On the margins’ margins – Asian Latinos – Latasian 101

A common misconception about Latinos they are a racially homogeneous people. In Los Angeles and elsewhere, the word “Mexican” is used to refer to pretty much anyone who looks like they may have roots south of the Rio Grande, regardless of country of origin. I assume the same goes for Puerto Ricans and Cubans in areas where they dominate, although I’m not sure. I’ve heard the Honduran Latino population of New Orleans described as “Mexican” by more than one person.

Barrio Chino, Habana, Cuba
Habana, Cuba

This misconception is, ironically, inadvertently furthered by many Latinos themselves. Though the concepts of “brown pride” and “La Raza,” are used to instill pride in Chicanos, mestizos, or those with Spanish ancestry (depending on how they’re applied), at the same time they effectively marginalize Latinos with African and Asian ancestry, despite their being no less Latino by definition. Furthermore, in the 2006 US Census, 48% of Latinos described themselves as white/European-American. Only 6% described themselves as of “two or more races.” In fact, the majority of Latinos are clearly of mixed, partially indigenous heritage. The census question may be a trick, since, as most people know, any actual white person will steadfastly self-identify as Native American, claiming a great-great-great grandparent who was (usually) Cherokee.

Japanese Brazilians

What distinguishes countries in the New World from those in the Old is that here there’s no such thing as a Nation-State and no countries in the western hemisphere correspond to a single ethinicity. Just as is the case in Anglo America (The Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Guyana, Jamaica, the United States and the Virgin Islands), there are Latinos whose race is Asian, black, Native, white or a combination thereof. In observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, which begins today, the focus of this blog on Asian Latinos aims to highlight just one example of the under-recognized heterogeneity of Latino culture.

Lulu Jam

Asian/Pacific Islanders have a history in what is now called Latin America that goes back thousands of years to when the descendants of paleo-Siberians crossed the Bering land bridge, headed south from North America and moved into Central and South America. Thousands of years later, Austronesians settled Rapa Nui (sometime between 300 and 1200). Although still fairly far from modern day Chile (although much closer than to their southern Chinese ancestral lands), there is strong evidence that these Polynesians traded with the Mapuche, who live in what is now Chile and Argentina. This has been surmised from several clues. One is the presence of sweet potatoes in Rapa Nui, which are indigenous to South America and in all likelihood couldn’t survive a sea voyage without human aid. In addition, the Rapa Nui referred to the islet of Sala y Gómez to Rapa Nui’s east as “Manu Motu Motiro Hiva,” meaning, “Bird’s islet on the way to a far away land;” that “far away land” is presumably a reference to South America. Finally, in 2007 a group of scientist subjected bones of an Aracuana chicken (dated to have lived between 1304 and 1424) to be tied by its DNA to chickens in Tonga and American Samoa.

It wasn’t until the arrival of the Spanish that the concept of Latin America was created by Romance language-speaking European conquerors. From the the earliest days of conquest, the Spanish were accompanied by Asians. The first significant arrivals from Asia were Filipinos who, as early as 1565, escaped from their Spanish masters and settled mainly in Mexico. Many more Asians followed, primarily Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese laborers, the greatest number in the 19th century. In some South American countries today, the populations of Asian citizens aren’t just noteworthy, they’re dominant. In Dutch-speaking (so therefore not Latin American by most definitions) Suriname, the overwhelming majority of citizens are Asian. In English-speaking Guyana, a plurality are Asian. In French Guiana, 22% of the population are at least in part Asian. Brazil is second only to Japan in numbers of Japanese people.

Ana Gabriel – La Reina

Most Asian Latinos live in South America. Despite their presence in Latin America, where they number over four million, Asian Latinos are still, no doubt, the least recognized racial group among Latinos. In the US, the number of Asian Latinos of Asian ancestry alone is estimated to be around 300,000. Many more Latinos have a mix of ancestries, including Asian. The magazine Revista Oriental, founded in 1931, is still published in Peru and focuses on Asian Latinos there and elsewhere in Latin America. Many Asian Latinos have immigrated to the US, most often in cities like Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and South Florida.

