Arabs in Mexico. Assimilation and Cultural Heritage

Mexico is a country that has received people from many nationalities along history. The Arab presence in Mexico has been a story of people living behind their homeland with the hope of a better quality of life. Arabs, especially Lebanese, have been adapted to the Mexican culture.

They have reached a point where in present day, they have participation in politics, economy, arts and the whole society. The purpose of this literature research is to find how have been the process of adaptation of the Lebanese in Mexico.

The research done is based on Rosa Garcia’s article Arabs in Mexico. Assimilation and cultural heritage. Further research was done in order to enrich this document with other authors perspectives towards this topic.

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Table of Contents

Connection between Arab World and Mexico

Mexico is a country that hosts different nationalities in its land. Different global events during centuries had created huge waves of migration, and Mexico has been a country that has received people from all around the world. One of those people are the Arabs. In order to achieve some findings and understand what the Arabs lived during the migration period to Mexico, it is presented in this paper a methodology based on an extensive research on relevant literature.

This theoretical investigation about the Arab migration to Mexico and their cultural assimilation was made with a non-empirical approach by doing the proper research through different sources mainly published in academic journals. Therefore, in order to get an approach that could lead this investigation to achieve relevant findings, the main targeted journals and books were the ones with a high orientation on migration and Mexican culture.

The literature that was found centers around the migration of the Arab population, specially the Lebanese, into the Mexican country. As well, the literature also explores the relation between how the Arab culture had adapted to a new territory.

Furthermore, the structure of the current paper first gives a general historical context of Mexico and Lebanon which focuses on what was the environment in those countries in the late XIX and early XX century. After, the first wave of Lebanese migrants is described and it is showed how they were assimilating their new home.

As well, their living behavior in Mexico is described through different aspects such as lifestyle, religion and economy. Also, it is exposed the current situation of the Arabs in Mexico. And at last, this research presents the discussion with its conclusion with the key aspects that were found.


Historical Context of Mexico and Lebanon in late XIX and early XX century

Mexico in the XIX century lived a period of constant instability and war, until the last decades when Porfirio Diaz was president. The period from 1877 until 1911 was known as “Porfiriato”, in which those years there were no other political power who can have the presidency of Mexico.

During this time president Diaz tried to reestablish peace, due to the conflicts surged after the country’s independence, as well as he tried to support the industrial progress and economic development. One of his main policies to achieve those goals was the promotion of foreign direct investment and the ease for international companies to establish all around the country. Also, he supported that foreigners arrive to colonize and work bigger extensions of land.  

The lack of strong legislation in terms of immigration was seen as an easy path for foreigners. In 1886, the Law of Immigration and Naturalization had almost inexistent restriction for the arrival and settlement of immigrants and it established that foreigners of all classes could be accredited as Mexicans after two years of residence in the country. 

Migration from Lebanon to the New World began to intensify during the second half of the 19th century, when Mount Lebanon was the scene of several regional and international conflicts that led to civil wars, notably between Maronite Christians and the Druze in 1840 and 1860. These two groups worked in a different way, in terms of economy and religion. The Maronite were the people who worked directly with the land, and they experimented an important growth of their population. The Druze were the landlords and represented the Ottoman power in the region. The jobs in agriculture and handcrafting started to be scarce for the new population, and the differences were more notorious due to their religious ideology.  The region was on constant conflict between these two groups, which it was a reason that France took over Lebanon and Syria after the First World War. Also, the consequences of the disintegration of a traditional system, such as the Ottoman Empire, were reasons for migration. Those consequences were the slow handcraft production and the traditional property of the land, which was mainly owned by the community. Emigration continued until the third quarter of 1920 and the proclamation of the French Mandate over Lebanon. This wave of migration included a significant increase in the number of women, who departed primarily for purposes of family reunion (Fersan, 2010) 

Road to Mexico from Lebanon

The story of the first Lebanese in Mexico according to the magazine “El Emir” was the priest Boutros Raffoul, who arrived in the city of Veracruz in the year of 1878. He dedicated to travel the country, mostly the region of Jalisco. Until the year 1887 he had constant contact with his relatives, but until then they lost contact. Three years after, the arrival of the priest Raffoul, the registers of the names José María Abad and Santiago Sauma Aoued were sign of more Lebanese. And in the year 1888, Felipe Raffoul, the brother of the priest, arrived in Mexico with the purpose to find Boutros. 

Arab migration was primarily motivated by three factors, which were the seek for a better economic opportunity and quality of life, the search of a place where they can find a refuge to run from all the ethnical conflicts that appeared in the Ottoman Empire, and the European takeover of the regional zones. Therefore, these reasons pushed for the arrival of Lebanese people in Mexico, plus it coincides that the immigration policy in Mexico was facilitating the reception of foreigners, who was a political movement supported by Díaz to promote the economic development of the country. 

