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Finding My Heritage in an Unexpected Place

Life often presents us with unexpected twists and turns, leading us on journeys of self-discovery and cultural exploration. My own journey took me to a place I never anticipated finding a connection to my heritage: Merida, Mexico. In this blog, I will share the remarkable story of how I stumbled upon the Korean immigration history of Merida, the surprising presence of a Korean immigration museum, and the profound resonance I felt with this untold narrative shaped by the Henequen farms and the legacy of colonialism.  

Arriving in Merida, Mexico, I had no inkling of the hidden heritage waiting to be discovered. It was during my time here that Professor Greenfield shared with me the existence of a Korean immigration museum here in Merida. I was surprised and ignited with a deep curiosity within me to unearth the untold stories of Korean immigrants in this unfamiliar land. The outcome was not something I expected at all.

These are Henequen plants, a type of cactus. The leaves have sharp thorns, making them difficult and painful to handle.  

Delving deeper into the history, I discovered the story of Korean immigrants in the Henequen farms and the echoes of colonialism. The henequen plant, known as “green gold,” flourished under the colonial rule in the Yucatan Peninsula. The demand for henequen called for ads for laborers in Asia, including Korea. 1033 Koreans, filled with lies about a better life in the new land, landed in Mexico in 1905, but waiting for them was a life of slavery. They were forced into a 4-year contract entailing the harsh heat and the brutal whippings of the Henequen farms. After the 4 years, they were ready to head home (mind you, with no money as they were not paid with real money). However, they could not. By this time, Korea was annexed into the Japanese Empire, and the Korean passports they used to get to Mexico were no longer valid. Their country and home did not exist anymore. So, they were forced to stay in Mexico, leading to the history of Korean heritage in Merida. 

A machine in the Henequen farm that would have been used by the Korean workers that took henequen leaves and ripped them into thin fibers. 

The story of Korean immigration in Merida resonated deeply within me. As a a Korean immigrant myself who moved from Korea to a new place, I felt a profound connection to the struggles and triumphs of those who came before me. Their journey mirrored the experiences of countless immigrants around the world, including myself, as they navigated unfamiliar lands, overcame adversity, and persevered in preserving their cultural identity. 

Another machine used in the Henequen farm that combs through the henequen fibers. 

The study abroad program provided a unique opportunity to visit a Henequen farm—a key element of the Korean immigrant experience in Merida. Stepping foot onto the farm, I could almost feel the echoes of the past resonating through the fields. The visit allowed me to gain a firsthand understanding of the laborious work undertaken by Korean immigrants and the significant role the Henequen farms played in shaping their lives and the history of the region. 

The front of the Korean Immigration Museum of Merida. 

After the visit to a Henequen farm, I went to the Korean Immigration Museum (sadly, photography was not allowed, so I have no pictures inside the museum, except one picture I was allowed to take of myself). As I entered the Korean immigration museum, I embarked on a captivating journey through time. The museum brought to light the profound impact of Korean immigrants who, against all odds, found their way to Merida in pursuit of new beginnings. The history unfolded before me, shedding light on the struggles, triumphs, and enduring spirit of these individuals who sought a better life far from their Korean homeland. 

Inside the museum, I had the privilege of meeting an older woman of Korean descent who worked there. She only spoke Spanish and knew little to no Korean. But even with the language barrier, there was a connection between us despite our differences in appearance, culture, and language. She shared with me a photograph hanging on the wall—a family portrait of her grandfather and her father, as a child, symbols of her family’s journey and the resilience of the Korean people. I had this wonderful moment with the older woman when we (tried to because we both don’t speak the other person’s language) talked about the pain of colonial oppression, the loss of cultural identity, and the ongoing journey of reclaiming our heritage. Despite our dissimilar backgrounds, we shared a common thread—a deep longing to understand and honor our heritage, to heal the wounds inflicted by history, and to forge a path towards cultural pride and preservation. There was an emotional connection that was beyond words. It was a remarkable experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.  

The Korean immigration museum is not just a collection of artifacts. It is a living testimony to the struggles, resilience, and perseverance of the Korean immigrants who found themselves in Merida. Through the exhibits, photographs, and narratives, I witnessed the triumphs and tribulations of a community that carved out a new existence, forging an identity rooted in their Korean heritage. 

Me in the Korean Immigration Museum in front of a painting showing the history of Koreans in Mexico. 

My journey through the Korean immigration history of Merida has left an indelible mark on my understanding of heritage and identity. It has taught me the importance of acknowledging and preserving our past, regardless of the geographical boundaries that separate us. By embracing our heritage, we honor the sacrifices of our ancestors and contribute to the rich tapestry of human history. This journey of self-discovery taught me that heritage knows no boundaries and that by delving into the untold stories of the past, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate present and future. 

You can learn more about Korean history and culture by studying abroad in Korea next year! 

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