Inside the Basement Tunnels Where Mexicali's Chinese Immigrants Once Lived
La Chinesca is made up of a series of underground tunnels beneath Mexicali, where Chinese immigrants lived for half a century.
All photos by Erin Lee Holland
When I first visited Mexicali, I'd heard rumors about "La Chinesca," a network of basement tunnels where the city's Chinese immigrants had created their own underground Chinatown. It was something of an urban legend—a buried city where Chinese immigrants had lived away from the rest of the community, creating their own hidden culture. I would later find out that not only does La Chinesca exist, but you could actually explore it.
Rubén Hernández Chen, the owner of a local shop and the chairman of the Committee for the Historic Center of Mexicali, sometimes takes visitors underground to see it firsthand. He's been recognized for his work in promoting Chinese traditions in Mexicali, which includes these tours of the basement tunnels. With Chen as my guide, I descended into the dank, malodorous underworld to review the subterranean life that once existed.
Chinese immigrants first came to Mexicali around 1900, most of them brought over from China by the Colorado River Company to work on railroad and irrigation construction—first in the United States, and then across the border in Mexico. When construction was over, many of the immigrants who'd relocated to Mexicali stayed, living in basement rooms. Temperatures in the area reach over 105 degrees most summer days, and can climb to 120 degrees on extra-hot days, so the underground system allowed the immigrants—unaccustomed to Mexico's heat—to move throughout the city without having to surface above ground.
Chen explained there are almost 40 basements that make up La Chinesca. At one point, they were each connected through a system of tunnels; today, each of the buildings has a different owner, and the passageways are mostly closed, so each basement must be accessed separately through trap doors from the stores above.
The underground Chinesca spans across the downtown center of Mexicali, an area of the city adjacent to the US-Mexico border. When prohibition in the US began in the 1920s, La Chinesca's proximity to the border became an advantage, and the underground tunnels became the center point for Mexicali's casinos, brothels, and bars. Bootleggers began to use the tunnel system to smuggle liquor and to provide access from the US to Mexicali's bordellos and the Chinese opium dens, according to Chen.
Esteban Leon, the president of the Chinese Association of Mexicali, explained that in the 1920s, Chinese immigrants outnumbered the Mexicans in the town—by about 10,000 to 700—and had begun to gain political and territorial power. By the late 1920s, he says the Chinese population had also gained a stronghold over organized crime in gambling and prostitution rings that spread to other parts of the nation and up through California.
Everything changed in 1934, when general Lázaro Cárdenas became president of Mexico. His election campaign had planned an ambitious land reform based on Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, which stated that the land should be in the hands of the Mexican people, not foreigners. A wave of anti-immigrant sentiment spread across the nation, most fiercely throughout the states of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California. There was a strong resistance from the immigrants who fought for their land; much of it was taken from them by force, and many were tortured and massacred in the fields.
In Mexicali, however, the land was technically still owned by the Colorado River Company, so although the immigrants lost their turf, they were spared from what was happening in the neighboring states. La Chinesca became a hideout for the hundreds of Chinese immigrants who fled from Sinaloa and Sonora seeking refuge in the basements of their fellow countrymen. Esteban, whose father was one of these early Chinese immigrants in Mexicali, recalls that his father had a boat ready to leave from Ensenada to reach the United States in case the violence did arrive in Mexicali.
Immigrants continued living underground until the late 70s, until frequent flooding in the basements of La Chinesca finally pushed the last residents out. Evidence of these floods is still visible, the dimly lit walls in various basements are water-stained right up to exits.
When you visit La Chinesca today, there are only these faint reminders of what they once were. One basement has been staged as a den of iniquity, with roulette tables and cards; another has walls painted with twisting mythological creatures and a day bed with long-stemmed pipes resting on a nightstand within arms reach. Others have been left as simple abodes with family heirlooms decorating the walls and floors. All the basements are very musty, with ancient crumbling paint, and only several have been equipped with lighting.
There are roughly 5,000 Chinese immigrants who live above ground in Mexicali today, and the city remains a hub for Chinese culture in Mexico. But La Chinesca remains as a symbol of the former subterranean life that existed and a testament to the conflicts and persecution they experienced through fighting for acceptance.
See more of Erin Lee Holland's photography here.