Liberdade, Sao Paulo
Liberdade, Sao Paulo

Whereas in Latin America most Asian Latinos are Latino by virtue of their many generations of presence in the region, in the US, Asian Latino culture tends to be the product not of Latino Asian immigrants, but rather from a domestic mix of the two cultures, often in the neighborhoods of the San Gabriel Valley, Gardena, Atlanta, Milwaukee and (historically) Boyle Heights.

Anish (Nara Back)

The difference between centuries of organic fusion and more recent combinations can be seen in the differences of cuisines of Cuba and Peru and the newer, more delibarate Asian-Latino fusion common in the US as evinced by the fare of Kogi BBQ, Asia de Cuba, Cha Cha Chili, Danu, Marazul, Stingray Sushi Bar, Tamari and Asian Latino Grill and Vive.

Other examples of the ongoing integration of Asian and Latino cultures in the US can be seen in the solidarity between Filipino and Mexican farmworkers in FALA, art exhibits like Tigers and Jaguars and projects like the Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana’s The Ties that Bind.

Barrio Chino, Lima
Lima, Peru


Many Asian Latinos have made significant contributions to academia, athletics, medicine, politics and, of course, the arts, although, in many cases, their Asian Latino heritage goes unmentioned. In film, as with all Latinos, the notion of Latino homogeneity/interchangability almost always works in the favor of White Hispanics/non-Latinos like Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz (or Welsh and Brits like Catherine Zeta Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Alfred Molina), while brown people play background gang members and Asian and black Latinos don’t exist. For example, in real life, Paula Crisostomo was a Chilipina (Chicano/Filipina), but in the film Walkout, she was portrayed by the snow white Alexa Vega.

Paula ChrisostomoAlexa Vega
The real Paula Chrisostomo (left) and her cinematic version (right)… the resemblence is eerie

Given their population distribution, it’s not surprising that most Asian Latinos in film and TV (behind and in front of the camera) are in Latin America, although as the list shows, there are a couple of widely recognized Asian Latinos in Hollywood too.

Aline NakashimaAnderson LauAnnie Yep

               Aline Nakashima                  Anderson Lau                                       Annie Yep


Barbara MoriDaniele SuzukiDaisy Marie
            Barbara Mori                           Daniele Suzuki                              Daisy Marie

Fred ArmisenJeri LeeJin Yoo-Kim

                 Fred Armisen                                          Jeri Lee                           Jin Yoo-Kim

Kirk AcevedoMarvin Trini IshmaelSabrina Sato Rahal

                 Kirk Acevedo                      Marvin “Trini” Ishmael         Sabrina Sato Rahal

Sergio NakasoneTizuka Yamasaki
   Sergio Nakasone Tizuka Yamasaki

Not pictured: Hernán Takeda

Lisa Ono

Asian Latinos in music are more often citizens of Latin American countries, although, as with those in film and TV, this list includes some Americans too. Alberto “Beto” Shiroma, Alfonso Leng, Ana Gabriel (nee María Yong), Anjulie, Arlen Siu, Brownman, Cansei de Ser Sexy’s Lovefoxxx, Carlos Galvan, Cassie Ventura, Cesar Ichikawa, Camillo Wong “Chino” Moreno, Hiromi Hayakawa, Jasmine Villegas, Jorge Peña Hen, Kelis, Kiuge Hayashida, Leonardo Lam, Lisa Ono, Lulu Jam‘s Nara Back (Anish) and Takaomi Saito, Melinda Lira, Menudo’s Christopher Moy, Michio Nishihara, Pato Fu’s Fernanda Takai, Patty Wong, Sum 41’s Dave Baksh and Kokeshi’s Viviana Shieh/Shuy.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Click here to offer financial support and thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s