SAN JUAN – Prof. Jose Lee Borges has published a book entitled “Los Chinos en Puerto Rico” (The Chinese in Puerto Rico), the first ever written about the Asian minority on the island.
In an interview Tuesday with EFE, the Miami-born son of a Chinese father and Cuban mother said the book offers “an intelligent, compassionate look at what it meant to be Chinese in Puerto Rico” from the time two centuries ago when they were forcibly shipped here as prisoners from Cuba, their first destination after leaving the Far East.
The book includes an introduction in which Borges tells of his childhood and “the concept of being Chinese,” followed by four chapters about the Asian workers who were made prisoners in Cuba, then sent to Puerto Rico where they went back to being laborers, and how the Puerto Rican press portrayed the Chinese.
Borges, 41, said that most of the information he found and published afterwards in his book came from 10 years of wide-ranging research at the General Archive and National Library of Puerto Rico.
He said that the first group of Chinese – 350 people – came to the island as construction workers on the Puerto Rico Central Highway, specifically on the stretch from Caguas to Cayey through the island’s interior.
“Foremen in Puerto Rico even said that without Chinese labor, the highway could never have been completed,” according to Borges, who will hold his book presentation this Thursday at the old City Hall of Caguas.
These Chinese first emigrated to Cuba from their own country to escape the conflicts of the 19th century Opium Wars, then came to Puerto Rico.
The first who went to Cuba were hired to work on sugar plantations, and though, according to Borges, they were said to have worked a maximum of 12 hours a day, in most cases the big landowners made them work even longer.
“But when they went to work on the plantations, the owners didn’t pay them and many began to take revenge. They ended up as prisoners, and while serving their sentences, were often sent to Puerto Rico which was in need of a workforce,” the professor of history and humanities said.
“Once they had served their sentences, they stayed in Puerto Rico and began to establish Chinese restaurants,” Borges said, like the one opened on Calle Tanca in Old San Juan in 1890.
Borges noted that most of the 17,000 Chinese currently living in Puerto Rico work in the approximately 600 restaurants offering Chinese fare.
He recalled that his father also owned a Chinese restaurant in Puerto Rico.
The book, over 400 pages long with 50 photos, includes the portrait of a Chinese man working at Culebrita Lighthouse, one of the 15 lookout posts that were used by the U.S. military in Puerto Rico, and whose construction was begun in 1882 and was completed in 1886.