Five Generations On, Mexico's Koreans Long for Home

    August 16, 2007 10:46

    A fourth generation Korean-Cuban, Patricia Lim, 39, lives on the outskirts of Havana, about half an hour drive west of downtown. The paint on the outside of her shabby house wore off long ago, rendering the walls colorless. Inside, Lim and her mother Cristina Chang Kim, 79, warmly welcome a reporter from the Chosun Ilbo. An old fan rattles away on the ceiling. Looking at the stained refrigerator, radio, and decades-old appliances, one wonders if any of them work properly. Just outside a window a junked car slouches in the dust.

    Even after four generations Lim retains Korean features on her face, her black eyes stretched sideways. "Even though I speak no Korean, I think of myself as a Korean," she says. She is one of the descendants of 1,033 Koreans who left Incheon in 1905 to settle farms in Mexico producing henequen, a fiber used to make rope and twine. After some time in Mexico, Lim's grandfather headed for Cuba in 1921. "You can make money if you work on a sugar cane farm," someone told him, and he ended up in a Cuba-bound ship. Sadly the price of sugar plunged in Cuba and Lim's grandfather had to return to the dreaded henequen farm.

    Cuban descents of Korean immigrants who worked on henequen farms in Mexico. Patricia Lim (far right) is a fourth generation Korean-Cuban, the others are fifth generation. As the generations advance the descendants appear less Korean.

    Erdi, 21, is a fifth generation Korean-Cuban. His grandfather married a Mexican and his father a Cuban. At first glance Erdi appears to be fully Latin. Dark skin, big eyes, curly hair, and of course not a word of Korean. "It’s true part of me has Korean blood but I think I'm a Cuban for sure," he says. Time is dissolving the Korean DNA in the descendants of the Henequens, as the farmers called themselves. They are, technically, Latin Americans, not just in appearance but in their way of thinking, culture, customs and language. A Cuba-Korea culture center was built in 1921 that taught Korean writing and history in an attempt to remind the descendants of their heritage. But lack of funding shuttered the center and now it's hard to find a Henequen offspring who can speak the language.

    About 800 descendants of Korean henequen farmers live around Havana, Matanzas and other areas of Cuba. Most work in farms; some toil in small factories. A few have advanced to specialized jobs - a doctor, a teacher, a car engineer -- but even they are not too well off. The situation is not too different for the 20,000 to 30,000 descendants living in Mexico. Ulises Park is a rare wealthy Henequen son. A third generation Korean-Mexican, Park, 68, owns a large gas inspection office in Yucatan and also chairs a Korean descendants group. Most of the descendants struggle day to day as wage earners. More than a few of the Henequen offspring long for their native land on the other side of the globe. During the Japanese occupation Cuba's Henequen immigrants gathered spoonfuls of rice and sent the "independence fund" to the provisional government.

    Even now Koreans in Cuba gather every Independence Movement Day on March 1 to eat and share Korean food. Mexican-Koreans also kept this year's Independence Movement Day, and on Sunday held an early celebration for Independence Day in Yucatan. These days about 300 Korean descendants are studying their ancestral language at a Korean school in Mexico. More and more students want to go to Korea and learn the culture and technology. "Even though our faces are Mexican, we have Korean blood in us," says Seidy, 27, a fourth generation Korean-Mexican and president of a Korean descendants group in Merida. "There are many students who want to go to Korea."

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