The Hybridization of Ethnic Studies

Article excerpt

The intersection of Asian and Latin American studies has produced a burgeoning new field in transnational studies.

Dr. Jerry García was so taken aback when he first heard of Japanese Mexicans that his curiosity about them never faded during his military service or subsequent college career. For his dissertation, he wanted to write about Mexican immigration but didn't find an aspect that hadn't already been done, in some cases multiple times.

Ultimately, he explored Japanese migration to Mexico and subsequent assimilation. The decision added a unique dimension to his ongoing research in Mexican American labor history.

"The struggles of the Japanese in Mexico have some parallels with Chicanos in the United States," says García, now an assistant professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at Michigan State University.

García is among a growing number of U.S. scholars whose expertise and writings shine a spotlight on the connections between Asian and Hispanic populations and cultures.

"So much of the focus in popular culture and the media is on strife, but there are a great deal of interrelations between Asians and Hispanics," says Dr. Jinah Kim, a Northwestern University lecturer and assistant director of its Asian American Studies program. Among other things, she examines the differential racialization of Hispanic and Asian immigrants through multiculturalism and romanticized representations of the AsiaPacific region.

Of course, the notion of Asians living and thriving among U.S. Hispanics as well as the Asian diaspora in the Caribbean, Mexico and South America is by no means unfathomable. Nor is it new. Take world politics, for example. Peru elected Alberto Fujimori its president in 1990, an office he held for 10 years. Fujimori's parents had emigrated from Japan before World War II.

Only about 20 years ago did U.S. scholars begin taking a closer look at the stories of how and why people left the Far East for countries such as Brazil, Cuba and Peru, says Dr. Evelyn Hu-DeHart, a Brown University professor of history and ethnic studies who is considered a pioneer in the study of Asian-Hispanic intersections. She is also director of Brown's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

The Asian Diaspora in Latin America

Hu-DeHart's path to researching Asian diaspora in Latin America was an accidental one. As a Stanford University undergraduate studying political science in the 1960s, she spent one summer in an exchange program traveling throughout Brazil, where she was shocked to come across Japanese Brazilians. What she would learn was that thousands of Japanese migrated to Brazil many decades earlier to work on coffee plantations, unable to gain work in their homeland. Many staved after plantation contracts ended, often buying enough land to farm themselves. Their descendants typically moved to bigger cities, integrating into urban life.

"We ran all over the country," Hu-DeHart says, referring to her summer in Brazil. "My life hasn't been the same since."

Those travels sparked a lifelong interest in Latin America and spurred her to seek a doctorate in history. After earning it in 1976, she established herself professionally through researching the Yaqui Indians of Mexico and Arizona and publishing two books about them. She taught Latin American history at various public and private universities and, after gaining tenure, began delving more deeply into transnational Asian communities. Tens of thousands of Chinese, for example, left their overpopulated homeland for other countries in the 1800s to labor in mines and fields and to build dams and railroads in order to send money back to their villages. In some cases, they started restaurants and businesses that catered to workers in construction, mining and agriculture.

Hu-DeHart has written extensively on Chinese settlements in Cuba, Mexico and Peru, and her course on the Mexican Revolution is her favorite to teach because her research on Chinese Mexicans is situated within the decade-long revolution that lasted until the early 1920s. …