The Arab immigration, and especially the Lebanese, is a phenomenon that occurred in the second half of the XIX century. The Mexican immigration analysis of this period relied on the lack of trustful data, due to the fact that the census that was made didn’t have a methodology that was reliable, and the oldest national census was made on 1895. The first Arab immigrants to get into the country arrived with the purpose of an improvement on their quality of lives. A characteristic of those people were that they were young men, that being married or not, they looked for stability in the country so that can later bring their families. Or in other hand, they planned to go back to their country to marry a woman of their same nationality and get back to Mexico. The political situation in the Middle East with the beginning of the League of Nations explain a massive migration as well of the Syrian Lebanese from their region. And in other hand, the new political conditions in Mexico with the stabilization during the 1920s, let the country to receive migrants. 

Most the Arab immigrants arrived through the port of Veracruz (78.8%), Tampico (5,4%) and Progreso (3,0%), which were the most important access points to the country. The lack of the development of the aviation industry during those years made difficult their arrival directly to Mexico City. Although, there were also some arrivals in the northern border cities such as Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juárez, Nogales, Tijuana and Piedras Negras, which it means that some Lebanese got into the country through the United States. Once settled in Mexico, the most important places where the Lebanese stayed in Mexico were: Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City, Yucatan, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Jalisco, Chihuahua and Durango.

Lebanese living in Mexico

In Mexico, the concepts of “Arab” or “Lebanese” were inexistent to define their nationality in the XIX century. Before World War, any immigrant from Middle East was considered as “Turkish”. 

lso, the change of name was a voluntary act to accelerate the process of integration to the Mexican environment and to help the Arabs to don’t be seen as a foreign element of the society, especially because the migration laws were also discriminatory to accept some migrants and others not. One of the main reasons of the change of the Arab name was due to the customs agents who wrote the last names according to how they sound, like Abdallah to Apedole, or according to their similar names in Spanish, like Fares into Pérez. Other examples about these translations to avoid xenophobia were Boutros to Pedro, Maryem to María. 

Once in Mexico, the immigrants established themselves in a country that would see them progress, have a family and afterwards be integrated as a group and community. The Lebanese arrived to Mexico to stay permanently. There was no return on their plans, only for visiting their parents and when they have reached a financial consolidation. It was an immigration initiated by a male, who was married at early age, and who planned also to work two or three years and to bring the family who was left in Middle East. 

The established Lebanese families supported their community life through the protection of their cultural values. Their private life was a space where they decided the group’s supremacy. Therefore, they had the need to practice endogamy on the first years, to take care over the family and business networks and don’t lose the Arab as a language. In other hand, their community was beneficiated by the Law for Foreigners and Naturalization in 1934, because the Mexican nationality was given to those who were born in the country, turning the children of the Lebanese into Mexicans.

One fundamental aspect that made easy the assimilation of the Lebanese to the Mexican society was to practice the same religion, despite the ritual differences that they might had, because the Lebanese were Catholic Maronite.  The catholic Lebanese represented more than the 90% of the total Arab immigration in Mexico. 

The religion was a fundamental tool for the immigration pioneers to integrate, adapt and identify to open society. These helped this ethnic group to be easily accepted in the Mexican territory, where they were tolerated and admitted. For the Mexicans with Arab origin this was a sign of religious identity, a source of culture and traditions that let them grow and enrich their adoptive country with many vocations in the consecrated life. It even helped them to excel in different fields such as economics, politics, and art, intellectual and social positions. Their religious membership was based on a moral code of social control, which was a reason for solidarity and fraternity that reinforced the cohesion between the Mexican communities. 

The preponderant economic activity in the Arab community, regardless of their practiced religion, is the commercial activity.  The majority of the Mexican who lived with the Lebanese accepted them without any difficulty, and their presence as street vendor was well received by the society. The street vendor in the second half of the XIX century was mainly done by nationals, but gradually this sector was occupied by the Lebanese who were introducing new goods, were working as brokers of the big urban businesses and initiated the technique of trading based on credit and small payments.  When a new immigrant arrived to the country, the rest of the community helped him by sourcing with goods on credit so that he could start as a street vendor. This also created a migration domino effect, because it attracted to other family members to travel to the country.  It is also valuable to mention that the first customers of the Lebanese were the indigenous groups, therefore they had the necessity to learn Maya or Nahuatl at the same time that spanish language. 

Once the immigrants had an amount of money, and the opportunity of getting credit from commercial businesses, as well as a big number of customers, they mixed their street vending into a local establishment. This situation was possible because when the man was travelling for business, the wife or any other family member from Lebanon was taking care of the small business. Also, the attraction of Lebanese women stimulated the endogamy practices inside their community. 

