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The Chinese in Mexicali

Plaza de la Amistad (Friendship Plaza) pagodas

Plaza de la Amistad (Friendship Plaza) pagodas

Mexicali is the capital of the State of Baja California and 2nd largest city in Baja California after Tijuana.

Mexicali was officially founded on 14th March 1903 and is situated on the U.S.-Mexico border adjacent to its much smaller sister city of Calexico, California.

Mexicali’s extended population is close to one million, while Calexico’s population is less than 40,000. Mexicali has the distinction of being the northernmost city in Latin America.

When you cross the border from Calexico, you see two large pagodas. This is because Mexicali started out as a small town populated mainly by Chinese laborers.

The first Chinese to arrive in the Mexicali area came as laborers hired by the Colorado River Land Company to build the massive irrigation system in the Valle de Mexicali around the turn of the 20th century. This irrigation system still exists, supplying Colorado River water to the cotton and vegetable growers on the outskirts of Mexicali and well beyond.

The Chinese were also brought in to help with railroad construction during the same period. The railroad is still active and cuts through the center of Mexicali, crossing the border into Calexico.

Rail tracks on Avenida Lopez Mateos leading north to the border crossing

Rail tracks on Avenida Lopez Mateos leading north to the border crossing

The tracks are right next to the border crossing area for cars and pedestrians and are in plain view. At night, from our house, we can hear the train as it whistles its way across the border.

Many of the Chinese who came to work in Mexicali stayed on. The congregated in an area of Mexicali now called Chinesca or Chinatown.

Chinesca became the main site of Mexicali’s casinos and bars. There was even an underground tunnel network to Calexico—not for drugs, but for bootleggers to smuggle liquor into the states, and to provide access from the U.S. to Mexicali’s bordellos and opium dens.

By the 1920s Mexicali’s Chinese outnumbered the Mexicans by roughly 10,000 to 700 and the Chinese became a power to contend with. The Chinese started the China Association, devoted to bringing in Chinese wives for the men as women were not allowed in as laborers—or as wives. The China Association is still functions today.

Now, of course, due primarily to its industrial growth, Mexicali is populated mainly by Mexicans.

Still, Mexicali has more Chinese restaurants per capita than any other city in Mexico.

There are well over a hundred Chinese restaurants in Mexicali and Cantonese cooking dominates, as most all of the Chinese immigrants were and are Cantonese. If you happen to speak Cantonese, you will find plenty of people who understand you—at least in Mexicali’s Chinese restaurants.

Jim, Matthew and I just love egg rolls. We really do. However, we could not find them anywhere on the menu. Finally, at the Beijing Restaurant, Matthew drew a picture of an egg roll. “Oh,” said the Chinese waiter (in perfect Spanish), “you mean chung cun!”

An egg roll by any other name would taste as good.

(Sorry Shakespeare!)

4 comments to The Chinese in Mexicali

  • I really enjoyed your blog, and thanks for linking to me in your very interesting article. I love those Google photos and may try that.
    God Bless,
    MaryAnn

  • […] her blog MaryAnn mentions that many of the restaurant owners speak Chinese. I took Chinese as a teenager and I’ve lived in […]

  • You might drop into Sinapsis Cafe on Av. Republica de Argentina 298–you will be on the street when you cross the border, only that it will be called Madero, but will change to Argentina. They open at 4:00pm. It’s a nice place, and English is spoken! There is the cathedral which is close to the border, and plenty of good Chinese restaurants.
    God Bless,
    MaryAnn

  • Greetings Mexicali MaryAnn!

    I’m from Vancouver, British Columbia and will be in southern California next week. I’ve never been to Mexico and have always wanted to go so I’ve nagged my host into taking me down for a visit to Mexicali! w00t!

    He’s asked me to provide an itinerary and was wondering if you’d be so kind as to give this clueless Canadian a few tips on things to do in Mexicali if I’ve only got a day or two keeping in mind that I love historical stuff. I’m definitely gonna check out this Chinatown… Being from Vancouver I can string together a few lines in Cantonese when need be!

    Keep up the great blogging!

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