2017 Photo Contest, People, 1st prize



Michael Vince Kim

01 September, 2016

Henequen plants growing in Havana. Early Korean immigrants to Cuba labored hard on henequen plantations.

In 1905, around 1,000 Koreans arrived in Mexico aboard the SS Ilford. They alighted in Salina Cruz in the state of Oaxaca, and then traveled by steamboat to Progreso, on the Yucatán Peninsula. The Koreans had departed an impoverished country and were promised future prosperity, but were destined instead to be indentured laborers—a form of bonded contract labor in which they were forced to work for low wages for four or five years.

The immigrants were set to work on henequen plantations, in harsh conditions. Henequen, a variety of agave plant used in rope making, generated vast revenues for Mexico. The immigrants (most of whom were men) worked side-by-side with local Mayans, often learning the Mayan language in preference to the Spanish of their masters, and many went on to marry local Mayan women. Most laborers expected to return to their homeland, but by 1910 Korea had been incorporated into the Japanese Empire, and so many decided to stay in Mexico. With the decline in demand for henequen after World War I, a number of Koreans went on to seek work elsewhere in Mexico and in Cuba. Second-generation Korean-Mexicans often lost their parents’ language and traditions. More recently, young people of Korean descent are proving eager to pick up again on their cultural heritage.

About the photographer

Michael Vince Kim

Michael Vince Kim’s work focuses on the state of cultural limbo caused by migration and displacement. While studying Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, his inte...

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