A Chinese Family Odyssey


It could be said that the idea for this exhibition had its beginning when I was a child. While eating one of those rice cakes that only my grandmother knew how to make, and which were my favorites, I overheard her tell my mother about her crossing from China to El Salvador. What I remember about her story is that she and my grandfather, who were newly married, came at the request of her father-in-law, my great grandfather, who had already settled in El Salvador; and that on their way here, they were detained for several days on an island in the United States.

That seed was planted when I was eight years old but did not germinate until I had to emigrate to the United States. Watching a program on Ellis Island, the famous island near New York, whose immigration center was the entrance of thousands of Europeans, the notion that this could be the island of my grandmother’s memories crossed my mind. But that would not have been entirely possible, since coming from Asia one would cross the Pacific Ocean and not the Atlantic. Stung by curiosity, and looking to learn about my father’s journey, I began by reading about Chinese immigration to the United States. I discovered Angel Island, off the coast of San Francisco, where there was another immigration center. Here, thousands of Chinese people who wanted to enter the United States or in transit to other countries to the south, such as Mexico and El Salvador, were processed and detained.
​Unlike Ellis Island, where Europeans were subjected to restrictions barring the entry of some, but not most immigrants, the Angel Island Immigration Station employed discriminatory policies that were used to prevent Asians from entering the country. This approach was a consequence of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the result of years of racial hostility by white Americans against Chinese immigrant workers.

The predominantly Chinese immigrants who were detained at Angel Island were not welcomed in the United States. As recounted by one detained in 1940: "When we arrived, they locked us up like criminals in compartments like the cages at the zoo." Held in these "cages" for weeks, often months, individuals were subjected to rounds of long and stressful interrogations to assess the legitimacy of their immigration applications.

Many of the detainees turned to poetry as expression, spilling their emotions onto the very walls that contained them. Many of these poems were written in pencil or brushed in ink, and then carved into the wooden walls or floors. Some of the poems are bitter and angry, placid and contemplative, and some are even hopeful.
China Palace
​My father arrived in El Salvador from China in 1924. On his way he was detained on Angel Island, where hundreds of poems were carved on the walls of the barracks by Chinese, who, like him, passed through this immigration center. Surviving discriminatory laws in El Salvador, he became a business man and in 1961 he opened the first Chinese restaurant in San Salvador, which he called China Palace.

Golden Anniversay
My maternal grandparents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1974. On their trip from China to El Salvador, as newlyweds,  they were detained on Angel Island. The poem in the background can be translated as:
   Thousands of poems cover these walls,
   They are cries of complaint and sadness.
   The day I am free and attain success,
   I must remember this chapter once existed.
The Other Face Of The Immigrant
​This is a self-portrait over a collage of newspaper headlines and articles celebrating my accomplishments. It presents a positive face of immigration in contrast to pervasive negative immigrant stereotypes.


My father was born in a small village near Canton, China, in or around 1911. His family was by no means rich, but they were one of the wealthiest in the village. He was the oldest of three children and, in his generation, the only male child in the whole family, which made him every­body's favorite. When he was 10 or 11, someone who thought he could take advantage of his importance to the family –the only name-carrying child– unsuccessfully tried to kidnap him. After several years of worrying about the possibility of this happening again, his parents decided to send him out of the country. One of my father's uncles, who had already settled in El Salvador, offered to take him. That's how, at age 13, my father found himself leaving everything that was familiar to him, en route to an unknown land, which he had not even heard of before.

After arriving in El Salvador, my father worked for his uncle for several years. He once told me those were the most difficult years of his life. He came without knowing the language, which he had to learn on his own, and slept on the floor in the back of the store. 
Worst of all, there was a widespread dislike for Chinese people. "We were nothing, worth nothing," he would recall, "We were treated worse than dogs." He would be called dero­gative names such as Chino Cochino (dirty chink) or Chino come-rata (rat-eating chink).

In the 1930's a small group of politi­cians started a campaign against for­eigners, especially of Asian descent. When one of these politicians became president of the country, a law was passed that wouldn't allow Chinese to immigrate to El Salvador. Banks fol­lowed suit and stopped granting loans to Chinese merchants, at the same time people boycotted their establish­ments. Fortunes were lost, and they almost succeeded in driving all the Chinese out of the country. Some, like my father, stayed. "I didn't have any place else to go" he told me, "I had worked so hard for what I had and I wasn't going to leave." Little by little people's feelings changed again. My father got married, and started his own business, importing dried and canned goods and spices. Later on he ventured into the restau­rant business, opening the first Chinese restaurant in El Salvador in 1961.

F O U R    G E N E R A T I O N S
Rogelio - Nicolás - Rodrigo - Sebastian
Sofía - Saumuy Sofía - Julia Sofía - Victoria Sofía

I was born in El Salvador in 1958, the second of four children. When I was growing up the popular hatred toward Asians had abated. That doesn’t mean that prejudice didn’t exist. I could feel it in the occasional “chino-cochino” or “ching-chang-chong” yelled at me on the streets. Still, through my youthful eyes, I never experienced any overt discrimination. By staying out of trouble and politics, and practicing the “live and let live” way of life, the Chinese community was able to blend in, and in a way be assimilated.

Life was good, I thought, by the time I graduated from high school. Little I knew that a major conflict was in the making, and in 1980 a major civil war broke out with fighting on the streets and massacres on the countryside. The opposition (or guerrillas as they were called) resorted to kidnapping for ransom to finance its fight. Fearing for my life, my father decided that it was best for me to leave the country.

In order to come to the United States I quickly enrolled in the English language institute of a state college in Mississippi, while I applied to different universities around the country. 
​On my first day on campus, walking into the school cafeteria, I was faced for the first time in my life with a glaring and palpable racial division – White students were seated on one side of the cafeteria while African Americans were on the opposite sides. The few Asians and Latinos were seated randomly in the middle. That day and over my college years I learned what is to be a minority in this country, and to not be accepted. Soon I learned the meaning of “chink”, “gook”, “wetback”, “spic” and many other derogatory terms hurdled at me or my friends.

After graduating from college I moved to Washington, DC, became a permanent resident and eventually an American citizen. The nation’s capital, a melting pot of different races and nationalities, has provided me with a safe place to live, but the current anti-immigration movement happening in the country worries me, and the occasional slur thrown at me reminds me that we might not be welcome here. Maybe we are galloping guests, and if not me, the future generation will look for new horizons elsewhere.

Chao Mein and Pupusas
As immigrants, one of the things we miss the most, besides our family, is our traditional food. My parents adapted local products to prepare those Chinese dishes they yearned for so much. Similarly I adapted the recipes of Salvadorian dishes when I moved to the United States. These traditional dishes and products are part of what we bring to our new country.

Cuidado - Not Wanted
Inspired by old WANTED posters, I have created two works, one in English and one in Spanish, citing the terms used to justify the expulsion of Chinese immigrants from El Salvador in the 1940s. Recently the United States has been using the same ploy to deport thousands of Latin Americans.
Sopa de letras - Wordplay
There are dozens of derogatory terms used to insult Chinese people, both in English and Spanish. Using the popular Wordplay game these terms are hidden in a grid of letters, one for each language. My father and I have been called some of these terms.