Charting a Course from Asia to Latin America

A Tufts scholar explores the little-known early history of Asians in the Americas—and advocates for a view of history that transcends the concept of the nation

Most of us have heard about the transatlantic slave trade: From the 16th to the 19th century, European colonizers transported as many as 16 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas.

But what about the transpacific slave trade? “It’s not a part of the chronologies that we’re familiar with,” noted Diego Javier Luis, assistant professor of history in School of Arts and Sciences. “There’s virtually no information about it outside of the academy.”

Headshot of Diego Luis

Diego Luis

It’s a fascinating piece of history, however, that resulted in the establishment of Asian and Pacific Islander communities in Latin America and the early presence of Asians in what is now the United States.

Throughout the same centuries as the transatlantic slave trade, Luis explained, Spanish imperialists moved tens of thousands of Asians—both free and enslaved, from all over Asia—across the Pacific to Mexico. He details this movement in his forthcoming book, The First Asians in the Americas: A Transpacific History (Harvard University Press).

“There were Asians in the Americas before the founding of Jamestown,” Luis pointed out. They were brought to the port of Acapulco from the Philippines on Spanish trading ships known as Manila galleons. While many of the people carried over were Filipino, Luis said, “there was tremendous diversity,” including large concentrations of South Asians—from the Bay of Bengal, Malabar, and Goa—who were enslaved by the Portuguese and then traded to the Spanish in the Philippines. In addition, there was slave trading through Macau, in China, and Nagasaki, in Japan.

Upon arrival in Mexico, regardless of their point of origin, all individuals from the Manila galleons were labeled “chinos”—the word for “Chinese,” in both the Spanish of the time and modern-day Spanish. “This is the first time we have a word that can refer to anyone in the Americas perceived as coming from Asia,” Luis said. “It collapses their diversity, and it’s a fundamentally colonial Mexican orientalism. That’s the main focus of my research: understanding the transpacific slave trade through the frame of racialization and race-making.”

“A lot of [hatred toward Asians and members of the AAPI community] is based on the perception of the Asian as ‘the perpetual foreigner’… It’s important to foreground these stories to show that it’s not so simple—that Asians have been in this hemisphere for as long as Europeans have.”

Diego Javier Luis

Forging such an understanding is important for several reasons, said Luis, who is of Chinese-Cuban descent. “First, on a personal note, I wanted to uncover the historical antecedents of my own family. That’s a 19th-century story—it began when more than 100,000 Chinese indentured laborers were brought to Cuba—but researching that past led me back to the 16th century. Even if the two histories are not directly related, there’s a sense of connection to the people who came before.”

Beyond the personal, however, there are more significant reasons to shine a light on this piece of history. “I hope uncovering this history makes a kind of ethical intervention,” said Luis. “We’re living in a time of increasing hatred toward Asians and members of the AAPI community, and a lot of that is based on the perception of the Asian as ‘the perpetual foreigner.’ I think it’s important to foreground these stories to show that it’s not so simple—that Asians have been in this hemisphere for as long as Europeans have.”

There are bigger implications, too. First, “history is often considered only through the relationship between Europe and another part of the world, or between the U.S. and another part of the world,” said Luis. But, he offered, global history should have a global focus. His research shows that the transpacific slave trade led to cross-cultural exchanges not only among groups of Asians but also between Asians and Indigenous people in the Americas and between Asians and Afrodiasporic populations. “There were many instances of intermarriage, community formation, and shared spiritual practices,” he noted.

A 1575 manuscript map by cartographer Juan López de Velasco showing the transpacific route taken by the Manila galleons, from the Philippines to Mexico.

A manuscript map from 1575 by Juan López de Velasco, one of the most important Spanish cartographers of his time. The dotted line across the Pacific shows the route of the Manila galleons from the Philippines to Mexico. Photo: John Carter Brown Library

A direct connection exists as well between Europe and what is now the United States and the history of Asians in Latin America. As early as 1587, European explorers carried Asians from the Manila galleons on expeditions into what’s now California and, in 1603, further up the west coast to present-day Oregon.

“I would even make the case that it’s hard to understand Asian histories that we have in the U.S. without looking at Latin America,” said Luis. As Erika Lee, J91, has shown in her book, At America’s Gates, the U.S.’s Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 led to large numbers of Chinese people traveling to Mexico in attempts to cross the border there. In other words, as Luis put it, “This is where we get the first systematic criminalization of migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. The first militarization of the border from the U.S. side comes directly from the policing of Chinese migration across that border.”

All in all, Luis’ research shows that the history of early Asian presence in the Americas has far-reaching reverberations. “These hemispheric stories are so deeply entangled,” he said. “I think ultimately that entanglement signals the importance of problematizing the nation as being the model through which we look at history. These histories are just inarguably transnational.”

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