Even though Mexicali is the capital of Baja California, it’s a city regularly overlooked by tourists. Viewed often as simply the gateway to San Felipe, Mexicali’s wide streets and tranquil vibe are a stark contrast to other clamorous border cities like Tijuana. It’s home to the Clamato cocktail and boasts some of the best craft breweries on the peninsula. But perhaps Mexicali’s most unique claim to fame comes courtesy of their Chinese immigrants.
The Chinese began arriving to the Imperial Valley region in the mid to late 1800s to build the railroad and then as workers for the Colorado River Land Company, a U.S. company that designed and constructed the extensive irrigation system in the Mexicali Valley. Many of the workers who came to the region to work, were forced to leave the U.S. after their contract ended. Instead of returning to China, many settled just over the border in Mexicali and concentrated in a neighborhood that became known as “La Chinesca.” Today, La Chinesca is the largest Chinatown in all of Mexico. At one time in the early 1900s, the Chinese outnumbered the Mexicans in Mexicali three to one. Even though there are fewer than 2,000 Chinese remaining in Mexicali today, their influence is felt in La Chinesca as well as the more than 200 Chinese restaurants that are found around the city.
The heart of La Chinesca is at the intersection of Calle Benito Juárez and Calle Altamarino. The actual La Chinesca neighborhood appears a tad rundown from its outward appearance. But the interesting history of the neighborhood lies underfoot. To avoid the oppressive heat of the region, the Chinese built a matrix of underground basements and tunnels where they lived and worked.
During the era of prohibition, the Chinese immigrants opened bars, casinos, hotels, and restaurants in Mexicali to attract people from the U.S. The glitz and glamour of the city at that time, helped make it the setting for a number of Hollywood movies and attracted stars such as Gene Autry and Charlie Chaplin. Bootleggers expanded the underground basements and tunnels of La Chinesca to provide clandestine pathways between the casinos, bordellos, and opium dens.
There are more than 40 basements in La Chinesca all in the area of one-and-a-half square blocks. Today most of the connecting doors are sealed and most entrances to the basements are accessed by entering through individual businesses in La Chinesca. In guided tours of La Chinesca, visitors explore the underworld of Mexicali through a series of clandestine entrances—a door tucked away in the back of a watch repair and pawn shop, a trap door in the floor of a pharmacy, a hidden stairway in the back of a heavy metal t-shirt shop. Underground, visitors view old artifacts and learn stories of the way that the Chinese immigrants lived and worked nearly a century ago. Glimpses into the the past that are an important part of the region’s history.
Tours of the La Chinesca underground are offered Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through Origenes y Secretos de La Chinesca (Reforma 306, tel. 686/150-3694, US$8). Only offered in Spanish.