So Far from Allah, So Close to Mexico:

Middle Eastern Immigrants in Modern Mexico

Introduction: Looking for Antonio Aychur Itt and Finding Hamud Said ‘Eid

This book follows my journey to locate Antonio Aychur Itt, my great-grandfather, in Mexico and to trace his birth name, Hamud Said ‘Eid, and his birthplace in Lebanon. I never knew my great-grandfather and knew very little of his eldest son, my grandfather Said Itt Alfaro. My grandfather came to the United States as a bracero worker in the 1940s, and U.S. immigration officials changed his name to Ruben Alfaro. Stories of these two men have been passed down from generation to generation, capturing my imagination. As I began studying Mexican history, I wondered how and where my great-grandfather’s and grandfather’s stories fit into Mexican historiography. In the fall of 1998 as part of my dissertation research, I began the task of compiling a database of Middle Eastern immigrants who came to Mexico and registered with the Department of Migration in the 1930s. While in my final stages of examining more than eight thousand immigrant cards, I stumbled upon the ficha of Antonio Aychur Itt, my great-grandfather. His picture and description matched my family records. This is the only tangible piece of my family’s immigration history that I have ever collected. While doing years of research, however, I realized I had encountered a new dimension of Mexican social history, that there were many ways to be Mexican in the twentieth century.

The title of the book, So Far from Allah, So Close to Mexico, derives from Mexican President Porfirio Díaz (1886-1911) saying, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” Since the book aims to broaden notions of mexicanidad and illustrate the diversity of Middle Eastern immigrants, the use of Allah (God in Arabic) extends to the beliefs of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Druze immigrants from the Middle East who arrived and eventually settled in Mexico. Some Middle East historians have cautioned that the term Allah in North American culture has come to signify those of Islamic faith. This is not my intent in employing the word Allah; rather I am using the word to speak generally about God and how Arabic-speaking immigrants acculturated in Mexico. The subtitle, Middle Eastern Immigrants in Modern Mexico, accounts for the journey that the Middle Eastern community experienced from arrival in Mexico to becoming Mexican citizens. This journey enabled many of the immigrants to retain aspects of their “foreignness” while joining the Mexican nation. An example of such a Middle Eastern immigrant who naturalizes is Jorge Martínez Abraham (formerly known as Girius Ibrahim Martinos Abraham), who naturalized and founded El Cairo restaurant in Torreón. Martínez Abraham exemplifies how Middle Easterners have both embraced their Arab heritage and become Mexican citizens. Caroline Nagel and Lynn Staeheli, in examining Arab immigrants in the United States, suggest that “it is possible to claim identity as a citizen of a country and to negotiate membership within the bounds of ‘belonging,’ even without claiming to ‘be of’ that country.”

Book Structure

The chapters that follow examine why Middle Eastern immigrants came to Mexico, where they settled, how many came, where they came from, how Mexicans responded to them, why some areas like the Laguna (the lake district, or Comarca Lagunera, which occupies almost the full width of southern Coahuila and far northeastern Durango states) attracted them, and how they positioned themselves. Each chapter asks how and why Middle Easterners are important to the Mexican nation. Beginning with the first chapter, “Amplifying Mexicanidad,” the migration process can be divided into four phases: (1) the first sojourners, often called turcos (Ottoman subjects), came between 1880 and 1910; (2) during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), some sojourners and newly arrived immigrants became Middle Eastern merchants, providing necessary goods and services; (3) the 1920s and 1930s marked Syro-Lebanese family reunifications; and (4) the 1940s brought some World War II refugees as well as the reconstruction of the Lebanese Mexican community. These four phases are by no means the only migratory periods and settlement processes of Middle Eastern immigrants in Mexico; however, they help explain and demonstrate how different historical events affected the timing of when groups moved to Mexico and how the Middle Eastern community came into being and changed over time.

