Los Coreanos

Los Chinos or Los Coreanos?

In Nogales, Korean business community thrives

Man Ku Baek, A Korean business owner in downtown Nogales, Ariz., watches a Korean television show behind his cash register at Susan’s Fashion.

On a warm October afternoon, Man Ku Baek stands in front of Susan’s Fashion, his business in downtown Nogales, Ariz., with his hands cupped leisurely behind his back. He observes border-crossing visitors who came to purchase their daily goods; generic clothing, Mexican-inspired decorative pieces and general home supplies. To his left is Jaewon Kim, who is placing brightly-colored plastic flowers on a booth for display. A few hundred feet from their storefront, Nogales, Sonora, shines through gaps in the rusted steel fence that marks the U.S./Mexico border.

Moments later, Baek makes his way past tightly-packed racks of men’s and women’s clothing as he walks towards his cash register. He walks past Susan Kim, whose Spanish flows perfectly as she speaks with a customer who just purchased a few women’s tops. In the back of the building past rows of plastic flowers, wreaths and figurines of La Virgen de Guadalupe, Geungyeol Ju unpacks boxes of men’s collared shirts.

The four business owners are part of Nogales’ Korean business community, an insular group of about 40 families who many locals mistakingly refer to as “los chinos,” the Chinese. Baek says most retail stores in downtown Nogales, about 75 percent, are now owned by Koreans. Many of them are first-generation immigrants who were unable to open businesses in larger cities that were already over-saturated upon their arrival to the U.S. They heard about burgeoning business opportunities in border towns through word of mouth within the Korean community.

Korean immigrants started moving to Nogales in the 1980s according to Baek. The first was Mr. Shin, who arrived in 1985 after many years of operating small businesses in Brazil. Most came with little money and started out by participating in the local swap meet. Eventually, they saved up enough money to lease vacant buildings in the downtown area that were left behind by the large Jewish community who operated most businesses before them.

“My generation came to the United States with empty pockets,” Baek says. “They didn’t have a chance to get education. My generation needed living. We open business in U.S. to bring in money, to eat, to survive.”

Baek is familiar with the struggle to survive. He and his family fled to from North Korea to Incheon, South Korea in 1951 during the Korean War. At the time, North Korean refugees were often impoverished and faced discrimination in the south. He started learning taekwondo shortly after his older brother, Moon Ku Baek, began practicing for self-defense.

“When we moved to South Korea, we had it very hard for living,” Baek says. “I had to protect myself in school. My brother said ‘Hey, you do this with me,’ because I was weak. After a few years, I had more confidence.”

Baek was a second-degree black belt by the time he graduated high school. His first job after school was teaching U.S. Army troops taekwondo in Seoul. There, he lived on the military base and began learning English.

In 1974, his brother invited him to immigrate to Cleveland, Ohio, to teach taekwondo in his dojo.  He taught in the evenings and at local universities and community colleges during the day.

Shortly after moving to Cleveland, Bake opened his first business with his other brother, a restaurant called Mr. Here’s in Canton, Ohio. Together, they opened two more restuarants before his brothers moved west to California, fleeing the Ohio winter. Baek took over the businesses his brothers left behind, but he also grew tired of the winter, and decided to move west to be with his family.

Baek didn’t move to Nogales by choice. He wanted to stay close to his brothers in California, but he left after failing to open a successful business in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles, Calif. He looked into opening a store in Calexico, but settled in Nogales in 1995 because of its milder weather. He was one of the first Korean immigrants to set up shop in the town.

“Before they don’t understand. They say ‘Who is these Chinese, Korean people?’” Baek says. “Now, we are trying to get together with Mexico side and explain what’s going on, who we are.”

Nogales brought new challenges for Baek.

“In this area, 90 percent people speak Spanish,” Baek says. “It was very difficult because I never speak Spanish. A lot of (Korean) people fail and move out. They have to speak Spanish to be successful.”

Baek, like many other Korean business owners in Nogales, picked up Spanish from his store employees. He says his experience running restaurants and taekwondo dojos in Ohio allowed him to run his business successfully as his employees helped him confront the language barrier. He also says his keen business sense comes from the discipline learned through taekwondo. He no longer teaches it, but the martial art is still very important to him.

“I quit 10 years ago,” Baek says. “But myself in the morning, I still do it because that is my life.”

Taekwondo is also a way for Baek to preserve the Korean culture he left behind when he moved to the U.S. Taekwondo like other cultural practices, it is done in solidarity or privately in small groups. Korean culture is not outwardly practiced in Nogales, but the community holds onto tradition in small ways.

Mrs. Kim organizes clothes on the wall at Susan's Fashion in downtown Nogales, Ariz.

In Soon Kim sits in the inventory room of the second floor of Kim’s Shoes, which she co-owns with her husband. Kim inputs stock inventory on her laptop and occasionally digs through stacks of boxes and disheveled piles of packaged hats, shoes and shirts.

“Work, work, I always work. I work more than employees,” Kim says. “I don’t enjoy it, but I have to keep my business.”

She returns to her laptop and momentarily takes a break and points to a speaker mounted on the ceiling. It is playing mariachi music from a Sonoran radio station.

“I always hear Spanish music at work,” Kim says. “When I’m home, my husband turn on sports channel.”

Kim says it’s difficult to maintain Korean culture in Nogales, where it is competing with more prominent Hispanic and American influences.

Kim used to watch Korean broadcast channels through DIRECTV, but since the recession hit in 2008, she hasn’t been able to pay the high cost of specialized programming. Her husband receives Korean newspapers, but they often arrive late and in stacks.

