Did you know that in addition to Korean communities around the world, there’s also one in Cuba? Today, about eight hundred Korean-Cuban descendants remain scattered throughout eight provinces with concentrations in Cárdenas, Havana, and Matanzas, a fact that we know thanks to the efforts of Jeronimo Lim (1926–2006), whose life story, along with the history of the Korean diaspora in Cuba, is chronicled in the 2019 documentary Jeronimo the Movie, directed by Joseph Juhn.
One of these descendants is Jeronimo’s daughter, Patricia Lim, who happened to be the taxi driver who picked (Director) Juhn up from the airport when he arrived for a weeklong vacation in 2015.
Jeronimo Lim’s father, Cheongtaek Lim, was only two years old when he set sail with his mother on a ship carrying over a thousand migrants from Korea to Yucatán in 1905, part of a wave of nearly 7000 migrants headed to Hawaii and Mexico to become agricultural laborers. After spending sixteen years as indentured servants working on the henequen (agave) plantations, 288 Koreans decided to travel on to the port of Manatí in Cuba, enticed by stories of the largest sugar-producing country in the world. Unfortunately, conditions were hardly better in Cuba and the migrants were again subject to terrible working conditions. But this time, they stayed.
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One of these descendants is Jeronimo’s daughter, Patricia Lim, who happened to be the taxi driver who picked Juhn up from the airport when he arrived for a weeklong vacation in 2015. Cuba seems to lend itself to these fortuitous encounters, and this one changed Juhn’s life. It also resulted in an incredibly moving and well-researched oral and visual history of the extraordinary life of Jeronimo Lim and the story of the Korean community in Cuba. The documentary has screened at two dozen festivals and has won several awards, including Audienceʼs Best Feature Documentary Award at both the Seattle Asian American Film Festival and the New York International Asian American Film Festival.
Juhn’s initial fascination with Jeronimo came from his prominent role in the Cuban Revolution, but in his later decades, Jeronimo turned to his Korean past, and was the key figure in taking stock of and honoring the Korean community on the island. The original Korean migrants arrived long before the Cuban Revolution, before the collapse of the USSR and the Special Period, and before the war that split the peninsula into North and South. Juhn and his team pored over historical documents, photos and voice recordings, and interviewed Lim’s family members, dozens of community members across Cuba, and Korean diaspora experts across the globe. Their documentary is a tribute to Jeronimo’s legacy and to the Korean diaspora worldwide.
The Koreans who left the peninsula in 1905 had left their country before a 38th parallel divided North and South. They left when Korea was struggling under Japanese rule, and later found themselves stateless. There are echoes of parallels in the histories of Cuba and Korea, peoples united through struggles for independence, scattered into diasporic communities in the most far-flung places. In the second half of the 19th century, Cuban national hero José Martí organized and fundraised in Florida and New York to form an independence movement that would eventually lead to Cuba’s liberation from Spain (only to be turned over to U.S. occupation). Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, swaths of Cubans have departed the island, resulting in a diasporic population of nearly three million, as opposed to the 11 million Cubans on the island. Korea has suffered a similar dispersion of its people over the last century, and today eight million Koreans live abroad, constituting 10% of the combined total population of North and South Korea.
Jeronimo Lim (Eun Jo) was the first of nine children. His father collected funds toward Korea’s independence efforts against Japan, and his mother, who was married at age 13, later founded the Korean Women’s Independence Group. According to historian Evelyn Hu-Dehart, the role and prominence of women is one element that sets the Korean diaspora in Cuba apart from other early immigration waves from Asia to Cuba, and from China in particular.
Young Jeronimo was handsome, charismatic, and a star batter on the baseball field. He married another descendant from the Korean Cuban community, and by all accounts was the backbone of his family through the generations. Thanks to Jeronimo’s own fastidiousness —even sneaking away from home at one point to enroll himself in secondary education— he excelled in school and became the first Korean Cuban to enter the University of Havana Law School, where one of his classmates was none other than Fidel Castro. While Fidel was in the Sierra Maestra, Jeronimo was in Havana supporting the operation from afar. After the Revolution, Jeronimo became a high-level government functionary and remained a devout Marxist, dedicated to the socialist cause until the end, although in his final years he was exposed to the lures of both capitalism and Catholicism.
After his successful revolutionary efforts on behalf of the Cuban people, Jeronimo eventually turned his efforts to the Korean community, which had previously had very little visibility or organization. According to researcher Somi Jun, the Korean-descendent community in Cuba has very few material goods that reflect their Korean heritage, partially because of the difficulty of importing foreign goods as a result of the U.S. embargo, and due to the scarcity of inheritable material culture, as the original Korean migrants had arrived to Cuba from Mexico impoverished and carrying very little from their homeland.
Sadly, given the circumstances in Cuba, most Korean Cubans never had the chance to visit that yearned-after homeland, although some had already given up on that dream after the Korean War of 1950–53. But in more recent decades, Korean and diasporic organizations and churches have supported increased ties both in material and cultural ways, including financing travel and sending representatives to offer language training.
Jeronimo Lim undertook a transformative trip to South Korea in 1995 following efforts to reunite diasporic Koreans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Korea’s independence. Many of the first Korean migrants to Manatí who had donated some of their meager earnings to the independence effort against Japan leading up to Korea’s independence in 1948 were posthumously recognized by the South Korean government. In a moving segment of the documentary, Jeronimo’s grandchildren visit his homeland for the first time and pay homage to Korea, thanks to the support of the Overseas Koreans Foundation.
At least two organizations are centered around the Korean-descendant community. One is the La Asociación Nacional Coreana (the National Korean Association, or NKA), formed through Jeronimo Lim’s tireless efforts to launch the first annual census of people with “Korean blood.” Despite meeting all of the Cuban government’s requirements for establishment as an organization and Jeronimo’s personal dedication to the Revolution, as of filming in 2019 the association had not been recognized by the Cuban government, a result, some interviewees speculated, of divided loyalties: though South Korea had led most of the effort to contact and support the diasporic community in Cuba, North Korea has been a key ally from the early 1960s, supplying Cuba with 100,000 rifles after the US broke ties. Another organization, the Havana-based Club Martiano Amistad Cuba Corea doubles as a museum also known as the Museo Coreano, in Miramar. Two monuments commemorate the Korean legacy, in Matanzas and in Manatí, thanks to Jeronimo’s solemn and heroic efforts to commemorate the 80th anniversary of their arrival to Cuba.
In the past decade, Korean-descendent Cubans have also seen more light shone on their origins through the nationwide K-pop and K-drama fervor. Two K-dramas, the 2000s hits Queen of Housewives and My Fair Lady, aired on national television and were soaked up by the soap-opera crazed Cuba. In the last decade, K-pop took the world by storm and, thanks to increased Internet access and Cuba’s ingenious USB internet content distribution system, El Paquete, Cuba was no exception.
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As for Joseph, he told me that he previously “had no ties to Cuba whatsoever. It was really a random and spontaneous trip … and I had no knowledge of the Koreans there. I’ve always been interested in Korean diaspora hence running into Patricia (Jeronimo’s daughter) and her family was really a life-changing moment for me.”
For many young Korean-descendants, their Korean identity forms and is negotiated within both the past and the present: their “Koreanness” is measured through the NKA census and the oral histories and few material objects passed down through generations, and also within the recent introduction of contemporary Korean pop culture and efforts to enforce diasporic linkages. Jeronimo the Movie sheds light on the fluid and evolving individual and collective quests for identity as people and communities find their place in history, wherever they may be.
Jeronimo the Movie can be rented or purchased on Vimeo here.