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A cultural awakening

Young Mexicans whose forebears emigrated from Korea a century ago learn more about their Asian roots on a trip to the Southland.

August 16, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

The teenagers and young adults struggled as they rehearsed an ancient Korean song, a kind of lamentation to leaving home.

"Uno, dos, tres," began Fermin Kim, 48, a chaperon for the group.

Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo. . . .

The words burbled out in a discordant drone, tentatively and unsteadily -- sounding very much like, well, Mexicans suddenly asked to sing in Korean.

The young Korean Mexicans had arrived from Mexico City, Tijuana and the Yucatan Peninsula on a recent afternoon and come to a sprawling Lynwood shopping center designed to look like Mexico. As they were dropped off by shuttles, they passed a statue of Mexican independence leader Miguel Hidalgo and a replica of the Angel of Independence in downtown Mexico City.

They came, perhaps fittingly, to Plaza Mexico -- a place that was created by a Korean American who has a habit of slipping into Spanglish.

Los Angeles is a city where the large Mexican and Korean communities co-exist in ways that both bring them together and separate them. They share the immigrant experience and communication barriers that come with it. But the different languages -- Spanish and Korean -- can also be an obstacle.

Here, however, the fusion was literal. The teens and twentysomethings bear strong Korean features but consider themselves true Mexicans. Even their older chaperons, Fermin Kim and David Kim, 70 (not related), no longer spoke Korean -- though they are third- and fourth-generation Korean Mexicans who have no Mexican blood.

The group of 20 were to perform that night for Korean and Mexican dignitaries in one of the banquet halls. They practiced the Korean folk song over and over, as Korean Americans and Latino waiters looked on. They only really felt comfortable when they started to consider which Mexican song to perform.

"And all for what, and all for what, if in the end you lose?" Rafael Kim, 23, of Mexico City crooned.

They were the descendants of Koreans lured in 1905 by ship to plantations on the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico. Instead of finding a better life, they were sold to plantation owners and forced to cultivate henequen, a plant whose tough fiber was used to make things like rope.

The Koreans and their descendants would come to be known as the Henequen, in part because they were so hardy and hard-working. They had fled a Korea that was under Japanese rule, and despite their struggle, they sent money back home, hoping to help their countrymen gain independence. But few ever saw their homeland again.

In the ensuing decades, they spread to other parts of Mexico -- and increasingly intermarried with Mexicans. Little by little, they abandoned the Korean language. Alberto King, a 23-year-old college student in Tijuana, said that although his mother looked Korean she spoke only Spanish. Her own parents had stopped speaking Korean.

"The Mexicans at first would not accept them. So their own parents decided to cut off the language and just talk Spanish," King said. "It went really badly for them because of the language."

Fermin Kim said fights were a part of life in grade school, when they would be called chinos (Chinese). In the beginning, intermarriage was strongly discouraged. He said he had a Mexican girlfriend and his grandparents reacted by asking, " 'Where did you find her?' They got mad." He ended up marrying another Korean Mexican. David Kim, his fellow chaperon, said that despite being one of the older Henequen, he married a Mexican woman.

For decades, as Korea struggled under foreign rule and wars, the Korean Mexicans were largely forgotten. Various estimates place their numbers at up to 30,000. But as South Korea began to prosper economically and the centennial of the Koreans' arrival in Yucatan drew near, attention focused on them.

They were visited by South Korean politicians and were invited to their ancestors' homeland. Korean Mexicans were flown to South Korea to get special job training. South Koreans built hospitals and schools in Mexico and were feted by Mexican officials.

"When the centennial happened in 2005, we almost got celebrity treatment," Fermin Kim said. "That's something we never had in 99 years."

That year, a group of Korean Mexicans was brought by the Korean-American Foundation to Plaza Mexico in Lynwood. The visitors were surprised by how many people of Korean descent live in the Los Angeles area.

"We didn't even know there was such a large Korean community so close by," Fermin Kim said. "We didn't even know there was a Koreatown. We hadn't integrated with Koreans here."

Plaza Mexico, which opened in 2002, was the vision of Donald Chae, a Korean American who grew up among Latinos and who has traveled throughout Mexico. Chae tells people that, "I don't speak Spanish. I speak Mexican."

"I am a Korean American Mexican," he quips. "I'm still waiting for my pasaporte."

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