The Surprising Route That Brought Chinese Immigrants To Texas

The U.S. excluded Asians from the country in the late 19th century. 100 years ago, a few who had first migrated to Mexico were able to enter the United States.

By Joy DiazSeptember 7, 2020 10:00 am, , ,

Like a lot of Texas stories, the story of Chinese immigration to the Lone Star State begins in the 1870s when the first modern transportation routes were being built in Houston and El Paso.

But few of those first Asian immigrants who came to work on railroad lines stayed after their work was completed. And for those who died here, headstones marking their remains offer little of their stories beyond names and dates of their deaths.

The Chinese Cemetery in El Paso. Photo by Julian Lim 2007

“Some of the bodies that were buried there were disinterred at some point and sent to the families back in China,” said Albert Burnham, a historian with the Concordia Heritage Association, a nonprofit that cares for the Chinese Cemetery in El Paso.

The next big wave of Chinese immigration to Texas came in 1917 through a more unusual route. They came from Mexico after the United States barred immigration from China in the late 19th century.

Dr. Mitchel (CQ) Wong of Austin is a descendant of that group known as “Pershing Chinese,” who came to Central Texas in 1917. His grandparents were among 500 Chinese living in Mexico who returned to Texas with Army Gen. John J. Pershing, after the United States’ failed attempt to capture Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa.

“My grandparents were one of the first – if not the first – Asian family to settle in Texas. So, they were one of the original families that started having children in this country,” the 81-year-old said.

Above photos courtesy of the Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

His first basic words of Spanish, came from those grandparents.

“My grandfather came to Mexico and he was a baker,” Dr. Wong recalls.

For Dr. Wong, his family’s identity is no longer hyphenated. They are simply Texans.

“That’s what makes Texas unique – we are a forward-looking state. We appreciate our past but we are a forward-looking state,” he said.

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