ways—they’re going to Mexico and dispersing outwards. Many end up in South America, some end up going up and down what’s now the U.S. West Coast, but it’s really not a U.S. story at all. 

It’s a Latin American story—we can’t understand what diasporic Asian American or Latino experiences in the U.S. are without thinking about Latin America. It’s all interconnected. I hope the book promotes this kind of hemispheric thinking and makes people think more broadly about the diversity of diaspora.

Did the research and writing of the book change or inform how you feel about your identity?

One of the major takeaways for me was that I’m not the only one who has felt out of place, out of time. I grew up in Nashville but was connected to these other sites and was being misread from an ethnic perspective and had to go through some kind of self-fashioning to be legible to other people. 

I was really interested to see how these folks, who were the first Asians in the 16th and 17th centuries to be living in a very different kind of society in the Americas, were dealing with similar kinds of questions. There was a sense of not aloneness. You see that you’re not the first one to be dealing with some of those issues of identity.

How did your family history play into your interest in the experience of the first Asians in the Americas?

On my dad’s side of the family, we come originally from China and from West Africa, and from the Canary Islands and Spain. There was a meeting of these three family strands in Cuba. 

It is complicated, because I don’t share any family history with the people that I study, but at the same time, I did feel a kind of personal connection to their stories. That helped me form this kind of connection that can also inform how I approach those histories in my scholarly work. 

History is what’s written down, and there is very little in the records about marginalized people—certainly in the 1500s and 1600s. How did you find sources for Asians coming in these very early days to Mexico for your book?

It takes rigorous archival work. If you read any of the canonical texts about the colonial period in Latin America, there’s going to be very, very little that speaks to this history. But we see people showing up in the legal record—they were getting married, baptized, applying for licenses. They show up in accounting records, criminal cases, inquisition cases. 

Let’s say for Acapulco, an important port town in this history, where many Asian people are entering the Americas, it meant flipping through every single page of the accounting records for this port for a 40- or 50-year span. And at least 95% of those records have nothing to do with the history of these people.

I did a manual word scan of the documents to pick up where these people show up. Some of it is learning the words that were used to refer to the people that I’m studying—that’s a whole process, too, because those categories are so variable and contingent.

It’s really searching for a needle in the haystack. But when you find these little nuggets of gold, it’s a celebration.

In the book, you include a 15-page appendix that lists all the crew members of a Spanish galleon that made the journey from Manila to Acapulco in 1751—and hundreds were Filipinos and other people from Asia. It’s an amazing amount of down-in-the-details work to make your point about Asians coming to Mexico so early. 

What makes those records difficult is that they were part of an 800- to 1,000-page document, and this is a small sliver of that. Other scholars have looked at some of these documents, but I haven’t seen that exact roster appear anywhere else. 

A lot of the work that’s been done on the Spanish galleon trade between Mexico and Manila is of an economic nature, using shipping records to show how globally connected the world’s economies were during the early modern period—China to Mexico, to Spain, to the Philippines. It is a remarkable story, but one of the repercussions has been losing sight of the people who were on those boats. My study is framed as trying to find the Asian people who were on those ships.


Book Link: The First Asians in the Americas