Working with Chinese Hands

Extractivism, Development, and Worldmaking in Latin America (1840s-1920s)

Nino Vallen

During the second half of the nineteenth century, throughout the Americas, people came to consider Chinese hands as instrumental to national progress and the modernization of economies capable of catering to emerging global markets. Such ideas led to the influx of hundreds of thousands of contract laborers, who worked on sugar and cotton plantations, in guano pits, and on the construction of railroad lines. Rendering an important and long-disregarded contribution to the development of many Latin American countries, these migrants facilitated resource booms and contributed to economic recovery after subsequent busts. However, the establishment of exploitative labor regimes also brought problems to the region, including ecological destruction and wide-spread racial discrimination against Asians, whose presence came to be considered a threat to national modernization projects.

Against the background of these developments, the project explores how, in the disputes over processes of global integration and the distribution of its benefits, the Chinese migrant worker emerged as a protagonist in various stories explaining how the particular uses of human and natural resources would lead to the making of a better world. Who told these stories and for what purposes? How did people respond to radically different narratives, pitting, for instance, Western stories about development against Asian or indigenous stories about the interrelation between humans and nature? What strategies did different actors use to promote the attractiveness of their own stories or to disqualify those of their opponents? By identifying different narratives and exploring the dialogues between them, the project aims to add historical depth to the current discussions about the uses of human and natural resources that are fueled by the growing resistance to the extractivist paradigm. Tracing various stories told in different parts of Peru and by members of different groups in Peruvian society, it seeks not only to gain insights into the notions of Latin America’s place in the world order that people held, but also reveal how these stories shaped social worlds as well as processes of racial world-making, the deep embedding of narratives that shaped how people understood race in their organization of the world. Finally, by rendering visible this plurality of worlds emerging in the context of transpacific interactions, the project seeks to reflect on efforts in our current times to rethink the relationship between the economy and the environment, between development and disparity, which is crucial to the making of our future worlds.