In Chapter 2, “Locating Middle Easterners in National and Transnational Histories,” I examine Mexican immigrant history and how to place Middle Eastern immigrants in the historical record. The chapter also discusses the relationship between migrations to Mexico and across Mexico’s northern border to the United States. Mexico thus became known as a “back door” to the United States and became vulnerable to changes in U.S. immigration policies

Chapter 3, “Turco Sojourners Come to Porfirian Mexico,” examines why the turcos came to Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In it I discuss the political instability, increased economic competition, and religious tensions in the Middle East that motivated emigration. In addition, Porfirian development initiatives are examined as attracting immigrants to Mexico. Analysis of immigrant registration cards combined with immigrant histories detail where the immigrants came from in the Middle East and where they settled in Mexico. Their migration experiences were greatly facilitated by Middle Eastern immigrant networks, which provided money and information to family members and friends. During this early phase of migration, Middle Eastern immigrants began positioning themselves in the Mexican nation

Chapter 4, “Borderland Merchants in Revolutionary Mexico,” explores how the early sojourners’ networks provided an infrastructure to continue with commercial activities during the chaos of the Revolution. Middle Eastern immigrants provided food and arms to the various revolutionary factions. Their ability to maneuver around the strong anti-foreign rhetoric attests to their skills of self-positioning and their unique role in the Mexican nation. The ability to cross into the United States enabled some Middle Easterners to amass large profits while the rest of the country was fighting. At the same time, the immigrants faced greater risks because of anti-foreign sentiments and revolutionary violence.

After the turbulent decade of the Revolution, Middle Eastern immigration to Mexico nearly quadrupled in the 1920s. The Middle Eastern community grew, and many of its members permanently settled in Mexico. Meanwhile, Mexican citizens became increasingly uncomfortable with the Middle Easterners’ presence and marketing endeavors. As Mexicans voiced their opposition to the immigrants, Middle Eastern families became more unified, consolidating their economic enterprises with more kinship ties.

Chapter 5, “Middle Eastern Immigrants and Foreigners in Post-Revolutionary Mexico,” analyzes the consolidation of the immigrant community and the slowing of immigration in the 1930s. Tough economic times combined with anti-foreign policies led Mexican citizens to more actively express their dislike of Middle Easterners. This can be attributed to both the larger numbers of immigrants who came in the 1920s and the Mexican citizenry’s demand for help from the federal government in times of crisis. Complaints against Middle Easterners varied from allegations of setting up illegitimate companies to falsely declaring bankruptcy, and from establishing monopolies to carrying contagious diseases. Letters from citizens, chambers of commerce, and state governments demonstrate a nation searching for a way to control its immigrant populations in the midst of economic, social and political change.

Chapter 6, “Peddling, Positioning, and Prosperity,” explores how Middle Eastern immigrants have peddled their identity by carefully positioning themselves between Mexican society and their own immigrant community. Their identity has been rooted in their economic roles of making profits, especially during conflict. While making their profits, Middle Eastern immigrants (often referred to as “the Lebanese colony”) sought to define themselves in relation to events in the Middle East and in Mexico. In response to Mexican nation building, many of the successful immigrants aimed to unite and perpetuate their foreignness. They constructed a Lebanese discourse that largely excluded Arabs, Muslims, and Druzes.

Chapter 7, “Meanings of Multiculturalism,” synthesizes the text and offers a new means to examine the manifold ways of being Mexican. This concluding chapter examines how immigrants acquired mexicanidad while creating their own Middle Eastern immigrant community, adopting much of the Mexican national discourse, and becoming Mexican citizens. Although retaining their “Lebaneseness,” their immigrant positioning suggests that Mexico is indeed multicultural and demonstrates some social acceptance and tolerance for ethnic difference.

In Chapter 7 I also discuss how the construction of the Lebanese community has created a hegemonic voice for anyone of Middle Eastern descent in Mexico today. The constructed history tends to ignore the diversity of immigrant roles in Mexican history and portrays the early immigrants as primarily Christians from Lebanon. The diversity of the immigrants and their contradictory reception in Mexico has largely been overshadowed by the notion that the Lebanese quickly acculturated and economically dominated.

