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  • Beyond Border Spectacle:Oral History and Everyday Meaning in Chinese Mexican Tucson
  • Priscilla M. Martínez (bio) and Grace Peña Delgado (bio)

Given the time and place, Lee Goon and Jesus Valencia formed what some may have considered an unusual friendship.1 At the turn of the twentieth century, immigration restriction laws hardened racial lines between Chinese migrants and settled residents. They further inspired violent Sinophobia in the American [End Page 459] Northwest, California, Peru, Canada, and Mexico.2 Conditions, though, were decidedly different in Tucson, Arizona, where social and political forces did not succumb to anti-Chinese movements, although apprehension existed between migrants and settled residents. At first, necessity and practicality drew Valencia and Goon together. Valencia, a Mexican landowner and proprietor of a grocery store, hired Goon, a migrant from China and erstwhile resident of San Francisco, to take over the day-to-day operations of his market in south Tucson. "And that's how they met," recalled Mary Malaby, a Tucson resident of Chinese and Mexican descent and the granddaughter of Lee Goon and the great-granddaughter of Jesus Valencia, in an oral history conducted by the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center (TCCC). The daily routine of running a neighborhood business strengthened the bond between the two men and unintentionally united the Lee-Valencia families by blood. When Valencia neared retirement age, the Mexican landowner transferred his market to Goon, who then summoned his teenage son from China for help in the store. Lee Hop worked at his father's market, and there he met and entered an intimate relationship with Valencia's granddaughter, Maria Trujillo. "And that is where the family came together," recounted Malaby, the oldest child of Hop and Trujillo.3 Although the intimate relationship between Lee and Trujillo persisted for several years, it ultimately did not withstand the social pressures of an unsanctioned union and the obligations of familial duty and personal honor that weighed heavily on both.

The Lee-Valencia family story is neither exceptional nor locally drawn, for it bore the imprint of the transpacific-borderlands world in which Tucson played center stage. From without, resilient migration networks transported Chinese persons such as Lee Goon and Lee Hop to the Arizona-Mexico borderlands, where commercial life [End Page 460] occasioned bonds of friendship and blood with long-time Tucsonenses (Mexican Tucsonans). From within, personal bonds knitted Chinese migrants in Mexican barrios (neighborhoods), thereby constructing a community that departed from the usual practices associated with the Chinese diaspora elsewhere, as a group of dispersed people who remained oriented to China to preserve a collective identity.4 Instead, in the absence of ample kin associations and a robust diasporic network on which to depend, Chinese migrants in Tucson, such as Lee Goon, created strong ties with Mexicans such as Jesus Valencia to embed themselves and their families in southern Arizona. Transnational ties were not wholly severed as Lee Hop's migration attests, but cross-national linkages only partially explain the affective family ties and social dynamics affixing Lee Goon's family in Tucson over several generations. The other critical dynamic lay in unexpected relations with Tucsonenses, engagements that significantly helped to anchor Lee Goon's family in Tucson, as they did other Chinese migrants who made Tucson their home in the first three decades of the twentieth century.5

The dominant historical narrative of southern Arizona and the greater U.S.–Mexico border region obscures the importance of quotidian relations, whether affective kin, kith, or interethnic bonds, including those connecting the Lee and Valencia families. But these stories, and the history they point to, have never been more crucial to understanding how people came together from vast distances, created communities under unusual circumstances, and remained despite harsh immigration and racialized regimes that contrived against such outcomes. Attention to everyday relations enlarges our view of nurtured bonds among closely knitted communities, urging a rethinking of familiar categories: alien and citizen; illegal and legal; Mexican and American; and civilized and savage. Dual categories, for example, reify divisions created in black-letter [End Page 461] law while moving backward in time to confirm presuppositions. This approach to history writing, we contend, helps to produce what the...


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