Shared Culture Across Oceans: A Blog Post for AAPI Month

The china poblana, a traditional Mexican skirt, seems quintessentially ‘Mexican’ at first glance, and they typically come embroidered with the national emblem of the eagle perched on a nopal eating a serpent, but the skirt’s history is too layered and diverse to be tied to just one country, or even one continent. The skirt is not unique in that respect. Indeed, the china poblana, like the piñata and many other cultural objects and icons from Mexico, has roots in Asia or other continents (check out this blog post for more on the piñata’s history).

You don’t know how special a china poblana is until you have seen the work that goes into sewing every tiny little sequin onto the cloth. The skirt shimmers in the light and dazzles with brilliant colors. On the outside, it is seamless. If you look on the reverse side of the cloth, you see the thousands of stitches and crossed threads, evidence of the hours and hours that went into the creation of this masterpiece. My grandma took five years to sew me a china poblana. Admittedly, she embroidered at a relaxed pace, but it was a true labor of love. She sewed me a much smaller version when I was a child, and I wore it on Halloween. My friend dressed up as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. I said I wanted to be Dorothy, too. My family told me I was “Mexican Dorothy.” I paraded very proudly around the neighborhood that Halloween.

The national significance of the skirt cannot be overstated, either, though its origins are international. Not only is the national emblem typically part of the design, but women wear the skirt during the numerous annual parades and processions all around the country. There is even a statue “La China Poblana” in Puebla along the very patriotic “Diag. Defensores de la República” and “Blvd. Héroes del 5 de Mayo.” Cinco de Mayo, by the way, is the Anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, when the military defeated (temporarily) the French forces of Napoleon III, and is not to be confused with Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 15th /16th). If you translate the words china poblana literally, it means “Chinese woman of Puebla.” This is not the only interpretation of the name, however. The word ‘china’ also has origins in other indigenous Latin American languages that had nothing to do with Asian ancestry and became a pejorative way of referring to socioeconomically disadvantaged women, which is awful on several levels, but that is not the context of the term today and does not align with the legacy that I take from the skirt. This is significant though because it means the china poblana might be ni china ni poblana (neither Chinese nor from Puebla). However, the skirt was popular in Puebla, and a myth of la China Poblana as a woman who lived in Puebla of Asian origin persists.

Her name was Catarina de San Juan, she lived in the 17th century, and while her story has been embellished over the years, the skirt’s ties to Asia or other continents are highly plausible. Catarina was not from China. According to the Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, “although she was born into an aristocratic family in India, Catarina was baptized and sold into the slave trade before arriving in New Spain.” The beginning of Catarina’s story is a product of colonization, a painful point of shared history between Asia and Latin America. According to the Houston Institute for Culture, her name might have been Mirrha and she probably came to Mexico via the Philippines. She later married and became a saint due to her visions. Yet it seems that she did not wear anything resembling the china poblana skirt. The skirt is possibly an “adaptation of a Spanish one, perhaps derived from the attire of the Andalusian maja or the women of Lagartera, Toledo” (de Orellana et al., 2003, p. 68). For centuries, Spain was under Islamic rule, and Islamic culture left its stamp in Spanish music and language. Indeed, “the region was called “al-Andalus because the center of Muslim rule was in Andalusia.” It would not be a stretch to imagine Islamic culture, which spans Africa and Asia, as the inspiration for the china poblana. The Spanish brought their layered history with them when they came to the New World. It’s also quite possible because of the extensive commerce between Asia and Latin America that elements of the dress did come to us directly from Asia and were then modified and adapted and blended with existing Mexican styles to become the distinctive skirt we know today. During the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, transpacific galleons sailed annually from Manila to Acapulco (i.e. between the two Spanish colonies that are now the Philippines and Mexico). Sequins that date back 12,000 years have been discovered on Indonesian islands. In fact, the word sequin comes from the Arabic word sikka, which the Smithsonian Magazine says means “coin” or “minting die,” and sequins and similar adornments were used for centuries in Europe and the Middle East. It’s worth noting that although most likely Catarina herself was not the inspiration for the skirt, there are longstanding communities of Asian immigrants and their descendants throughout Mexico and Latin America

            We may never know the exact origin of the china poblana skirt, but it is an example of how to be culturally ‘Mexican’ or ‘Latin American’ is to be a constellation of cultural influences from all around the world. Just the fact that to this day the skirt is still associated with a woman of Asian ancestry is a testament to the enduring impact and extent of cultural exchange between Latin America and Asia. Despite conflicts caused by colonization and economic structures, Latin Americans/diaspora have more commonalities with other communities than differences. Right here in Tucson, Chinese immigrants and their children worked, ate, and played together in the barrios alongside Mexican/Chicanx families, and that story was captured in the Borderlands Theater production Westside Stories and lives on in dishes like ‘Chinese chorizo.’ (Learn more about Chinese chorizo here.) That’s part of what makes Tucson magic. It's the kind of place where Asian-American friends of mine joined mariachis and celebrated Día de los Muertos, and I attended events at the Chinese Cultural Center and watched Lion Dances at Mission Garden, an organization that celebrates the diversity of our hometown through agriculture. 

One of my friends performed a folklorico choreography as a gift to me at my quinceañera. A Latina friend of mine fell in love with Bollywood growing up, and we created our own Bollywood choreographies with our families and performed them in our back yards with friends of all kinds of backgrounds, including friends with Bangladeshi, Indian, and African heritage. This was a tradition for several years. The china poblana emphasizes that legacy of cultural collaboration. When we come together, we create rich, brilliant, and immortal cultural icons that survive the test of time and will continue to be passed down for generations. There is no “them” and “us.” We are all connected by cross-stitched stars of thread across oceans, continents, and time, like something lovingly sewn by an abuela for her grandchildren to wear even after she is gone.

For more information about the historical and cultural connection between Asia and Latin America, check out this book list.