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A century on, Korean-Mexicans trace roots

MERIDA, Mexico (Yonhap News) ― With colorful fans in their hands, a group of five young girls moved with quick, light steps, forming a circle and flapping the fans up and down. Their movements were meant to evoke ocean waves typical in the Korean fan dance, but they looked a bit awkward.

“Uno, dos, tres y cuatro,” their teacher, Mana Eugenia Olsen Agular, shouted, counting their steps in Spanish to lead their rhythm.

She suddenly interrupted her lesson, shaking her head in a show of discontent, and exclaimed, “No, no!” The dancers giggled.

The Mexican girls were practicing “buchaechum,” the traditional Korean fan dance, for a weekend amateur show at the Theater Armando Manzanero in Merida, Yucatan state, in southern Mexico.

They had never seen or heard of buchaechum, but they joined the private Merida Korean Language School, drawn in part by Korean dramas and K-pop. Olsen, a fourth-generation Korean-Mexican, had only learned the dance herself through video.

“I watched Korean dance on video over and over and practiced,” said Olsen, a primary school teacher who works as a volunteer at the Korean language school. “We have a long way to go.”
Mana Eugenia Olsen Agular (right) helps young Mexican women practice a Korean fan dance at the Merida Korean Language School. (Yonhap News)
Mana Eugenia Olsen Agular (right) helps young Mexican women practice a Korean fan dance at the Merida Korean Language School. (Yonhap News)

Olsen, 34, is one of hundreds of young Mexicans of Korean descent striving to rediscover their cultural roots. They now feel proud of their ancestral homeland that has risen from rags to riches.

“Our grandfathers suffered very much because they didn’t speak Spanish. So our fathers told their children, ‘Forget Korean, learn Spanish,’” Genny Chans Song, 61, a retired accountant and now director of the Memorial Museum of Korean Immigration in Merida, said. “But I decided to take care of this museum after I retired. I love my roots.”

The roots of Korean-Mexicans, as traced at the museum in black-and-white photos, official letters and other artifacts, are reminiscent of Korea’s extreme poverty and tumultuous diplomatic circumstances at the outset of the 20th century.

Chans’ paternal grandfather, Chang, and maternal grandfather, Song, who were orphaned at 15 and 12, respectively, set sail for Mexico on a British cargo ship from the western Korean port of Incheon on April 14, 1905.

The ship carried 1,033 Koreans, mostly teenage boys and young men, who had registered themselves with a British-Mexican recruiter, John Meyers, on a promise that they would be fed and receive a new house if they came to work in Mexico. After his recruitment attempt in China failed, Meyers had turned to Korea.

Two died on the Pacific journey, and many others who fell sick were left behind after the ship arrived in Mexico 27 days later. A total of 1,014 people made it to Merida and were sold to henequen farms.

Henequen, a cactus plant indigenous to the Yucatan, was called “green gold” at that time. Its raw fibers were dried, shredded and woven together as ropes, hammocks, hats and bags. They were in high demand, their resilience especially favored by U.S. farmers who needed tough ropes to hold their produce. Henequen made vast fortunes for Spanish proprietors in the Yucatan.

The farm owners faced an increasing labor shortage after the so-called “Guerra de Castas,” or Caste War, in the Yucatan from 1847 to 1901, during which poor, indigenous Mayans rebelled against the Spanish, leaving many dead. The Koreans were brought in to help fill the vacuum.

The scorching sun and humidity of the Yucatan made the newcomers’ lives difficult. Many fell sick and grew weak from working all day in harsh conditions, but they could not find proper help.

The Korean immigrants also had their names changed unwillingly.

At the Yucatan registration office, the Korean surname Choe switched to Sanches, Ko into Conora, Kim into Kin or King, Yang into Llanes, Park into Pa or Pan and Chang into Chans.

“The Korean people didn’t speak Spanish, and the Mexican people didn’t speak Korean. So the Mexicans would ask, ‘What is your name?’ and they’d put anything that sounded close,” said Chans, the retired accountant, who still retains such Korean features as light skin and a moon-shaped face.

Some ran away. Chans’ paternal grandfather, Chang, was one of a dozen boys who escaped from their henequen farms and crossed the border to join rebels in Guatemala.

After nine years in Guatemala, Chans said her grandfather returned to Mexico and found a job with a U.S. archaeologist working on the restoration of Chichen Itza, a vast pyramid site built by the Mayan civilization in the Yucatan. He married a Mayan woman.

The Koreans’ contracts with Meyers were to last four years, but they had no country of their own to return to. Their homeland became a Japanese colony in 1910 and officially no longer existed.

Stranded in a foreign land, some of the Koreans improved their lot, opening grocery stores and moving into bigger towns. Many wanted to move to the U.S. but were denied entry. Some moved into Cuba. Those who stayed in Merida organized the Korean National Association to help finance their country’s independence movement against the Japanese colonial occupation. During the 1950-53 Korean War, they sent cash to help orphans.

The association’s building, which opened in 1934, served as the headquarters for the independence movement and a venue for important social events like weddings and funerals. After the centenary celebrations in 2005 of the Korean diaspora, the building was renovated and reopened as museum.

Among the artifacts at the museum, one dated photo stands out for its emotional resonance. Titled “Group of Korean Workers at the Farm,” the photo shows about 30 men, some only in their mid-teens, posing on the staircase of an unnamed henequen farm. Some squint under the sun, their skin so severely tanned that they could almost pass for Africans. Their white clothes look worn out, their bare feet tied to shabby shoes that are little than a few strips of fabric.

A former Mexican worker grimaced as he recalled his early years at a henequen farm south of Merida.

“It was bad,” said the Mexican of Mayan descent, who identified himself only as Pedro, shaking his head. Pedro said he had worked with other Mayans, Cubans and Koreans at the Yaxcopoil Farm for 23 years until it was closed in 1984 with the advent of synthetic fibers. He now serves as a tour guide at the farm, which has been preserved as a museum.

“As we carried bundles of henequen leaves on our shoulders and backs, their thorns scratched us. We worked from early in the morning till late afternoon, every day except Sundays,” he said.

A century after the migration, the painful history now takes a backseat. Many Korean-Mexicans trace their roots to their Asian homeland, whose dramas, music and movies have made inroads as far as South America.

Now the Korean government runs a scholarship program under which young Korean-Mexicans are invited to learn the Korean language and culture.
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