Following the text is an appendix of fourteen tables, largely drawing on Middle Eastern immigrant registration cards compiled by the Mexican government between 1926 and 1951. They illustrate how the Middle Eastern migration changed over time, showing the gender breakdown of the immigrants and marital status, nationality, country and city of birth, religion, place of residence in Mexico, place of entry, and occupation. Throughout the text, I reference the tables in parentheses for readers to further examine the variables under discussion.

The Sources

Historians develop their analyses from the sources available. In this inquiry, official Mexican sources and Middle Eastern immigrant testimonies were examined for their direct information but also in search of inferences from hidden transcripts. Immigrants who did not attain great economic or political success rarely emerged in the historical record, and many seem to have melted into Mexican society. Some were killed in revolutionary conflict or during other moments of chaos. In an effort to develop a more holistic portrait of this community, I used several research methodologies. I drew on 8,240 Middle Eastern immigrant registration cards (1926-1951), Mexican immigration laws published in the Diario Oficial (1920s-1940s), citizen complaints about Middle Easterners to Mexican presidents (1920s-1940s), Middle Eastern immigrant community-based sources (newsletters, novels, and letters), U.S. immigration cases involving Syrians crossing into the United States (1904-1945), and my interviews in 1999 with descendants of Middle Eastern immigrants (1999), whom I have given pseudonyms for this book. Middle Easterners are among many immigrant groups who came to Mexico and drew on their foreignness to better their economic and social standing.

The geopolitical changes in the Middle East, Porfirian economic policies, and U.S.-Mexican relations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provide a backdrop against which the analysis here proceeds and interprets 8,240 Middle Eastern immigrant registration cards produced by the National Registry of Foreigners. The Migration Law of 1926 established the National Registry of Foreigners to collect information on immigrants and the Mexican Department of Migration. In trying to get an accurate count of foreigners, these registration cards were processed from 1926 to 1951.

It should be noted that 8,240 is the full sample of immigrant registration cards available. Unfortunately, data were not always provided on certain cards; therefore, the samples from which I draw the following analyses vary. In 1997 Zidane Zéraoui identified 7,533 Arab immigrants in his analysis of the registration cards. In my research at the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in Mexico City, I discovered an unmarked box that had additional records of Middle Eastern immigrants. I believe this box explains why my sample has 707 more Middle Eastern immigrants than Zéraoui has documented.

The information obtained for the cards was largely based on immigrant memory, especially for the earliest immigrants. Therefore, the information recorded was probably more of a snapshot of an immigrant’s life at the time of registration than at the point of entry into Mexico. For instance, my great-grandfather Antonio Aychur Itt (Hamud Said ‘Eid) migrated to Mexico in 1907 but his card was not processed until 1932, thus leaving a twenty-five-year gap over which to recall his migration experience. His card said he had a Mexican wife and six children; however, this information reflects his status in 1932 at age 51, not his situation in 1907.

Despite the limitations inherent to the immigrant registration cards, analyses of the cards enable historians and social scientists in general to better understand Middle Eastern migration to Mexico and how the immigrants positioned themselves in their new host country. In addition to the delay in processing the biographic information of the immigrant, there are other limitations with these immigrant registration cards. For instance, the cards identify only lawful immigrants with money to pay the fee to register with the Mexican government. This sample represents Middle Eastern immigrants who entered legally or had the wherewithal to obtain the papers to register. This was a self-selective group. In 1927 Middle Eastern immigrants were required to pay 10,000 pesos (roughly $1,000 today) to enter the country. Thus the truly destitute Middle Eastern immigrant would not be counted in these statistics.

Another aspect of the National Registry of Foreigners is Mexican officials’ lack of understanding of Arab culture and the political situation in the Middle East at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of the Mexican immigration officials did not understand that the peoples from the Middle East primarily spoke Arabic. Some of the cards stated “Lebanese” and “Syrian” as primary languages, illustrating that some of the Mexican officials did not know that Lebanese and Syrian immigrants predominantly spoke Arabic as their first language. Another possibility is that an immigration official, in taking the immigrants’ biographic information, made the assumption that a Lebanese immigrant spoke Lebanese and a Syrian immigrant spoke Syrian. Furthermore, the cards only indicate what languages immigrants spoke and do not explain the language abilities of these immigrants. It also would seem likely that the immigration officials recorded other information incorrectly or haphazardly, especially in the case of the names. Many Arabic names appear Hispanicized on the immigrants’ cards, and the order of the names could have been changed. A middle name in Lebanon could have become a first name or last name in Mexico. These subtle variations are endless.

