Mexico: apology for 1911 massacre of Chinese

torreon

Mexico’s President Andr茅s Manuel聽L贸pez Obrador on May 24 officiated over a ceremony in聽Torre贸n, Coahuila, where聽he issued a formal聽apology for the 1911 massacre of more than 300 members of the northern city’s聽Chinese community at the hands of revolutionary troops. The president said the objective of the apology was to ensure “that this never, ever happens again.” Also on hand was聽Coahuila Gov. Miguel 脕ngel Riquelme, who said racist ideas fueled聽“genocidal killings”聽during a “convulsive”聽period of Mexico’s history. Also attending for the ceremony was聽Chinese Ambassador Zhu Qingqiao.聽(Mexico News Daily)

What makes this a particularly sensitive question is the fact that the massacre was carried out by forces officially celebrated as the good guys in the Mexican Revolution. This was reflected in local press coverage, which was especially quick to disassociate Pancho Villa, the great leader of revolutionary forces in the north, from the massacre.

Torre贸n’s聽Noticias del Sol de la Laguna聽quotes a joint statement by historians Fernando Ibarra Favela聽and聽Sotomayor Garza, who wrote: “There are those who say it was Pancho Villa who carried out this massacre. It is not true; Pancho Villa was a thousand kilometers away when this situation occurred…” They also stated that many聽torreonenses聽(residents of Torre贸n) came to the defense of the Chinese.

And it is true that while the massacre was taking place, Villa was far to the north, fighting in the Battle of Ciudad Ju谩rez聽(actually a distance of some 800 kilometers). The Wikipedia page on the聽Torre贸n massacre聽makes no mention of Pancho Villa.聽聽An聽account on聽McClatchy says it was “a division of Pancho Villa’s army” that took Torre贸n in May 1911. But this is probably not accurate. Villa would not take command of the famous Division of the North until 1913.

Historian聽Alan Knight in his exhaustive study,聽The Mexican Revolution, vols 1 & 2 (University of Nebraska 1990), citing local news accounts of the day, names the revolutionary commander at聽Torre贸n in May 1911 as one Jes煤s Flores, who reportedly said of the city’s Chinese once his troops were in control, “It would be best to exterminate them.” (Vol. 1, p. 207)

Complicating all this is that there were numerous battles of Torre贸n over the course of Mexico’s long and chaotic revolutionary war. First, revolutionary forces took the city from forces loyal to long-ruling dictator Porfirio D铆az in May 1911 (with little resistance), precipitating the massacre.聽But what history records as the聽First Battle of Torre贸n聽was in September-October 1913鈥攖his time Villa’s Divsion of the North taking the city from forces loyal to Gen.聽Victoriano Huerta, who had come to power in a counter-revolutionary coup d’etat in Mexico City (ousting the first revolutionary president, Francisco Madero).聽There was a聽聽Second Battle of Torre贸n聽in March-April 1914, with Villa’s army again taking the city from Huerta’s forces, who had regained it.

And, finally, there was a聽Third Battle of Torre贸n聽in late December 1916. This was Villa’s last gasp. This time his diminished forces took the city from those of his former ally, the more bourgeois revolutionary leader聽Venustiano Carranza, who had since turned on him. The carrancistas would ultimately emerge victorious, and establish the modern Mexican state.

However, it can’t be denied that Villa also committed atrocities against northern Mexico’s Chinese. In fact, biographer Friedrich Katz in聽The Life & Times of Pancho Villa聽 (Stanford University 1998) writes that when Villa’s forces briefly held聽Torre贸n after taking it in the closing days of 1916, there was a second massacre of the city’s remnant Chinese community, who were “hunted down and killed.” (p. 630)

And a report in聽El Financiero聽(admittedly, voice of Mexico’s business establishment) blames local followers of the anarchist leader聽Ricardo Flores Mag贸n for stirring up hatred against the Chinese in聽Torre贸n, apparently brandng them聽“migrantes indeseables.”聽

An interesting addendum to all this is that there was a contingent of Chinese immigrants in US Gen. John J. Pershing’s “Punitive Expedition” against Villa in 1916, as recalled by聽Chinese American Heroes website. They only received US residency for their service鈥攏ot citizenship鈥攁nd they had to agitate to get even that. Many of these veterans later settled in San Antonio, Tex., becoming the nucleus of the city’s Chinese community, according to聽Texas Hill Country.

Lest we forget, there were many massacres of Chinese immigrants in the United States in the late 19th century, and if none were as deadly as what happened in聽Torre贸n (nor carried out by military forces), the collective toll likely numbers in the hundreds. Among the most notorious such eruptions of violence were the Los Angeles Chinese massacre of 1871, the聽San Francisco pogrom of 1877, the Rock Springs massacre of 1885 in Wyoming, and the聽Hells Canyon massacre of 1887 in Oregon. None have received any apology from a US president, nor much attention in the history books.

Finally,聽we can not fail to note the morally equivocal position of Ambassador Zhu Qingqiao at聽Torre贸n, given his own government’s current racist persecution of the Uighurs of聽Xinjiang

Photo of 1911 taking of Torre贸n via Wikipedia