Last month, the president of Argentina mentioned during a joint press conference with his Spanish counterpart, that “Mexicans come from the indigenous, Brazilians come from the jungle, and Argentinians come from the ships.”
This statement upset Mexicans (and I am pretty sure Brazilians too) for many different reasons. Some Mexicans were upset because they don’t like to be reminded of their indigenous roots, some others felt were angry because this statement by the Argentinian president confirmed their belief that Argentines are too big for their britches and they don’t want to be considered Latin Americans, some others just got a good laugh at all the memes that came out of this incident.
I was not offended at all. The statement of the Argentinian president is partially true after all; most of us have some degree of indigenous DNA in us, and that is just a fact. The thing that caused me some trouble was the oversimplification of what constitutes a modern Mexican.
Not acknowledging the history and the contributions of the different immigrants who came (and keep coming) to Mexico throughout its history is a terrible historical oversight. But hey, such a lack of knowledge about the diversity of Mexicans is not exclusive to foreigners. The notion that Mexicans come solely from indigenous and Spanish, and that a standard Mexican phenotype, seems to be somehow aligned with the version of Mexican history I learned in Mexican public school. Official history books condense the explanation of who we are to a basic explanation of the native Aztec that had a child with the bearded Spanish conquistador, that is it. So let me take you through a quick and humble recap of some of the most known immigrant inflows into Mexico:
Have you noticed the resemblance between Tacos al Pastor and Lebanese Shawarma? Well, some Mexicans are like tacos al pastor, they might have Lebanese origins and might be mistaken for someone from the middle east but they are as Mexican as it gets. Lebanese immigrants first arrived in Mexico during the last decades of the 19th century. Some were running away from the religious oppression of the Ottoman empire and others were just looking for a better life for their families.
The Lebanese diaspora rapidly integrated into their new country and within few generations, their descendants thrived in Mexico. Among the most prominent Mexicans with Lebanese heritage are ex-president Plutarco Elias Calles (El Turco), former secretary of Energy Antonio Meade-Kuribeña, businessmen Carlos Slim and Alfredo Harp, actress Salma Hayek, actors Mauricio Garces and Demián Bichir (you might need to ask a Mexican friend about these last two), soccer player Miguel Layún, boxing kingpin Jose Sulaiman, and many more.
But the Lebanese-Mexicans are not just an ethereal group of successful and beautiful people, not all of them made it to the top of Mexican society and became rich and famous. Some of them became just normal middle-class Mexicans who did not marry within the Lebanese diaspora. Growing up, it was fairly common for me to have classmates or professors with Lebanese last names but no trace of their Lebanese heritage or customs.
Anthony Bourdain once said that Mexico was our brother from a different mother and, in some cases, in my elementary school in Ciudad Juarez this was literally true. When you think about American immigration to Mexico you probably imagine thousands of snowbirds looking for nice sunny weather in Ajijic, Chapala, Oaxaca, Puerto Vallarta, or San Miguel de Allende. But American immigration into Mexico is not that simple nor always pretty, American and Mexican history are intimately interlaced and immigration patterns are as complex as history itself.
The first American immigrants who came to Mexico were the ones who accompanied Stephen Austin to Texas when it was still Mexico, but let’s skip that part because it gets too controversial. During the painful epoch in American history known as the Trail of Tears, some members of the Kikapu and Seminole tribes escaped and took a detour to the south, these groups ended up establishing themselves in the northern state of Coahuila where the Mexican government gave them concessions and land to populate the northern border and deter further expansionist attempts from the north.
Part of this group, originating from Florida, was the black Seminoles (not a typo) called the Mascogos. Around the same time, right after the secession of Texas from Mexico, thousands of slaves, especially those in the south of Texas area, escaped to Mexico looking for freedom, where slavery was illegal. Later, during the last decades of the 19th century, Mexican President Porfirio Díaz adopted a policy to attract immigrants to populate uninhabited regions of the country (word on the street is that there was a preference for white settlers), and many Americans took this opportunity to come to Mexico to establish mining companies, machinery stores, railroad suppliers, and other heavy industries.
But it does not stop there. Another important influx of immigrants came to Mexico in the late 1800s when a group of Americans from the Mormon church founded a town in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. An interesting fact about this “colony” is that it was where Mitt Romney’s father was born. The contributions of American immigrants are palpable in Mexico, a long list of prominent Mexicans with U.S. origins like former President Vicente Fox and congressman Santiago Creel, companies established by Mexican-Americans, and towns and products in Mexico have histories intertwined with American immigrants. The bond between Americans and Mexicans is strong and goes beyond commerce, politics, or immigration.
