Article first published in Vol. 27, 2009-2010. Updated in 2018
By Lucinda Ann Bowers, Lorena Hernandez, Bianca Lopez and Julio Magallanes
Just as the Mexican immigrant of today struggles against prejudice and discrimination in an effort to live the American dream, so, too, did the Chinese decades before them. In fact, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, they became the first illegal immigrants in the United States. El Paso became the primary smuggling point because of railroad access. Ironically, thousands of Chinese were brought to this country to build the transcontinental railroad. As a result, El Paso and Juárez had a thriving Chinese community during the early 20th century, and from that community arose a leader, advocate, humanitarian and savvy businesswoman named Herlinda Wong Chew.
Image caption: Herlinda Wong Chew, in El Paso, early 1930s. (Photo courtesy of David Wellington Chew)
Chew was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, to a Chinese father, Carlos Wong, and an Aztec mother, Francisca Perez, sometime between 1893 and 1894. Her mother died when Herlinda was very young. She was educated through sixth grade at a Methodist Episcopal school where she was taught basic academics and the homely skills of sewing, knitting, embroidery and crocheting, because, at the time, too much education for a female was unseemly. It was also unseemly for a Chinese woman to have large feet, so her feet were bound. Thus, her early life was bound by custom, both figuratively and literally.
But Chew defied convention, even at a young age. According to El Paso Herald-Post columnist Ann Carroll, as a child Chew would read late into the night under her bed by candlelight. Curious by nature, she also was highly intelligent and had a natural talent for languages. Her father established the first European hotel in Mexico, and there her education in networking and business began.
With the success of her father’s hotel, the Wong family made many European and American friends and traveled extensively. One of those very close friends happened to call El Paso home, so the Wongs frequently traveled to the borderland to visit Herbert Schwartz, a prominent businessman.
According to the presentation, “A Family Story: The Chew Legacy,” given by some of Herlinda Chew’s grandchildren (David Chew, Chief Justice of the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals; Judge Linda Lee Chew; attorney Patricia Chew) and Martin Ying, a family friend, at the El Paso Museum of History in May 2009, it was most likely during one of those visits that Chew met her husband, Antonio.
Family documentation shows that Antonio, originally Yee Wing Chew, arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico, from Canton, China, in 1905 with $100. Working to support his family back home, he ended up in Juárez where he opened his first grocery store, La Garantia, in 1907.
The Chew family stated that in spring 1911, Herlinda Chew, her father and his third wife were in Juárez to visit friends, and this was probably when Herlinda and Antonio met. The meeting, courtship and date of marriage between Herlinda and Antonio remain a mystery.
In the Password article “Herlinda Wong Chew: El Paso Trailblazer,” Sarah E. John wrote that after marriage, Chew remained in Juárez and helped her husband manage the store, frequently obtaining crossing cards to shop for their business in El Paso. She became acquainted with immigration officers and established friendships with them. She also began to develop a keen interest in immigration issues and law.
According to local historian Leon Metz, the Mexican Revolution brought terror to the Chinese. In a July 17, 2000, El Paso Times article, Metz wrote that Pancho Villa “believed the Chinese had a stranglehold on small Mexican businesses.” He and his men massacred 200 Chinese in Torre. The Chews’ store in Juárez was located next to a cantina frequented by Villa’s men, some of whom also happened to be customers of the Chews. According to John, it was Villa’s own men who warned Chew of an upcoming battle.
Fearing for the safety of the Chinese-Mexicans in the community, Chew took this information to her friends at the immigration office. She requested that she, her loved ones and friends be allowed to cross the border when the fighting began and gave her word that when the battle was over, all would return. On her promise, permission was granted, and 200 “loved ones” fled across the border, Chew with two children in her arms and bullets flying overhead, to escape death at the hands of Villa and his men. True to her word, everyone returned when the fighting ended.
Chew’s interest in immigration laws deepened, and, once again relying on friendships in the immigration office, she borrowed their books. Being a highly intelligent woman, she soon discovered a loophole through which her family could enter the United States legally: as merchants.
In February 1922, the Chews entered the United States through Calexico, California, one of the few legal ports of entry. From there they took a train to El Paso and set up residence at 1912 Yandell St. They quickly opened their first store, New China Grocery, at 200 S. Stanton St. To prevent a gaming house from being established, the Chews opened a second store at the corner of Stanton Street and Overland Avenue, and a third in the Northeast. Then, in response to competition with the lower prices of national food chains, Herlinda Chew developed what became a wholesale outlet formed of local independent grocers: Western Grocery.
The Chews’ business success attracted national attention in June 1930 when Time magazine ran a story featuring Antonio Chew. In the El Paso Herald-Post, Chew attributed his achievements to long days and working hard, side by side, with his wife.
John wrote that Chew made her mark in business throughout the area. She represented minorities for the National Recovery Administration and helped establish the Oriental Importing Company. Chew was also the only female member of the El Paso Merchants’ Association, but it was her involvement in immigration for which she is probably best known.
With Chew’s extensive knowledge of immigration laws and her ability to speak Spanish, Chinese, French and English, she became an unofficial immigration agent and translator, as well as wife, business entrepreneur and mother of eight. “She was always down at the immigration office, dragging me along,” her daughter, Gloria Yee Dong, stated in an interview with John.
Chew assisted countless individuals in returning to China. She and her husband would post a bond, escort the individuals to San Francisco by train, and then provide passage on Dollar Steamship Lines, at a cost of $50 per person. Once the Chinese came back, the Chews would escort them back to Mexico.
Her acts of kindness were not limited to the Chinese immigrants, though. The Chews made frequent trips to China, and while there, she became aware of the plight of another immigrant: the Mexican woman married to a Chinese man.
Customs were vastly different in China from those in Mexico or America. In China, men and women did not eat together; the men were served first, and then the women ate later in the kitchen. (This was one custom Chew refused to follow.) According to John, not only did cultural differences cause barriers, but the government also declared marriages between Chinese men and Mexican women illegal. Many Mexican wives found themselves abandoned and reduced to begging. Chew made it her mission to find as many of these abandoned wives as she could and help them to return to Mexico.
For Chew, education was the key to living an independent life. She embraced all three of her cultures - Chinese, Mexican and American – and taught her children to do the same. Accompanying her to China, they would study English. In America, they studied about China with a tutor who was made available to all the children of their Chinese associates. Moreover, Chew expected all her children, including the girls, to attend college.
Herlinda Chew became ill in 1939 and sought treatment in Portland, Oregon. She died from tuberculosis on August 1 of that year. She was 45. A few days following her death, her husband became ill from grief and died one month later at age 48. The official cause of death was stomach cancer.
Reeling from the deaths of both parents, their oldest child, Josephine, quit law school and returned to El Paso to manage the business and care for her seven younger siblings: Antonio, Grace, Wellington, Herlinda, Gloria, Fredrick and Carlos.
Herlinda Chew always wanted a lawyer in her family. Her son Wellington became just that, specializing in immigration law. Three of his children - David, Linda, and Patricia – followed in his footsteps and have made their own mark in immigration law.
Way ahead of her time, Herlinda Chew stands as a role model for us all. She took advantage of every opportunity and made sure her children did likewise. Compassionate and wise, she became a legal immigrant and helped others to do so. She overcame tradition, sexism, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Mexican Revolution. Her name lives on in Herlinda Chew Way, a street located in East El Paso. More importantly, it lives on in the accomplishments of her children, grandchildren and the descendants of the hundreds of people she aided throughout her life.