Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is May in the United States.
Many Latins don’t realize that we are Asian too, and had historic interactions with Oceania (Pacific Islands).
Indigenous Americans Came From Siberia
Historically, American Latin is a mix of Indigenous, European, and African.
Whether we call ourselves “Indians,” “Native Americans,” “First Nations,” “Indigenous Americans” or something else, our ancestors came to the Americas from Siberia in Asia.
Our ancestors crossed the land bridge between the Bering Strait when ocean levels were lower around 16,000 years ago. We quickly spread throughout every corner of the Americas and reached Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America around 14,000 years ago.
[Editor: Raised in Los Angeles and Bangkok, as a child I noticed that Mexican and Asian grandmas look surprisingly alike. And Indigenous Amazonians look a lot like SouthEast Asians to me. I get the strangest sensation that Amazonians are part of my Thai family.]
Indigenous Americans and Pacific Islanders carry a lot of Asian DNA. Most American Latins are part Indigenous, so we are Asians too, not culturally, but genetically!
Early Asian European interaction was Roman. The love of Oriental silk and spices led to the Silk Road trade route with Europe. The end the road was Venice, Italy. It’s the city where Asian influences entered Europe.
Silk Road traders absorbed many things from the cultures along the way. Much of it was very significant. Think paper, gunpowder, coffee, Arabic Numerals (they are actually Hindu), double-entry accounting and much more. In ancient times, Asia was more advanced than Europe. The Europeans absorbed a lot from the East.
[Funny. Your editor is an Asian European American who lives in Spanish in the Latin world. So I’m one of these.]
When Britain finally banned slavery around 1833, they began bringing indentured workers from China and India. From this, we get Jamaican Chinese, and East Indians in Trinidad and Guyana.
Chinese laborers did much of the dangerous work building the Transcontinental Railroad (1863-1869) over the California Sierra Nevada mountains. When the work was done, there was an outburst of terrible violence against Asians. We’re talking full pogrom (destroy, rape and murder.)
Many Chinese Americans were forced to flee California. Some settled in San Francisco Chinatown for protection. Others came to New York City where they founded old Manhattan Chinatown (about 150 years ago).
Still others moved to the Caribbean where they built the railroads in Cuba and Puerto Rico. From there they kind of blended in. Even the Jíbaro, the iconic mountain farmers of Puerto Rico have Chinese mixed in.
In New York City, Chinese Cubans used to run “Chinese-Spanish” restaurants. They have mostly disappeared in the last twenty years, but you used to be able to get the most delicious rice and beans, Chinese style.
More recently, there have been large Chinese and Japanese migrations to Latin America. Peru has both. It’s one of the reasons why Peruvian food is so delicious. It has mixed elements and Asian chefs excel at balancing opposites in a dish.
There is a large community of Japanese Brazilians.
South Asian Indian Caribbeans
Descendants of the South Asian Indians who came to work for the British are a plurality (the largest group, but less that 50%) in Trinidad. How about that? Bet you thought Trinidad was only Black.
“Dougla” is a popular term for Trinidadians who are mixed South Asian Indian and African.
Trinidad food is awesome because it has so many influences. Curry goat, curry puffs (empanadas) and other delicacies are one of the treats of the West Indian Day Parade, Labor Day Carnival.
[Editor: Funny I’m this too. One branch of my ancestors lived in India for a thousand years.]
West Asian Latins
Well, most people don’t think this way, but Jewish Americans and Lebanese are West Asians.
New York is the biggest Jewish city outside of Israel, and Jewish people are everywhere in Latin America. There are large Jewish communities in Argentina and Brazil.
There is a large Lebanese diaspora in Colombia and Brazil. Colombian men who have this mix tend to be very handsome. Colombia pop star Shakira has this mix.
[Editor: Maybe I’m the “missing link” because I have West Asian (Persian) heritage too.]
Latin Pacific Islanders (Oceanians)
It’s long been controversial whether Pacific Islanders and South Americans have mixed together. The Polynesian sweet potato is native to South America. The Andes are potatolandia. How did sweet potatoes get to Polynesia?
In Polynesia the sweet potato is called “kuumala.” In Quechua, the Indigenous Inca language of the Andes, it’s called “kumara” or “cumal.” That’s pretty close.
It could have floated to Polynesia. Something similar happened in the West Africa – Caribbean realm. The calabash (bottle gourd) is native to China, was later domesticated in Southern Africa, but is found in the pre-European contact Caribbean. It’s believed that the calabash floated across the Atlantic ocean in natural floating rafts of storm debris on the trade winds and currents. The sweet potato could have made a similar journey in the Pacific.
Perhaps South Americans brought the sweet potato to Polynesia, or Polynesian ocean canoes made their way to South America and brought the sweet potato back. It’s very difficult to canoe against the trade winds and currents, but the Polynesians were master sailors. They can do seemingly impossible things like reading the waves to determine where land is.
The Pacific trade winds and currents run from east to west. Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl proved the possibility of South American – Polynesian interaction in 1947 by famously floating Kon Tiki, a balsa wood raft, 4,300 miles from Callao, Peru to Raroia atoll in what is now French Polynesia.
To speak to the sharpness of Polynesian sailors, Kon Tiki ran aground on the uninhabited atoll. Polynesians from a nearby island saw flotsam in the ocean and came looking for the source. Wow!
In modern times, Japanese boats regularly rescue Mexican fisherman who have been blown across the ocean. The journey is definitely possible.
Easter Island (Rapu Nui) is part of Chile. The locals are not South American heritage. They are Polynesians. The Chileans annexed the island in 1888.
Academics long thought that perhaps South Americans made it to Easter Island. A 2014 DNA study tested that assumption. It found small amounts of Indigenous South American DNA in some Easter Islanders. By expanding their study to other Pacific islands, the researchers found the earliest genetic contact on Fatu Hiva in the South Marquesas.
The team looked for the source of the Indigenous American DNA on the Pacific Coast of Latin America. They found a match with the Zenu people (around 200 BCE – 1600) of what is now Colombia.
Ancient DNA shortens through the generations. This enables researchers to estimate the time period when it mixed in. It was as early as 1150. Europeans were not in the Pacific then, so they can’t be the source. The relevant DNA strings were about the same length which indicates that the mixing probably happened around the same time.
Nobody knows for sure, but this could be evidence of a single meeting. The question of whether Polynesians went to Colombia and brought back the sweet potato and some Zenu people, or Zenu people brought sweet potatoes to the South Marquesas, which then reached Easter Island.
The evidence is not perfectly conclusive, but it’s a good start.
The takeaway of all of this, is that our Latin communities should not harass Asians. We are all humans!