In 1905, around 1,000 Koreans arrived in Mexico aboard the SS Ilford. They had departed an impoverished country, falling under the heavy weight of the Japanese Empire. On the other side of their journey, they were promised future prosperity in a paradisiac land. However, when they arrived in Yucatan, they were sold off as indentured servants.
They were set to work in henequen [agave or aenikkaeng in Korean] plantations under harsh conditions, harvesting a particular variety known as Yucatan’s green gold. They worked side-by-side with local Mayans, often learning the Mayan language in preference to the Spanish of their masters. Many went on to marry local Mayan women.
By the time their contract ended in 1910, Korea had already been incorporated into the Japanese Empire. With no homeland to return to, they decided to stay in Mexico. Some went on to seek work elsewhere in Mexico and in Cuba.
Taking from stories told by the descendants of the Korean henequen workers in Mexico and Cuba, this project provides a poetic account of their memories.
—Michael Vince Kim
Editor’s Note: This series won 1st prize, stories, in the “People” category of World Press Photo’s 2017 Photo Contest. The World Press Photo Festival will be held from April 20 to April 22, 2017 in Amsterdam. We hope to see you there!
If you’re interested in viewing more World Press Photo winners, you can check our our article on all of 2017’s winners or a spotlight article on the 1st prize, singles winner, shot by Jonathan Bachman.