Discrepancies in the data were quite common, particularly in the Mexican census during this period and especially if the enumerators were trying to communicate with people whose first language was not Spanish. Unlawful immigrants (who probably were not captured in the censuses) avoided any government official such as census takers. For the purposes of this discussion, immigrant registration cards are considered a sample of lawful Middle Eastern immigrants. These cards provide valuable information as to places from which they emigrated and where they settled in Mexico. The immigrants also indicated when they entered Mexico, lending insight into how Middle Eastern immigration evolved over time and responded to Mexican and world events (Table 1).

Despite more than a decade of research in Mexico supplemented with studies in the United States and Lebanon, I have not been able to expand the community-based sources. To the best of my knowledge, this book is comprehensive with respect to most of the primary and secondary sources available. It is my hope that future scholars will continue to uncover documents housed in the new centers in Mexico and Lebanon focusing on immigration/emigration. Most of the materials I located were in Spanish, and I have provided my own translations for the reader. While finishing compilation of the immigrant registration database, I consulted with Middle Eastern historian Nadya Sbaiti, a native Lebanese Arabic speaker, to help me examine the immigrant registration cards in order to identify any Arabic names that had been misfiled or miscoded because of the Hispanicizing of names. In my findings I report observed inconsistencies in the data. Hayat Abu-Saleh, a native Arabic speaker from the region, translated letters and other documents from the Lebanese Emigration Research Centre (LERC) in Beirut. Letters from Maronite priests residing in Mexico City in the late nineteenth century describe their difficulties in adjusting to Mexico and request permission to return home. The task of translating these letters was particularly difficult for a modern-day speaker of Arabic. As LERC continues to build its collection, it should be a rich resource for future scholars.

In comparing Lebanese and Mexican sources on immigration, cases of Middle Eastern immigrants, particularly Syrian immigrants, have been well documented in the United States during the twentieth century. The concern of U.S. citizens that Middle Eastern immigrants as well as other undocumented immigrants surreptitiously enter the United States has created a good source of information. For instance, court cases and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) records have led to a better understanding of transnational migration. Mexico was sometimes used as an alternative point of entry for immigrants wishing to enter the United States.

Finding Family

After several years of archival research, I found Hamud Said ‘Eid in June 2004. With a travel grant from my university, I went to Lebanon hoping to find a trace of my great-grandfather Antonio Aychur Itt. Some wonderful friends and colleagues there drove me to Sibline, the town shown on my great-grandfather’s immigration card. According to his immigrant registration card, he arrived in Mexico in 1907, thus making my quest nearly a century later seem unlikely to succeed. My Lebanese and Syrian friends and I went to the home of the local mukhtar, the Muslim administrative leader in the community, explaining that I was looking for information about a family member who had emigrated to Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. After coffee, long stares, and explanations of my family history, I was told I looked like an ‘Eid because of the shape of my face, and I was directed to the ‘Eid family in the next village. There, at a distant relative’s home, we were treated with caution until an elderly man arrived and said that his prayers had been answered. He had been trying to reach Said ‘Eid, my grandfather, in Brooklyn, New York, since the early 1970s. I explained that my grandfather had passed away at that time, and the family was still in Mexico, with the exception of Said’s children. The man then said my great-grandfather’s name had been Hamud Said ‘Eid. The Arabic ‘Eid became the Hispanicized Itt, as many of my Middle Eastern colleagues had suspected; however, he lost the name Hamud and gave the name Said (meaning “happy” in Arabic) to my grandfather. The Aychur name came from his maternal side, and Antonio was clearly an attempt at assimilating into Mexican culture. With the pieces of the puzzle coming together, I finally learned how my family’s journey began and felt it was time to share this history of Middle Eastern immigrants coming to Mexico.