Yucatán, similar to many other parts of México, has received people from many countries, creating a rich melting pot in which immigrants have maintained customs, adopted new traditions, and generated a cultural and generational exchange. One example of this is the Korean immigration to Yucatecan lands.
Imagine the port of Progreso in 1905, when the freighter “Ilford” arrived on May 15 with 1,00 Koreans on board. Some were members in service to the king; there were also women and 200 orphans. They first landed in the port of Salina Cruz in Oaxaca, after coming from the other side of the world: Chemulpo, Korea.
Under the promise of having safe, well paid work on the “lettuce” haciendas, and the possibility of later traveling to the United States, entire families enlisted. They were escaping from the Japanese invasion, and here the Caste War had eliminated the labor supply right in the middle of the peak of the production of “oro verde” (green gold; henequén).
They were located between 25 haciendas and soon they realized how they had been tricked; nothing was as it had been promised. The “lettuce” turned out to be henequén, which badly hurt their hands; they were paid with coins that were only valid at the hacienda where they worked; two to three families slept on the floor together in one small house, because they did not know about the use of hammocks. They ate corn and habanero chile, a world away from their customary diet of fish and rice.
Many misfortunes and years of forced labor passed. However, they maintained unity and solidarity among themselves, overcoming adversities and learning to speak Maya before Spanish; working in their known trades of ironwork, carpentry, commerce, and fishing. A great number of the Koreans remained in the country and began new families, marrying Mayas in Yucatán or moving to places such as Tijuana and Quintana Roo. Some looked for new adventures in Cuba and others eventually migrated to the US.
Those who stayed in Yucatán acquired a property in Mérida (Calle 65 #397 at 44, Centro) that today houses the Museo Conmemorativo de la Inmigración Coreana (commemorative museum of Korean immigration). Under the hand of its host Genny Chans, third generation Korean, through a variety of documents, photographs, and other objects, you can hear the stories of a culture that fought against adversity. Her pride in her roots is contagious.
Plaques with the names of the original migrants, photos of the haciendas, and many stories of bravery and effort are on display here. Open Tuesday – Friday 10 am – 1 pm and 2 pm – 5 pm, and Saturday – Sunday 10 am – 1 pm. Come learn about this legendary culture that has become a part of Yucatán.
Every last Sunday of the month, from 11 am – 1 pm, you can attend the event “Cuéntame un cuento Jalmuni” (tell me a story, Grandmother), as well as a tasting of Korean food, free for the whole family.
Editorial by Violeta H. Cantarell
Yo Soy Coreana: Migration and Immigrant History in Mexico: Video by AJ Kim
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