Carmen Mitsui keeps a photograph of her late grandfather by her bed. She talks to his image and asks for advice at times when great challenges lie ahead.

Years after she began these chats with her grandfather, an immigrant to Mexico, she discovered that the Japanese venerate their deceased elders, who they believe keep vigil over the living."It is something that I carry inside me. I am Mexican, but I am also Japanese," she said.

Mitsui, 47, and other Japanese-Mexicans have been celebrating their dual heritage this year by commemorating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Latin America.

In May, Prince Akishino, Ambassador Teresuke Terada and members of the Japanese navy visited this sleepy town where, on May 10, 1897, Carmen Mitsui's grandfather, Hisakiti Mitsui, and 34 other ambitious young farmers became the first Japanese group to put down roots in Latin America.

Descendants of the thousands of Japanese immigrants to Latin America have since become powerful political and economic figures throughout the region, most notably Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori.

But the earliest arrivals were sent by a poor nation trying to catch up to the modern world, whose first harvest failed on the hot coastal plain of southeastern Mexico.

The vision behind their mission came from Viscount Takeaki Enomoto, then Japanese foreign minister, who was encouraged by Mexican President Porfirio Diaz's efforts to attract foreign investment.

"Takeaki had an adventuresome spirit and sent his nephew to Mexico to make a study," Mitsui said. "Japan had few resources and Takeaki thought the Japanese could get ahead in this place."

With the purchase of 160,000 acres of land, Takeaki prepared for the first colony, 36 men ages 17 to 23 chosen from Aichi and Shiga states.

The newcomers arrived aboard the English galleon Garlick with vegetable seeds and dreams of cashing in on the burgeoning coffee business already made lucrative by German plantation owners.

"But they didn't have the technical knowledge. They planted the coffee before the rainy season, and the rains washed the plants away," Mitsui said.

They turned to raising rice, vegetables, flowers and cattle, which prospered.

Six more waves of colonists arrived in Acacoyagua over the next 30 years, including a doctor. A few Japanese women arrived, but most of the colonists married Mexicans, converting from Buddhism to Roman Catholicism, the faith of their wives.

By the 1940s, the farmers had become successful enough to hook up their own telephone system among their far-flung ranches and plantations - decades before most Mexicans had such communication. Their flowers and vegetables won state prizes.

Mitsui opened an album and fingered a yellowed photograph of dozens of Japanese men at what appears to be a picnic. "They would get together to celebrate the New Year and the birthday of the emperor," she said.

Some Japanese traditions survived, but in part because of the dearth of Japanese women, few were passed on to the colonists' children.

As the elders began to die, Mitsui and other descendants of the immigrants began to worry about that. They formed the Enomoto Association of Chiapas and founded cultural centers here and in nearby Tapachula, where children learn Japanese and people participate in traditional dances and celebrations.

"Our grandfathers and fathers just wanted to work hard and adapt to their new country," Mitsui said. "Now, we have a greater awareness and we want to preserve the memory of their contributions to Mexico."

Celebration of the centennial and the visit of Prince Akishino was a dream come true, Mitsui said.