Although the Arab population didn’t represented more than the 5% of the total migrant population in Mexico, by the first ten years of the XX century, their businesses represented 50% of the economic activities that were held by migrants.  And when there were some preoccupations about migration policies that could affect the entrance of Lebanese people in the 1930s, the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce stated that “The Lebanese is characterized by his activity in their job, by his economy, by his simplicity, by the easiness and quickness in which he learns the language of the country where he arrives and lives peacefully, especially in those, like Mexico, where he has a sacred personal independence and love to the country. 

Arabs in Today’s Mexico

Mexican flag waving in Mexico’s centro histórico with cathedral and presidential palace in the back.

From street vendors to industrial businesses, the third generation of Arabs got to work in different fields. The first generation of pioneers arrived and started to accumulate wealth, followed by the second generation who consolidated the equity that their parents created, and thanks to that they received high education. Now days the image of the Arab is far distant from the image of the analphabet who arrived with great spirit of hope. 

The Arab influence in Mexico City can be found in different circumstances that are now part of the Mexican identity. There are around 4,000 Arab origin words that the Spanish language has. Also the Mexican gastronomy is filled by elements that came from Middle East and North Africa, with products like mango, cinnamon, melon, citrics, ginger, cardamom, olives, Jocoque cheese. Among the most famous people like the politicians Emilio Chuayffet and José Murat Kasab, the artists Jaime Sabines, Gaspar Henaine “Capulina”, Mauricio Feres Yázbek, a.k.a Mauricio Garcés, Salma Hayek, and the business man Carlos Slim.

After almost 140 years of Lebanese presence in Mexico, there are descendents of them all around the country. With the pass of time, the Lebanese in Mexico have created clubs, associations, Lebanese houses, such as the one that is in Mexico City.

It was inaugurated by the former president Adolfo López Mateos in 1962 which had the relevant phrase like “The one who don’t have a Lebanese friend, search for one.” It is undeniable the contribution of the Lebanese community to the creation and conformation of the national market.

Lebanese living in Mexico

The strength of the presented research was the specialization of the information about topics that take into consideration Arabs in Mexico. As being a topic that has a concern in Mexico, there were mainly opportunities to find different authors who had their research in Spanish about the Arabs. Therefore, the literature sources that were found were highly related to the chosen topic, but in this language. In other hand, according to the several researchers, the information about the first waves of Arabs in Mexico lack of high trust due to the data collection methods that were held during the period when the Arabs arrived. Further research can be done in the relationship between Mexico and the Arab world. The assimilation between these two cultures is an area of opportunity to investigate.

In this research, it was found the important aspect of what was happening in Mexico and in Lebanon during the centuries of XIX and XX. It was known that in those years these two countries had lived different situations. In one side, Mexico was having a more economical stability due to the dictatorship. This economic improvement was part generated due to the direct relation of the foreign direct investment and immigration policies. In the other side, Lebanon was surrounded by instability caused by wars and conflicts. The tough environment that was living Lebanon, created an intensification of the emigration. The Arab migration was caused primarily because of three factors. One of those was the economic improvement opportunity that they were seeking for. Also, to escape from the conflict zones in order to reach a place to refuge. And at last, go away from the European control of their regional zones. 

The Lebanese, who started migrate in the second half of the XIX century, arrived in Mexico with the purpose of improving their quality of lives. Mainly in the Mexican ports and north border, young men were the ones who first migrated with the idea of bringing after their families when they are settled and stable. Once in Mexico they had to adapt despite the cultural differences that they might had. One challenge was how was their home country designated, since Mexican customs considered them as Turkish. Also, the change of name to one of a more Spanish similar was another issue they deal with.

When the Lebanese established their families, they practiced endogamy in order to preserve their cultural values and language. In terms of religion, for the Lebanese who were Catholic Maronite, it was a quick link to the Mexican culture, due to the same religion base despite the minor differences that both practices could have had. The economic activity of the Arab community was the commercial one. Firstly, they started as street vendor, but as they kept growing, the established in local shops were then a family member take care of it when the owner went out to sale. Although the Arab population didn’t represented a high amount of the total immigrants in Mexico, they represented a high percentage of the economic activities of the foreigners. 

In conclusion, the Lebanese and the Arabs in Mexico had turned to be a group of immigrants who had successfully assimilated the Mexican culture. Their integration in all aspects of the Mexican culture has enrich areas such as economy, arts, sciences and politics. Their contribution to the country’s development must not be despised. The Lebanese recognition has been done, and as the former president López Mateos said, “The one who don’t have a Lebanese friend, search for one.”

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