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Descendants of Korean Immigrants to Mexico Remember the Past

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This segment originally aired August 24, 2006. 

It is part of Mexico’s history which has been kept a secret from the rest of the world, until now: hundreds of Koreans used as forced labor in the Mexican haciendas a century ago. Today, their descendants living in Tijuana and San Diego are keeping their memory alive.

Some came to Mexico looking for new opportunities. Others were fleeing the Japanese-Russian invasion of Korea. But they could never imagine the sacrifices they would be forced to make thousands of miles away from home.

Lily Yi de Banales, grandparents settled in Mexico: It was difficult. They didn’t know the weather. It was hot. The food was different. It was hard labor. They used to cut with a machete. They had to cut the leaves and it has a lot of thorns like needles. Their hands would bleed.

Lily Yi de Banales talks about her grandparents living and suffering in a foreign country. Those who refused to work were jailed and sometimes beaten. Her grandmother was one of those laborers harvesting the Henekuen – a cactus like plant - in Southeastern Mexico. Fibers from the plant were used to make rope and other items. Lily’s cousin, Pedro Diaz, remembers the early days.

Pedro Diaz (Spanish): They would head to work very early to the plantation. They would get up early in the morning because the sun was so hot and they would only work until ten in the morning.

Looking over pictures brings back memories of the life their grandparents once lived. Because of the language barrier, there were many adjustments to make.

Lily Yi de Banales: They changed the names crossing the border, Aduana customs, because they would say, “What is your last name?” And they would say “Yi.” “There is no such last name.” So we all changed our names.

More than thirty years later, Lily’s mother, Elvia, would be the first Korean to move north to Tijuana, opening a shoe store. Lily was the first Korean born there. Others would soon follow. Pedro still lives across the border.

Pedro Diaz (Spanish): I came to Tijuana when I was 14 years old in 1944. We lived in Quintana Roo. My parents moved here looking for new opportunities.

They continue to honor their heritage by preserving traditional costumes and photographs from that era. They also just celebrated the centennial in Merida of the Korean migration to Merida last year. Many Korean dignitaries attended to honor and remember those who made the voyage a century ago.

Lily Yi de Banales: We didn’t expect our grandparents to be treated as heroes. They built a statue in honor of the Koreans. They donated $1 million to build a hospital in Merida.

Keeping their history alive and staying connected, the community of Mexican Korean Americans honors their past with traditional Korean dishes at a family reunion in Chula Vista every year. It’s a way to stay connected and remember the past. Ninety-two-year-old Sabina Corona Kim was one of the first Koreans born in Merida.

Sabina Corona Kim (Spanish): Many ask that question. How do you know Spanish so well? Because we are Korean-Mexicans. I was born in Mexico.

What began as a worker program or a way of escaping the oppression in their native country turned into an odyssey for more than 1,000 Koreans. What’s most important to these Mexican-Korean-Americans is preserving history so that the new generations will remember where they came from.

Lily Yi de Banales: I’m very proud to have been born in Mexico, very proud to be Korean. Now that we are in the United States, very proud my children were born in the U.S.

When the worker program ended, many would never return to their mother land. It is believed there are now some 40,000 descendants living throughout Mexico, Cuba, Hawaii and Southern California. The South Korean government has helped build a museum, statue and a hospital in Merida to honor the Koreans who arrived in Mexico 101 years ago.

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