Korean patriots in a distant landAn hour’s drive from Merida, the biggest city in Yucatan, is a henequen farm. Entering by the main gate, one sees a large field reminiscent of a bullfighting stadium, with old Spanish-style mansions in the background.
One hundred years ago, a cargo ship of British registry carrying 1,033 Koreans arrived here. They intended to return to Korea when their four-year contract ended. But history had other ideas.
Henequen farms were booming in Yucatan early in the 20th century. The shipping industry was growing fast, and there was great demand for ropes made from the fibers that were extracted from the plant. Some Yucatan farm owners decided to recruit Korean laborers, whose reputation for diligence had spread from the sugar farms of Hawaii.
Many of the Koreans who crossed the ocean had been led to expect a paradise. But what greeted them in Yucatan, besides a language and a diet that were alien to them, was scorching heat, humidity and mosquitoes. And the work was brutal. “My father wept whenever he was drunk,” remembers Margarita Gong, 77, daughter of one of the laborers.
Their job was to cut henequen leaves, tie them in bundles of 50 and haul them to a storage yard, from dawn to dusk. By the end of the day, they would have cuts on their arms and legs from the plants’ thorns.
Some of the Koreans commited suicide, according to Maria Lee, a Korean-Mexican woman. But for the most part, they adapted. From henequen fiber and leather, they made protective gear for their hands and legs. This dramatically increased their output. Two thousand henequen leaves was a day’s work, but some Koreans began producing 5,000 and even 8,000 a day.
The Korean immigration to Mexico is often looked back on as an act of fraud. Japanese-owned labor brokers lured workers with advertisements saying “Mexico is like heaven” and “If you get sick, you will be treated for free.”
Still, it was legally above-board, says Jo Nam-hwan, a Korean-Mexican pastor who is one of the organizers of the Henequen Festival.
“The Korean government issued passports to those who were heading to Mexico, approving them for work there, and the Mexican immigration authorities received the Koreans,” Mr. Jo said. “It was standard labor immigration.”
Their intent was to make money and come back. “My father told me that they all thought they only had to work hard for just four years,” says Korean-Mexican Alberto Do.
But in May 1909, just as their four-year contract was about to end, the laborers received the heartbreaking news that Japan was about to annex Korea.
They responded with a demonstration of patriotism. On May 9, just four days before the contract was to expire, 314 laborers established the Merida Korean Association.
Representatives from all 16 of the farms where the laborers worked took part in the organization, according to Choi Jun-cheol, who has researched the subject. After the contract expired, most of the laborers kept working at the farms, and many sent money to the Korean nationalist movement.
One immigrant who did so was Lee Sun-yeo, who was seven years old when he arrived in Yucatan with his parents in 1905. At the age of 12, he went to Mexico City, where he learned to repair clocks and watches.
Five years later, he opened a store of his own, and later a larger jewelry store called La Coreana, which made him a great deal of money. His son-in-law, Jang Gi-cheol, who is now 68, says Mr. Lee sent most of the money to a Korean association in San Francisco to support the nationalist movement.
Kim Ik-ju, a preacher, came to Yucatan at the age of 31, bringing his wife and son with him. According to his grandson, David Kim, he was originally assigned to work the henequen farms, but a plantation owner recognized his artistic ability and had him paint on the walls of the farm’s buildings.
In 1911, Mr. Kim moved to Tampico, where he later set up a Korean association; he made most of the flags they used in their events. He led other Koreans in raising money for the independence movement, which they sent to the government-in-exile in Shanghai. The association also held commemorations of the March 1, 1919 independence demonstrations in Korea.
“In the end, my grandfather sold off his shop and restaurant to support the independence movement,” said Abel Kim, another grandson.
According to Seo Dong-su, who leads the organization that puts on the Henequen Festival in Yucatan, Kim Ik-ju sent money totaling more than $4,000 in value at the time. Mr. Kim died in 1955 at the age of 81; in 1999, the Korean government gave him a posthumous award for his contributions to the independence movement.
The contributions to the nationalist cause by the Koreans in Mexico didn’t stop with financial support. They also kept their country’s culture alive for the next generation by opening Korean-language schools.
Some Koreans moved south of Merida to work in the sugar industry. There, they opened a Korean association in 1913, and established the Ilshin Korean-language School, where children were taught the Korean language, Korean history and geography, mathematics, gymnastics and singing.
In November 1910, Korean immigrants established a military school in Merida. This was their reaction to Joseon Dynasty’s submission to Japan, which the immigrants blamed on Joseon’s lack of military strength.
Two hundred former soldiers who had served during the Joseon Dynasty’s Daehanjeguk period (1897 to 1910) helped establish the military school, which trained a total of 118 students.
One of their trainers was Lee Jong-oh, who was a member of the royal family. Mr. Lee was among the 1,033 Koreans who made the original journey to Yucatan, accompanied by five servants, says Jo Nam-hwan, a Korean-Mexican who is one of the organizers of the Henequen Festival.
According to Mr. Jo, King Gojong, believing that Korean immigration to Mexico would continue, had sent Mr. Lee on a mission to establish something of a government-in-exile there. Although that did not happen, the Korean-Mexican community’s support for the national cause suggests that the king was not far off the mark in his thinking.
Merida was once visited by Ahn Chang-ho, one of the leading figures in the independence movement; the visit was a huge inspiration for the first-generation immigrants.
The financial support for Korea from their countrymen in Mexico didn’t stop with the liberation in 1945. After the Korean War, for instance, they sent money to help refugees in their homeland.
Two hundred and twenty-eight of the Korean immigrants moved to Cuba in 1921. Many of the others moved to various parts of Mexico over the years. Today, there are estimated to be 30,000 ethnic Koreans in Mexico.
by Shim Sang-bok