When German explorer Alejandro Von Humboldt returned to Berlin in 1827 after exploring Latin America, he described Mexico City as being as elegant as Turin or Milan.
This overly romanticized description of Mexico City and the mysticism with which he described the country attracted the first German settlers to Mexico. Later on, thanks to the open immigration policies of Porfirio Díaz, many Germans came to Mexico to be part of President Diaz’s modernization plans and work as public lightning technicians, engineers, and specialized labor. One of these specialized labor immigrants was Frida Khalo’s father, who came to Mexico as a photographer and worked as the official photographer of the Diaz regime. In 1922, another big wave of German immigrants came to Mexico when President Alvaro Obregon gave a set of concessions to a group of Mennonites to establish in the northern state of Chihuahua.
The influence of this group in my home state was so wide that Mennonite products became staple items on the Chihuahuan diet. During the Second World War, just like in other countries of Latin America, many German Jews came to Mexico to escape the Nazi regime and found opened doors. The contributions of German immigrants are manifest in many areas of Mexican life. For example, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate Bavarian music from an Old School Northern Mexican Redova.
Hernan Cortez and his crew arrived in Mexico in 1519. The Spanish conquered the land and established a colony they called New Spain. During three centuries of colonization, the Spanish mingled with the natives and the we “the mestizos” were born. That is why many Mexicans have Spanish DNA. In a very condensed way, this is how everything started.
But Spanish immigration into Mexico did not end with Mexico’s independence. The first important wave of Spanish immigrants to Mexico, like many other immigrant influxes, happened during the Presidency of Porfirio Diaz and his open immigration policy to populate the vast unpopulated regions of Mexico. During this period, many poor Spanish farmers came to Mexico looking for new opportunities and established mostly in the states of Jalisco and Durango. During the second half of the 19th century and all through the early 20th century, Mexico became one of the biggest recipients of Spanish immigrants and refugees. Among these refugees were thousands of Sephardic Jews rescued by Mexican diplomat Francisco Bosques during the Second World War. Also during the same period, Mexico opened its doors to Spanish refugees running away from the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, among these refugees were the “children of Morelia” a group of thousands of unaccompanied minors sent alone to Mexico by their desperate Spanish parents and welcomed in the city of Morelia. The legacy of these last immigrants in Mexico can be seen in businesses and institutions founded by them like Hospital Español in Mexico City, Editorial Porrúa, Bimbo bakery (the biggest commercial bakery in the world), Churreria El Moro (yes, churros are not originally from Mexico), Mundet Beverages, Soriana and many others. There are many ties and affinities between Mexico and Spain and the immigration exchanges keep happening because of business, family, and love.
When I lived in Milan, I came across an invitation to celebrate the Veneto language of the town of Segusino. I learned that this specific type of Venetto language is only spoken in this small town and in its sister city of Chipilo, Mexico. Italian immigration to Mexico happened mostly also during the Presidency of Porfirio Diaz. During those years, according to some Italians in Seguisino, an invitation from the Mexican government made it somehow to the Venetto region. The invitation stated that Mexico was welcoming white, northern, Catholic Italians to come to live in Mexico (racism in line with the times). These first Italians in Mexico established vanilla and dairy farms in Veracruz and Puebla and later moved to Chipilo, a town still famous for its good cheese, pizza, and gelato.
These are just some samples of the different immigration influxes to Mexico. There are many other examples like the Greeks, Chinese, the French, Russians in Tijuana, the escaped African slaves in Oaxaca and Veracruz. Also, thousands of immigrants and refugees keep coming to Mexico from Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, Honduras, and many other countries. Mexico is a diverse country and it has always been an immigration destination. Mexico is diverse and genetics are so unpredictable that almost every family has that kid that looks apart and ends up with a nickname describing the way they look (el güerito, el canelo, el chino, el ruso, la rubia, etc).
If you meet a Mexican who does not fit your concept of what a Mexican is supposed to look like, please don’t tell him or her they don’t look Mexican. That is not a compliment.
Let’s shake off our stereotypes. Mexico is a melting pot — a melting pot of chile con carne to which we keep adding spicy ingredients.