Rachel Lim: The Diasporic Archives: History, Nation, and Belonging among Korean Descendants in Mexico

In 1905, 1,033 Koreans arrived in Mexico as contract laborers to the Yucatán henequen haciendas. While these sojourners intended to return to Korea after completing their 4-year contracts, Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula in 1910 foreclosed the possibility of return, and those who left in 1905 became the only wave of migrants to Mexico in the first half of the 20th century. This paper, based on ethnographic and archival research in Mexico, South Korea, and the United States, examines the construction of Korean ethnic identity and community among the descendants of Korean laborers who emigrated to the henequén haciendas of Yucatán in 1905. Drawing from scholars who have explored the dialectic between homeland and diaspora, this paper moves across the geographical siloes of area studies to highlight the small but vibrant community of Korean descendants in Mexico. While the transnational relationships that connect migrants’ homeland and country of residence have received sustained scholarly attention, relations among diasporic nodes have not been adequately addressed. In this paper, I utilize the case study of the Asociación Coreana de Yucatán (CORYUC) in Mérida, México in order to explore how the stratification of diaspora affects the construction, imagination, and transformation of ethnic boundaries. Rather than assuming that Koreans in Mexico already constitute a stable ethnic “community,” I examine how a heterogeneous group of actors—Mexicans of Korean descent, Korean American missionaries, and representatives of the South Korean state—make different claims about authenticity and belonging through group-making practices. I use the heuristic device of the “diasporic archive” in order to analyze the technologies that are utilized to connect the nation-state of South Korea with a dispersed diaspora in the Americas, including ongoing controversies related to the literal collection and housing of documents; heritage camps that teach Koreanness; and “homecoming trips” for Korean descendants to “return” to South Korea, among others. I argue that these technologies have had a decisive influence on the formation of diasporic identities among Korean descendants in Mexico. That is, the descendants of those who arrived in Mexico in 1905 left from the Korean Empire, a state that ceased to exist in 1910 with Japanese colonial annexation, and today there are not one, but two states on the Korean peninsula. Yet it is assumed that Korean descendants in Mexico belong to the Republic of Korea and never the People’s Republic of Korea—and I analyze the efforts by South Korean government officials, especially those affiliated with the Overseas Korean Foundation, to build these ties of affinity. I show how diasporic Koreans in Mexico must negotiate between histories of family migration as well as South Korean government’s globalization and diaspora policies, and how ambivalent transpacific connections between Asia and Latin America might produce different subjective experiences and definitions of diaspora.

Rachel Haejin Lim is a PhD candidate in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation, “Unsettled Belonging: Religion, Globalization, and Korean Migration in the Americas,” is a multi-sited ethnography of Korean mobility that examines the migratory networks and cultural imaginaries articulated by and through the Korean diaspora, with a focus on Korean migrants and their descendants in Mexico. Utilizing archival research, ethnographic fieldwork, and in-depth interviews, her research examines migration policies, supply chains, religious networks, and diaspora organizations—the transpacific and hemispheric infrastructures that bring Koreans to and from Mexico. From 2017-2018, she was a Fulbright García-Robles research scholar at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Iztapalapa in Mexico City, and her research has been supported by numerous grants and fellowships, including the Fulbright International Institute of Education, the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, and the Center for Korean Studies and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her BA with highest distinction in English Literature and American Studies from the University of Virginia.


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