LOS ANGELES — More immigrants live in the western state of California than anywhere else in the United States. Among the largest immigrant groups -- either legal or without legal documents -- are Mexicans and Chinese. These two ethnic groups may come from different places, but they share many similarities.
People often find 21-year-old Jonathan Wong a mystery. “They go are you filipino? Are you Mexican? Are you Pacific Islander? Are you Hawaiian?” he recalled.
Wong is actually a fourth-generation Chinese and third-generation Mexican American. He finds there is one thing both cultures deeply value. “The connection you have with your family in general. Both of them are very family oriented,” he noted.
Like many immigrants, Wong’s Mexican and Chinese ancestors came to the U.S. for a better life, said Shelley Fisher Fishkin of Stanford University. “The Chinese who came to the U.S. in the middle of the 19th century and then Mexicans who came at the end of the 19th century or early 20th century were lured by the possibility of creating opportunities for their families that were not possible in their home countries,” she said.
These new immigrants often faced discrimination and worked as laborers, either as modern-day Mexican migrant workers or as Chinese railroad workers in the 19th century.
In an art exhibit that looks at the two immigrant experiences, one piece has railroad tracks buried under a giant mound of fortune cookies. Created by artist Hung Liu, the image depicts the early Chinese immigrants who came to dig for gold or labor on the railroads.
“The very reason the Chinese first came here is to escape from the economic despair in China,” Hung Liu stated.
Steven Wong, the curator of the Chinese American Museum, said immigrants from both countries still come at any cost.
“I think not a lot of people realize that there still is a lot of unskilled labor coming in from both communities and not a lot of people know, too, when it comes to immigration and immigration reform usually people associate that with “Oh, that’s a Latino issue.” But that’s also a big Asian issue of undocumented immigrants coming in also -- specifically Chinese.” said Wong.
Often, both groups also live in ethnic enclaves.
Artist Tony de los Reyes experienced this while growing up in Los Angeles. “The border of Mexico now extends in certain small areas within Los Angeles even though the physical border may be 120 miles [200 kilometers] south,” he explained.
Mostly-Mexican East Los Angeles is one such area. Neighboring it is Monterey Park, a predominantly Chinese suburb. While these immigrant groups may live near each other, de los Reyes said the two do not often mix. “You’re going to have this push and pull between not wanting to be in a place because the culture is different and then also being attracted to it,” he said.
But Jonathan Wong said the boundaries are blurring. That’s why he’s not surprised his parents married. “Look how much blending there is. It’s not even weird at all like how they would have met and how they could have come across each other and hit it off,” he stated.
He expects more blending of the two cultures in other parts of the United States, as immigrants and their descendants continue to seek the American dream.