Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ley family represents immigrants´ success

The family of Chinese immigrant Juan Ley Fong has become a leader in the nation´s business and baseball communities

El Universal
January 03, 2006

CULIACÁN, Sinaloa - In 1910, a 10-year-old boy named Lee Fong left his home in Guangdong province, China, and stowed away on a boat headed for Mazatlán. When he arrived at the Sinaloa port city, he was taken in by a Chinese man already well-established in Mazatlán who helped him to learn Spanish and adjust to his new surroundings. Lee´s family name became Mexicanized as "Ley," and he adopted a new first name, Juan, to match. Soon, Juan Ley Fong was himself an established figure in the community.

"It was a very difficult situation for a boy of 10 or 11 years," said Álvaro Ley López, one of Ley Fong´s nine grown children. "But he had a fighting spirit. Plus, he was very sociable and had a good way with people."

He also had a way with business, and he soon began a series of mercantile operations that would eventually spawn the Ley supermarket chain. Today, that chain includes 124 outlets stretching across 10 northwestern states, where the trapezoidal red-and-white Ley logo is almost as ubiquitous as the golden arches of McDonald´s in the United States.

Ley Fong´s other passion was baseball, and his efforts in promoting the sport in the nation´s northwest earned him an induction into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987. Today, the Ley family continues that tradition as owners of two of the nation´s most reputable baseball franchises: the Culiacán Tomateros of the winter-season Pacific League and the Saltillo Saraperos of the summer-season Mexican Baseball League.

The story of Juan Ley Fong is not an uncommon one in Sinaloa, where a wave of Chinese immigrants arriving at the turn of the century managed to establish themselves as leaders of the state´s commercial sector. Their success, however, spawned a wave of resentment and discrimination that would result in attacks, deportations and anti-Chinese legislation. Still, the Sinaloan Chinese persevered, and today, surnames like Pic, Sam, Tang, Qui, Pug and Ley are as much a part of the local community as López, Hernández or Martínez.


The first national census in 1895 counted 1,026 Chinese in Sinaloa. By the time Juan Ley Fong arrived in 1910, the number had jumped to 13,118. Most of the immigrants were railroad or agricultural workers who came to Mexico by way of San Francisco, but as they became acculturated, many moved into the business sector. By 1919, almost a quarter of the registered businesses in the state were owned by Chinese immigrants.

The 1920s and 30s were tough times for Mexico. The economy was left in shambles by a decade-long civil war, and the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent worldwide depression only made matters worse. In states like Sinaloa, some Mexicans began to look at the relative economic success of the Chinese with bitterness and envy.

Soon, anti-Chinese committees began popping up throughout the north to promote an anti-immigrant agenda. In some states they successfully advocated for laws that required all businesses to employ an 80-percent Mexican workforce. In other cases, they won legislation outlawing Mexican-Chinese marriages. At the same time, affiliated street gangs harassed and attacked immigrants with relative impunity.

Responding to nationalistic sentiment, some state and federal governments used the new anti-Chinese legislation and existing immigration law to initiate a series of deportations. When violent disputes between rival Chinese political factions spilled over onto Mexican soil, the perpetrators were deported. Chinese immigrants accused of cultivating poppies and trading in opium were also kicked out of the country. Even violators of the "80 percent" laws or interracial marriage bans could find themselves forcibly loaded onto boats bound for China.

According to León Velásquez, head of Sinaloa´s state historical archive, the underlying motivation for the deportations was a feeling among local businessmen that they were losing control of the state economy to the immigrants.

"It was really just a way of expropriating Chinese-owned businesses," said Álvaro Ley.

In 1931, Chinese immigrant and businessman Agustín Lau was led away by federal troops, supposedly to a ship waiting at Mazatlán to ferry him back to China.

"There is no evidence anywhere that shows that my grandfather, expelled by the government of that era, arrived at the ship," said Ramón Elías Lau Noriega, two-time secretary of Culiacán´s municipal government. "For that reason, we can only assume the worst."


Juan Ley Fong escaped deportation - or worse - by fleeing to the isolated mountain town of Tayoltita, in Durango state, where he found work as a supplier to a U.S. mining company.

He also met and married a local woman, and the couple had 9 children: 6 boys and 3 girls. With no other Chinese in Tayoltita, the children were raised almost completely within Mexican culture.

"My father never learned to speak Spanish perfectly - he always had trouble with the ´r´ sound," said Álvaro Ley. "Still, we only spoke Spanish at home."

In fact, the only Ley child who ever learned to speak Chinese was Sergio Ley López, currently Mexico´s ambassador to China. But he learned the language as a diplomat, and speaks the dominant Mandarin dialect rather than his father´s native Cantonese.

