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The First Asians in the Americas

A Transpacific History

Diego Javier Luis

ISBN 9780674271784

Publication date: 01/09/2024

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The definitive account of transpacific Asian movement through the Spanish empire—from Manila to Acapulco and beyond—and its implications for the history of race and colonization in the Americas.

Between 1565 and 1815, the so-called Manila galleons enjoyed a near-complete monopoly on transpacific trade between Spain’s Asian and American colonies. Sailing from the Philippines to Mexico and back, these Spanish trading ships also facilitated the earliest migrations and displacements of Asian peoples to the Americas. Hailing from Gujarat, Nagasaki, and many places in between, both free and enslaved Asians boarded the galleons and made the treacherous transpacific journey each year. Once in Mexico, they became “chinos” within the New Spanish caste system.

Diego Javier Luis chronicles this first sustained wave of Asian mobility to the early Americas. Uncovering how and why Asian peoples crossed the Pacific, he sheds new light on the daily lives of those who disembarked at Acapulco. There, the term “chino” officially racialized diverse ethnolinguistic populations into a single caste, vulnerable to New Spanish policies of colonial control. Yet Asians resisted these strictures, often by forging new connections across ethnic groups. Social adaptation and cultural convergence, Luis argues, defined Asian experiences in the Spanish Americas from the colonial invasions of the sixteenth century to the first cries for Mexican independence in the nineteenth.

The First Asians in the Americas speaks to an important era in the construction of race, vividly unfolding what it meant to be “chino” in the early modern Spanish empire. In so doing, it demonstrates the significance of colonial Latin America to Asian diasporic history and reveals the fundamental role of transpacific connections to the development of colonial societies in the Americas.


  • The First Asians in the Americas is essential reading for anybody interested in the histories of global migration, race, and colonization in the Americas. Through painstaking archival research in Spain, Mexico, the United States, and the Philippines, Diego Javier Luis offers a bold reconceptualization of Asian migration to the Americas and restores heretofore little-known people and communities to their rightful places in history.

    —Erika Lee, author of The Making of Asian America: A History


  • Diego Javier Luis is Assistant Professor of History at Tufts University.

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press