The Mexican Colonial Term "Chino" Is a Referent of Afrodescendant

By Cuevas, Marco Polo Hernandez | Journal of Pan African Studies, June 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Mexican Colonial Term "Chino" Is a Referent of Afrodescendant


Cuevas, Marco Polo Hernandez, Journal of Pan African Studies


"The descendants of negroes and Indian women bear at Mexico, Lima and even at the Havannah the strange name of chino [....]"

Alexander von Humboldt (1)

Apparently unaware of the existence of at least three Spanish language homonyms of "chino" with different significations, times and places of origin, there is a considerable research corpus inaccurately translating as "Chinese" the Mexican colonial name "chino," found in Mexican colonial documents from the late sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For the most part, those "chinos" are Afro-Mexican "chinoscambujos," cambujos, or zambujos. "Chino," in New Spain archival records, generally, is a referent to people of African heritage whose lineage was perceived by the Spanish and other Europeans as "tainted" by African blood. Therefore, they were labeled "chino," a synonym for "pig" in the Murcia region of Spain; or "chino-cochino" (dirty pig). Although the animal connotation of "chino" has disappeared, the "dirty" lineage implied by the term has survived until present; (2) curly hair in Mexico is "pelo chino." The general usage of the homonym "chino," meaning Chinese, emerged in nineteenth-century Manila, Philippines as a synonym of Sangley, the name given to Chinese merchants.

The distortion appears to have originated with Alexander von Humboldt during his visit to New Spain in 1800. Although von Humboldt understood the meaning of the term "chino" as applied in Mexico at the time, he failed to realize that he was dealing with homonyms of "chino" when he mentioned that it was "strange" to call Afrodescendants "Chinese." Nevertheless, von Humboldt reported that "chino" in Mexico referred to the offspring of Black men and "Indian women" [First Nations herein after] (184). John Black (1783-1855) translated von Humboldt's work Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain from French to English for the 1811 publication. While applying the term "Chinese" to Afrodescendants made no sense, John Black overlooked the translation problem.

John Black mistranslated "chino" as "Chinese male" and "china" as "Chinese female," which, in context, were referents of male and female African offspring and not Chinese people in the current sense. To avoid misinterpretations, John Black should have translated "china" as "china female" and not "Chinese female." Magnus Morner cites von Humboldt where he states, "The offspring of Indian and Negro were called chinos in both Mexico and Peru" (59 n.22). Von Humboldt was an observer in situ as he traveled in the American Spanish colonies from 1799 to 1804.

The Americana: A Universal Reference Library, in the section entitled "Mexico: History and Modern Development" reports in 1912,

In 1827 the British Minister to Mexico divided the population into seven classes: (1.) Old Spanish or Gachupines. (2.) Creoles or Mixed whites of pure European race, born in America and regarded as natives. (3.) Indians or indigenous copper colored races. (4) Mestizos or mixed whites and Indians gradually merging into Creoles. (5.) Mulattoes or descendants of whites and negroes. (6.)

Zambos or chinos, descendants of negroes and Indians. (7.) African negroes, either manumitted or slaves. The first and last three classes he claimed to be pure and to have "given rise, in their various combinations" to the fourth class, which in turn was subdivided many times. (Beach 12-13) (emphasis added)

The same source explains that in 1900, Mexico had a foreign born population of 57,507 of which: "2,565 were Germans; 278 Arabs; 234 Austro-Hungarians; 140 Canadians; 2,721 Cubans; 2,834 Chinese; 16,258 Spaniards; 3,976 French; 3,325 Greeks; 5,804 Guatemalans; 2,845, English; 2,564 Italians; 15,265 North Americans; 391 Turks" (Beach 12)(emphasis added).

The misguided research corpus mentioned at the onset, disregards New Spain's casta label of "chino" or "chino-cambujo" as a referent of African-First Nations offspring. …

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