“By then it isn’t news anymore,” Kim says.

When Kim first moved to Orange County in 1983, she said there were no Korean broadcast channels to watch in the United States. She felt disconnected from Korean current events, even starting to forget the dates of Korean holidays, like Chuseok, Korea’s version of Thanksgiving. She was reminded of it one day when her daughter came home with a paper model of songpyeon, a rice cake traditionally eaten on the holiday.

“My daughter come home from pre-school and said, ‘My teacher said it was Chuseok.’ I forgot about Chuseok,” Kim says. “Now we can see in the Internet…When I see that, I remember.”

Mr. baek and Mrs. Kim prepare Korean side dishes for lunch at Susan's Fashion.

Mr. baek and Mrs. Kim prepare Korean side dishes for lunch at Susan’s Fashion.

In Susan’s Fashion, Baek and other business owners often stream Korean news broadcasts and television shows on their laptops. Every day around noon, (Susan) Kim shouts to the others that it’s time for lunch. Baek, Ju and (Jaewon) Kim gather in the middle of the building and lay out Tupperware containers full of kimchi, pickled bean sprouts, Korean pancakes and other side dishes. They line up one-by-one to fill their bowls with rice from a small, red rice cooker tucked away underneath suspended dresses on a rack against a wall.

In their spare time, some play hwatu, a Korean card game based on the Japanese hanafuda playing cards.

A small Korean church serves the community with weekly services and special gatherings for holidays. Most churchgoers are women, but Kim says some women, like herself, don’t regularly attend. “They have social life in the church,” Kim says. “Men have social life in the golf course.” For Kim, her social life revolves around the store she owns, the food she eats and her native language.

“Most people they born in Korea and lived in Korea. They used to culture in Korea,” Kim says. “I live here 30 years, but I’m still Korean. I eat Korean food and I speak Korean. As long as we speak Korean, that keeps the culture.”

For the Korean business community, preserving their culture is only a part of establishing their identity in the area. They are often confused with a handful of Chinese business owners in Nogales, Sonora. Many citizens on both sides of the border walk into mistakingly refer to them as “los chinos,” the Chinese.

Heeya Ju went to Nogales High School. She says she was the only Asian in her classes, making it easy to establish her identity, even if it wasn’t one she wanted.

“They think it’s all Chinese,” Ju says. “They called me ‘china.’ They would ask me, ‘Do you speak Asian?’ It kind of annoyed me, the attention, but it’s how I got to meet people.”

Most Korean youth in Nogales attended Rio Rico High School, but Ju wanted to experience being in the minority. Ju says most of her friends spoke Spanish and they helped the basic dialogue she learned helping her parents out at their shop. “My Spanish is based on business talk,” Ju says. In return, she educated her peers on Korean culture.

For Ju, being around her Korean peers in Nogales was also a different experience than in her previous homes in Seoul and Houston, Texas. She says Korean youth who were born and raised in Nogales weren’t characteristically of their own culture, but more of Mexico’s.

“They were kind of ‘Mexican-washed,’” Ju says laughing. “They really connected with Mexicans because of the prejudice both of them faced with white people.”

Baek says the Korean community has been reaching out to both sides of the border to inform their customers about who they are. In Nogales, Sonora, they donate money and clothing to orphanages and nursing homes.

“Before they don’t understand. They say ‘Who is these Chinese, Korean people?’” Baek says. “Now, we are trying to get together with Mexico side and explain what’s going on, who we are.”

The Korean business community is also heavily involved in the Downtown Merchants Association in Nogales, Ariz.

“We need to be here to keep our business and community clean and safe,” Christopher Park, the president of the Nogales Korean Merchants Association, says. “Not just our business – This is our home.”

Many Koreans in the area agree with Park. After more than 20 years in the city, they have established their businesses, purchased buildings and raised families in Nogales. Kim says despite slower business than they enjoyed in the mid 1990s, she believes most of the business owners will continue to live and work in Nogales for several years. She says going back to Korea after retirement would be difficult for her after living in the U.S. for so long.

Jaewon Kim organizes plastic flowers at the florería in the back of Susan's Fashion in downtown Nogales, Ariz. Kim's florería is one of the four businesses that operates within the building.

Jaewon Kim organizes plastic flowers at the florería in the back of Susan’s Fashion in downtown Nogales, Ariz. Kim’s florería is one of the four businesses that operates within the building.

“I don’t want to restart anything,” Kim says. “Korea is different than it was 30 years ago. I have to learn how to live there again.”

While the first generation Korean immigrants seem to be in it for the long haul, most of the the second-generation youth that were born in Nogales or moved to the city with their parents grew up and moved on from their parents’ businesses along the border. They are pursuing aspirations in getting an education and landing jobs in larger cities.

“First generation in this town still here, but children left,” Baek says. “They don’t want to stay in this town. Their blood is Korean, so they keep some culture, but what they’re doing is the American way.”

Baek says he is happy to have been able to give the opportunity of higher education to his children because it was unavailable to him when he moved to the U.S. His daughter, works in the movie industry in Hollywood. His son is a successful prosecutor in Phoenix. Kim’s daughter, who lives in Orange County, is also a prosecutor. Ju, one of the youngest Korean second-generation Koreans, is attending the University of Arizona to study pre-pharmacy. Ju still visits her parents about once a month and helps run the register when she is in town, but she doesn’t have aspirations to take over the family business. Her parents wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We don’t have a vision right now for the future,” Baek says. “Border town never die, that’s what I know, but we not going to have same success as before. I don’t know how long we stay in this city. After we dead, who take over?”