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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.2 (2000) 219-229

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Secondary Migration and the Politics of Identity for Asian Latinos in Los Angeles1

Steven Masami Ropp


On my first day in Spanish I at UCLA, the instructor introduces himself, "I'm Chinese but I was born in Panama and so I am a native speaker of Spanish." I had just returned from Peru where Alberto Fujimori, son of Japanese immigrants, had been re-elected president. A native Spanish speaker with an Asian face was not as much of a shock to me as it might have been for most of the other students. Around this same time, I was putting together a course in Asian American studies on the history and experience of Asians in Latin America. This class is taught at other universities, however, what made this course unique is that among the majority Asian American students in my class, at least half were from Latin America. There were Chinese students from Panama, Guatemala, Brazil, and Argentina, and a number of Korean students from Brazil. In addition there were the usual Asian American students from the United States. Although the primary focus was history, what emerged was the contemporary experience of Asians in Latin America and especially the recent phenomenon of secondary migration to Los Angeles. Moreover, in the dialogue between students from Latin America and the United States, a critical question emerged, "What difference does nationality, language, cultural experience and family immigration history make in being Asian American in Los Angeles?" [End Page 219]

According to a 1995 Los Angeles Times article, United States Census figures identify some 12,000 Asian Latinos in Los Angeles. 2 This is an analytical category, a logical descriptor of race/nation sorting for persons who are of Asian descent but who were born or grew up in Latin America. This is an extremely diverse group including Chinese from Cuba, Peru, Brazil; Japanese from Peru, Brazil, or Argentina; and Koreans from Brazil or Argentina. In Los Angeles, one finds Japanese Peruvian restaurants, Korean Brazilian associations in the garment district, Chinese Brazilian churches, and Chinese Guatemalan bilingual schoolteachers. Large-scale Asian and Latino immigration and settlement, especially in the post-1965 era, is a fundamental dimension of Los Angeles cultural politics. However, as culture, language, phenotype, and nationality are generally reduced to discrete categories such as "American," "Mexican," "Korean," examining the categories that defy this categorization serves to open a critical window into the constitution of those categories and the power dynamics that organize and rank them.3 Asian Latinos challenge the hegemonic formations that reduce something like inter-ethnic relations in Los Angeles to the management of cultural difference between distinct groups of Asians, Latinos, whites, and African Americans.

Instead, many Asian Latinos assert their Latinidad, which would loosely translate to "Latinness." Scholars working from a cultural studies standpoint offer Latinidad as a contested space between mainstream constructions and the contradictions of popular and everyday life for Latinos. 4 Persons of Asian descent, by laying claim to their Latinidad, occupy an important part of this contested space, especially as they negotiate their positioning by Latin American societies that may see them only as Asian and an American society that often privileges Asians as a so-called "model minority" over Latinos.

Research Theory and Method

This study is primarily descriptive and exploratory in nature. What I hope to address is the process whereby categoric distinctions emerge and are ordered as a process of self-making and construction by others in the social space of Los Angeles. In this case, my goal is two-fold. First, I want to identify some general patterns in the trajectory and experience of Asians [End Page 220] who secondarily migrate from Latin America to Los Angeles. Second, in looking at the experiences of growing up and/or living in Latin America for Asian-descent persons who secondarily migrate to Los Angeles, I am interested in what that complexity says about the categories of difference that characterize Los Angeles -- language, nativity...


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