Genny ChansGenny Chans is ¾ Korean, ¼ Yucatecan. Her two grandfathers came to Yucatán in 1905 as young boys; her paternal grandfather married a Yucatecan woman, but her maternal grandfather, who was a member of the Korean nobility, married a Korean woman who had been born in Yucatán.

Today Genny is the host of the museum dedicated to the Korean immigration: el Museo Conmemorativo de la Inmigración Coreana. She loves to explain the history of her ancestors to visitors, and she knows the names of almost every person in the gallery of photographs which adorns the walls, as well as their histories. Many people do not know about the role the Koreans played in Yucatecan history, and this is the place to learn about it.

After the bloody Caste War, which killed many Mayas, there was a shortage of labor for the henequen plantations. An ad was placed in newspapers in Seoul…promising a better life, with agricultural labor harvesting “lettuce”, as well as free food and housing. In May, 1905, 1014 Koreans arrived in Yucatán. They were taken to various henequen haciendas throughout the city of Mérida and the state of Yucatán, where they soon learned that “lettuce” was spiny henequen; each person was expected to cut 3000 “leaves” per 12-hour day; and most of the hacienda owners were harsh, if not cruel.

The Koreans had three major problems to overcome: they did not speak or understand Spanish; the unfamiliar Yucatecan climate, made worse by the fact that they arrived in May, the hottest month of the year; and the rejection which they experienced by the Yucatecan people. This rejection was partly due to a huge misunderstanding: the hard-working Koreans did not eat very much, partly to make their work easier: it was more difficult to cut the henequen if they were overweight. With their broken Spanish, they were often heard to say “yo como chiquito” meaning “I eat very little”, rather than the correct “yo como poquito”. In Yucatán, we use the word “chiquito” to refer to little children, and therefore, people thought they were saying that they ate children!!! They were believed to be cannibals because of this, and, unbelievably, they could not shake this misunderstanding for many years.

After their four-year “contract” was up, many Koreans left Yucatán and moved to Mexico City, Cuba, Quintana Roo, or Tijuana. Those who stayed married either Yucatecans or fellow Koreans, and once they were free of the hacienda owners, if they were lucky enough to get immigration documents from the Mexican government, they began to open businesses such as vegetable stores, grocery stores, etc. Today they are integrated into Yucatecan society, but have formed several Korean associations to maintain their cultural heritage and remember their history. Only one of the original immigrants from 1905 returened to Korea.

Genny Chans is proud of her heritage, and one of the most rewarding aspects of her role at the museum is to help visiting Koreans from other parts of Mexico discover their own Yucatecan roots. And she is always on the lookout for a younger Korean person to take up the story and keep it alive for future generations.

Museo Conmemorativo de la Inmigración Coreana, Calle 65 No. 397-A x 44 y 46, Centro. Open: Tuesday-Friday 10 am – 1 pm, 2 pm – 5 pm. Saturday 10 am – 1 pm.

Video about the Korean immigration:

Yo Soy Coreana: Migration and Immigrant History in Mexico (video by AJ Kim)


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