Humberto Leon Celebrated His Chino-Latino Identity for Lunar New Year
Story by Ian KumamotoFeb 10, 2024
On February 9, Humberto Leon hosted an intimate Lunar New Year dinner for friends and family in the former location of Mission Chinese, which is now an Italian restaurant and bar called Casino. Everyone in attendance received a red envelope that Leon designed in collaboration with the cognac brand D’ussé XO, but at the center of the celebration was food from his Peruvian-Chinese restaurant Chifa, which he brought to New York from LA for the first time.
The attendees were old friends and a new generation of creatives that feel like extensions of the cultural impact Leon left on downtown NYC culture. Guests included actress and model Hunter Schafer, designer Raul Lopez, photographers Myles Loftin and Quil Lemons, Euphoria costume designer Heidi Bivens, and a cackle of Brooklyn club kids. They bonded over braised pork ribs, black pepper prawns and dan dan mian.
When I first learned about Leon, who’s best known for founding Opening Ceremony and being the former creative director of KENZO, I knew that he would become one of my icons. For any queer Asian kid interested in fashion, or really anything that was cool, he epitomized an ethos that you could tap into all of your identities and still somehow be taken seriously. It wasn’t until much later that I learned he was also Chino-Latino — a term that as a mixed Asian person who was born and raised in Mexico, I just recently came to embrace. Leon continues to be one of the few visible people who proved that you could be proud of both your Asian-ness and your Latinidad, and that, contrary to many people’s insistence, you didn’t have to choose one. In fact, when taken together, the two identities can be the source of immense creativity.
At a time when Chino-Latino identity is slowly beginning to enter the cultural conversation, in part thanks to platforms like TikTok that made us realize that there’s actually a lot of us, I sat down to talk to Leon about why he got into the restaurant business, how he asserted an identity that’s often invalidated and how to celebrate Lunar New Year the Chino-Latino way.
First of all, how do you feel about the term Chino-Latino?
It’s funny, people are always confused about what I am. They usually think I’m Filipino. Chino-Latino is definitely the terminology that describes me the best. I think it’s cool because I do come from both cultures, and the term allows me to celebrate both at once.
I heard you went to ESL (English as a Second Language), which was, at least for me, a really formative part of my American experience when I immigrated here. What was ESL like for you?
It’s interesting because when I first went into elementary school, my primary language was Spanish so they put me with the other Asian that I grew up in, in Highland Park, which was a predominantly Latin community. There were only two other Asians in the school, and they put me in ESL with these other Asian kids, but actually, I spoke Spanish. It took a while for the teachers to realize that I didn't speak the language of the people I looked like.
Tell me more about your family’s connection to Chifa.
We opened Chifa three years ago in LA, but my mom actually opened up this restaurant in 1975 in Peru. We all moved there together as a family. Two years after she opened it, she got word that we could become American citizens, so she gave it up to give us citizenship in America. We came back, and she just worked in cafeterias in California. Forty years later, we decided to reopen the restaurant for her. She passed on a lot of the recipes to my brother-in-law, who gave a lot of the food his own contemporary twist. Chifa comes from the word chi fan (“to eat” in Chinese), and in Peru, that’s what they call Chinese restaurants.
You spent so much time creating culture here. Have you thought about bringing Chifa to New York?
You know, I'll never say no. I think it's such a great city. The food scene is so amazing here. So it's definitely where we would love to be if the right opportunity arises. I lived here for almost 22 years, and a lot of people are always saying, "You should open it in New York." This feels like a really good homecoming, like an opportunity to do a one night thing. And Casino is cool because my really good friends opened this place, and I always like bringing friends into the mix.
Obviously, you’re able to embrace Chino-Latino identity through Chifa, but do you think that your Chino-Latinidad bled into other creative projects in the past?
I would say Opening Ceremony. If you really read into the text of how I was curating the store, it was really about bringing different cultures into one space. I did this thing called “The Year of Mexico,” where I decided to take all our buying power there for one year and really invest in young, emerging Mexican designers. And we did that for so many countries. When we first did it for Brazil, that’s when I discovered Havaianas at a supermarket. Believe it or not, there was a time and place when Havaianas only existed in Brazil, and we taught them how to export its flip flops to America. We did the same for Topshop in London, which had never sold outside of the UK. We did that for Argentina. We did that for Korea. It was always really kind of looking at this concentrated effort of bringing culture into our space, and we would do it all: the food, the music, the movies. It wasn’t just about the clothes.
When I first learned about you, I mostly knew of you as an Asian, not a Latino, designer. I think that kind of speaks to how we sometimes have to make our identities palatable in order to sell ourselves in some way. Do you ever feel that?
I think that's the interesting thing about ethnic background: A lot of people have their own perception of you and want to say, "You are this.” But in every country, you can be multiple things, right? It's beyond the visuals, because even when I go to Europe and there's people who are French-Vietnamese, I think it's exciting to be able to really embrace the fullness of the cultures where I'm from. Where you can really see how mixed everything can get is through food. Even with Asians, there's multiple fusion cuisines. For example, my brother-in-law is from Taiwan, originally from Shanghai, so he brings a bit of his background into our dishes. There's a complexity even in just saying you're Asian.
Now that you live in LA, are you able to see the impact that you had on New York culture more clearly whenever you come back?
There's such an evolution in the city that I find so interesting. The people are always going to be incredible. I feel like I have so many friends out here doing amazing things. The landscape of the city is constantly evolving, and that's the beauty of New York. And it's cool because now it's expanded into all the different boroughs, so there's so much happening not only in Manhattan. I was always curious about going to other boroughs, anyways.
So what’s next for you?
I’m working on a music group called Katseye, and they’re launching in June. It’s a pop group, and there’s a Netflix show about it that’s also gonna come out.
Wait, you’re singing in the band?
No, it’s a girl group, and I’m creative directing it. I don’t think they’d want someone like me in the group unless I play the harmonica or something. But anyway, I’m doing that and also some more fun things with food and spaces. I actually feel like at Chifa, and at my other restaurant Arroz and Fun, people come in, and they're like, "This feels just like Opening Ceremony but with food." It really is a good description of that because there was always a message and a curiosity with my work at Opening Ceremony. So in these restaurant spaces, I feel free because I don't come from that space. I just feel free to just mess around, play around, not take anything that serious. Opening Ceremony and all the work that I've done has always been about just having fun. Both fashion and food can be very serious, and I don’t feel like it has to be.
Photos via Sansho Scott/ BFA.com.