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How generations of Lebanese families have shaped the Centro

Nearly 150 years after their arrival, migrants' impact on Merida's downtown is impressive

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Since their arrival in Merida, Lebanese migrants saw trade as the way to forge their future in Yucatan, gradually establishing themselves in what is now the Historic Center, and its surroundings.

Near a century and a half later, despite the arrival of international corporations, their presence is still felt here.

Coming from poor villages, soon after reaching Mexico’s shores, they did well. The descendants of these early Arab immigrants today control about 30 percent of Mérida’s commercial life. However, the vast majority are totally assimilated into Mexican society and have virtually no connection with their past culture, according to Arab America.

The original Lebanese were evenly divided between Maronite and Orthodox Christians. Today, they are predominately Roman Catholics with only about 20 families still practicing the Orthodox rites. From time to time a priest travels here from Mexico City to administer to these few families’ needs. Few speak Arabic.

Most early shops established by the first generation of immigrants are a distant memory. El Trancazo, La Legalidad, El Puerto de Veracruz, El Pabellón Francés, El Peñón, El Louvre, La Ciudad de Beirut, La Liga de las Naciones and Melollevo, among others, are trade names that emerged over the years.

The few remaining trade names include Almacenes Farah, Casa Manzur, Chapur, Casa Elías, Bonetería Wabi and Casa Tino. Of those, Chapur has reached corporate status, having recently branched out into the Harbor mall. But even its oldest location, on Calle 58, continues to evolve.

But valuable real estate holdings stayed within the community.

“The place my father started, where today is called Calle Nueva, is currently rented out by one of my brothers,” said hotel entrepreneur Ricardo Dájer Nahum.

“As well as this, many have rented out their establishments because their children have preferred to dedicate themselves to things other than commerce,” he added.

In 1987, the owners built a contemporary Gran Chapur down the road and around the corner. Mérida’s first department store. It introduced electronics and appliance departments as well as a computerized and streamlined sales process.

Even today, both Chapurs pack in loyal shoppers, despite duplicating departments just blocks from each other.

The original Lebanese immigrants were dedicated to importing and distributing fabrics, lace and costume jewelry, since the Yucatecans of that time were in the market for refined apparel. Gradually, the merchants expanded into other markets.

José Moisés Simón was one of the main promoters of Lebanese trade. Being a large wholesaler importer of merchandise, and owner of the Hotel Moisés on Calle 50 between 61 and 63, it provided Lebanese newcomers with animal-drawn carriages to distribute merchandise. The Simón name today lives on as a small housewares chain.

Another of the pioneering businesses was the haberdashery La Yucateca, which was on 65th Street with 58, opened by Salomón Mena and son in 1900.

Lebanese immigration to Mexico started in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first came to ports such as Puerto Progreso, Veracruz and Tampico when Lebanon and Syria were occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Roughly 100,000 Arabic-speakers settled in Mexico during this time period, escaping turbulence in their homeland.

They settled in significant numbers in not only Yucatan, but also Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City and the northern part of the country.

Although Lebanese people made up less than five percent of the total immigrant population in Mexico during the 1930s, they constituted half of the immigrant economic activity.

Lebanese influence is most visible in Yucatan, where a common snack is Kibbeh, fritters made with minced ground beef, chopped onion stuffed into a bulgur dough and fried.

Other dishes include what is commonly called Taquitos de Parra, with grape leaves, and later cabbage. And, of course, the ubiquitous Tacos Arabe, subbing pita bread for tortillas.

Sources: Sipse, Wikipedia, Arab America

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