Sunday, July 8, 2012

Italians in Mexico

The Italian presence is very old in Mexico and remains vibrant today, particularly in the arts and entertainment these days. Italian immigrants and Italo-Mexicans have impacted Mexican history from the very beginning from the Italian explorers and missionaries in the early period of Spanish America and the War of Mexican Independence from Spain which created modern Mexico as we know it today. Italo-Mexicans have served as soldiers, generals, presidents, business leaders, athletes, musicians and actors. One very famous early figure was Leona Vicario who was a great heroine of the Mexican War of Independence. Orphaned at a young age, she supported the independence movement by carrying messages, hiding revolutionary leaders from the Spanish authorities, raising money and delivering medicine to the rebel forces. During the course of events she married the rebel hero Andres Quintana Roo (who has a state named after him in southern Mexico), she was thrown in jail and kept under close watch until independence was achieved by Emperor Agustin I in 1821. She is the only woman to date to have been given a state funeral when she died in 1842 and a commission authorized by President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna named her the “Sweet Mother of the Fatherland”.

General Lombardini
In 1836, during the Texas War of Independence against Mexican President Santa Anna, the deputy-commander of the Mexican army in Texas was the Italian-born General Vicente Filisola, one of the most talented military commanders in Mexico at the time. One of the younger officers in that campaign was Colonel Manuel Maria Lombardini, a veteran of the Mexican War of Independence, the Pastry War with France and the Mexican-American War in which he won great fame for heroism. A staunch conservative, he was a leader in the Jalisco revolt against General Mariano Arista in 1853, supporting his old chief Santa Anna, and was President of Mexico for a few months before Santa Anna could return to take up the office again. He famously wrote a letter to the leading Mexican conservative (and staunch monarchist) Lucas Alaman, about the future of the conservative movement in Mexico and the return of Santa Anna to power. Afterwards he served as the Chief of Staff of the Mexican Army, Commander of the Army and commander of the Mexico City garrison before his death in 1853.

In 1909 an Italian immigrant to Mexico named Don Dante Cusi (from Brescia) founded the town of Nueva Italia (“New Italy”) in the state of Michoacan as a colony for Italian immigrants. Nueva Italia was an early success, developing the largest irrigation system in all of Latin America and becoming the leading producer of cotton, rice, melon and maize in Mexico. Dante Cusi also founded the town of Lombardia, which is today the seat of government of the municipality of Gabriel Zamora also in the state of Michoacan. Many of the Italian immigrants to these communities in Mexico came from northern Italy, many during the traumatic years of unification. Later Italian immigrants to Mexico in the late 19th and 20th Centuries would be more from the south. Most settled in central Mexico and in coastal areas. Some of the first groups came during the short-lived second Mexican Empire of Emperor Maximilian who had previously been the last Austrian Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia. Things were often difficult for the first to settle, but over time they prospered and today Italo-Mexicans enjoy a very high status in Mexican society.

Giuseppe Garibaldi II
Of course, because of his adventures in South America, Mexicans were very familiar with the name of Giuseppe Garibaldi during the unification of Italy but they would become even more familiar with his grandson. Giuseppe Garibaldi II (named for his grandfather) was born in Australia but fought alongside revolutionary forces all over the world. In 1897 he fought with the Greeks against the Ottoman Turks, then with the revolutionaries of Venezuela and other parts of Latin America and, in an ideological about-face, fought for the British Empire against the Boers in South Africa. He came to Mexico in 1910 when the Mexican Revolution broke out in struggle to bring down the long-time dictator Porfirio Diaz. Garibaldi had sufficient experience to become a lieutenant colonel in the revolutionary army of Francisco I. Madero and he fought in a number of victorious battles against the government forces. His greatest fame came for his actions at the battle of Nuevo Casas Grandes for which a square in Mexico City was named “Plaza Garibaldi” in his honor. Unfortunately for Garibaldi, he ran afoul of general/bandit Pancho Villa who dismissed him from the Mexican Army after the battle of Juarez in 1911. Garibaldi went back to Europe, fought in the Balkan War of 1912, joined the French army in World War I and later the Italian army when Italy entered the conflict (he and his men wearing red shirts under their uniforms to honor The Thousand). However, his deeds in Mexico were never forgotten and Plaza Garibaldi still bears his name in Mexico City.

In recent decades the Italo-Mexican community has made a great name for themselves across a wide spectrum of industries. In 1976, with the election of President Jose Lopez Portillo (PRI) Mexico gained a First Lady of Italian descent, Carmen Romano, and in 1985 the first Mexican to travel in space was the Italo-Mexican astronaut Rodolfo Neri Vela who is also one of the leading research scientists in the country. Jared Borgetti, the holds the record for scoring the most goals ever in the Mexican national football team, is an Italo-Mexican and many of the leading artists, singers and actors in the entertainment industry today are Mexicans of Italian heritage. In recent years more Italian enclaves have sprung up in Mexico in coastal resort areas and in the hospitality industry as Italians have retired to Mexico (where the exchange rate allows a higher standard of living) or because of those simply looking for new opportunities. The vast majority of Italo-Mexicans no longer speak Italian, though the language survives in certain areas, and while all are adamantly patriotic Mexican citizens, as anywhere they remain proud of their Italian roots.

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