Due in large part to the concentration of U.S. mining engineers in Tayoltita, the town was home to a thriving four-team baseball league. When the oldest of the Ley children, Juan Manuel, began to play shortstop for one of the teams, Ley Fong became enthralled with the sport.

After the family returned to Sinaloa in 1954, this time to the capital city of Culiacán, Ley Fong began sponsoring teams in a local, semi-professional league. He went on to help form a series of regional professional leagues that led to the creation of today´s Pacific League. Along with Juan Manuel, Ley Fong founded the Culiacán Tomateros, who, since their debut in 1965, have won nine Pacific League championships along with two titles at the Caribbean Series, an annual tournament between the best teams from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
At the same time that he was launching the Tomateros, Ley Fong was running a bustling general goods store in Culiacán. When he died in 1969, his six sons, led by Juan Manuel, took over the family business.
Supermarkets were beginning to make their appearance in Mexico at this time, a development that had not met with Ley Fong´s approval.

"My father was not very enthusiastic about supermarkets," said Álvaro Ley. "He thought they lacked a personal touch."

But Juan Manuel had a different opinion about supermarkets, and in 1970, the first Ley supermarket opened in Culiacán.


The chain grew slowly and steadily throughout the decade until Juan Manuel, while scouting for ballplayers in the United States, met Peter Magowan, owner of the Safeway supermarket chain and the San Francisco Giants baseball franchise. The two men struck up a friendship, and in 1981 Safeway purchased a 49 percent share of Ley supermarkets. With the infusion of new funds, the chain entered into a period of rapid expansion.

At the same time, the family began developing other business interests. They invested in agriculture, and are now one of the nation´s top tomato exporters. They also bought cattle and swine, opened a chain of bakeries, and created their own line of salsas.

The Leys also expanded their baseball interests when they purchased the Saltillo Saraperos franchise in 1999. They focused on relentlessly promoting and marketing the team - a surprisingly little-used formula in the Mexican Baseball League - and created a ballpark atmosphere that was family-oriented and filled with music, promotions and fireworks.

"Baseball is not just a game played on the field," said Álvaro Ley, who serves as adjunct president of both the Culiacán and Saltillo franchises. "You have to promote it, you have to work hard at creating a fan-friendly environment. That´s what we have tried to do, and now we see that model being repeated with other teams around the league."

For such innovation in promoting and marketing baseball, Juan Manuel Ley, president of the family´s baseball operations, joined his father in the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.


Today, the Ley family is experiencing formidable opposition to its plans for further expansion in both business and baseball.

"The arrival of Wal-Mart has been very difficult," said Álvaro Ley, when asked about the future of the supermarket chain. "Wal-Mart is a huge company that works not so much as a competitor, but as a predator that seeks to eliminate those around it."

As for baseball, the family seeks to continue its promotion and development of the sport in Mexico, but sees a major roadblock in the nation´s two television chains, Televisa and TV Azteca, which both own professional soccer teams and are hesitant to give airtime to competing sports.

Still, Álvaro Ley remains optimistic.

"That´s the way all businesses are," said Álvaro Ley. "Wal-Mart, for example, is a very big business, and so they seem invincible. But it´s not a case of beating Wal-Mart, it´s a matter of taking advantage of the market and finding your place in it."

And that is essentially what thousands of Chinese immigrants accomplished in Sinaloa, where men like Juan Ley Fong endured prejudice and deportations to find a place for future generations of Chinese-Mexicans in the state.

"There´s a normal, natural respect here for what the Chinese immigrants and their descendants have accomplished," said Álvaro Ley.

He recalled the deportations of the 1930s, as well as the World War II era when virtually all Asian people in the Americas faced discrimination. But he said that those days had long passed.

"Now, there are many Chinese-Mexicans here and we don´t feel the slightest bit of racism," he said. "In the generation of our children, it´s a completely normal relationship."

Javier Cabrera Martínez of EL UNIVERSAL contributed to this report.

El Universal article


Anonymous said...

Lo que le falto a esta historia es describir como el Sr. Juan Ley Fong hizo su fortuna comprando oro robado de la mina de Tayoltita. Algun día escribire las historias que mi abuela Andrea Nevarez me contaba de cuando trabajaba con los Ley y de como supo de los negocios sucios de Juan Ley Fong

Anonymous said...

aide villa-san antonio texas
i just received the registery of immagration that is my grand father his name was woh ley but when expidited his name changed to carlos jesus woh ley from canton china migrated to mexico im looking for ancesters contact me

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