- So Far from Allah, So Close to Mexico: Middle Eastern Immigrants in Modern Mexico
This book is a fascinating history and historical geography of Middle Eastern migrations to Mexico and other parts of Latin America during the first half of the 20th century. The book’s title is adapted from a statement by Mexican President Porfíroio Díaz, who said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” The book refers to these immigrants as Middle Easterners to avoid the post-9/11 negative connotations of “Arab.” Allah, the Arabic word for God, is used in the title, but as Alfaro- Velcamp notes, this term is used by Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians alike. While the book does include discussions of the role of religion for these migrants, it is not a primary theme.
In her acknowledgements and introduction the author reveals that this was both her dissertation in completion of her doctorate in history, and a search for her personal roots as a Lebanese-Mexican-American. Through thorough archival research, personal interviews, and a compelling writing style, Alfaro-Velcamp weaves together a gripping narrative of a little-studied migrant community that has played a significant role in the historical geographies of Mexico and the United States, as well as of several South American countries.
The main theme of the book is that of identity—immigrant identities within the nationalistic Mexicanidad, nationally based ethnic identity versus pan-ethnic Arab identity for the Middle Eastern immigrant community, the negotiation of identity depending on the historical political context of both the origin and the destination, and the negotiation of identity based on where in Mexico the migrants settled. Alfaro-Velcamp seeks to place Arab immigrants within the broader spectrum of Mexican nationalism and examines how the dynamism of Mexico’s national identity and polity during the late nineteenth [End Page 174] and first half of the twentieth century makes positioning immigrants into a mestizo national ethos an even greater challenge. This is further complicated by the spatio-political dynamism of the source region, the devolving Ottoman Empire, as most of the Arab immigrants were forming their own ethnic identities as Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, or Turks while also finding a place to fit in Mexican society.
The opening chapter presents various perspectives on the discourse of Mexican identity, particularly during the period of the Mexican Revolution. Where would the immigrant or foreign citizen fit in a Mexico for Mexicans? Could an immigrant successfully identify as a citizen? As Alfaro-Velcamp argues, these complex questions affected the Middle Eastern immigrant and second generation populations in Mexico differently depending on the priorities of the sitting president, the region within Mexico where the migrants had settled, and even among migrants from the same families. She develops these questions further in the subsequent chapters.
The second chapter integrates the histories of Mexico, the United States and the Middle East in order to place these migrants in their global historical contexts. Alfaro-Velcamp links the global to the local to the individual by identifying key players in the migrant networks who facilitated the processes of entry to Mexico and other Latin American receiving countries, and exposes the process by which migrants would enter Mexican ports as a stepping stone to the United States.
The third and fourth chapters examine key economic and social niches filled by Middle Eastern immigrants. The third traces the experience of the sojourning turco peddlers who played both an economic role and who became stereotyped figures in Mexican creative arts and folklore. The fourth chapter focuses spatially on the US-Mexico borderlands, examining the essential merchant niche filled by Middle Easterners, now identified as Lebanese or Syrians, during the period of the Mexican Revolution. In these chapters, Alfaro-Velcamp develops the themes of identity through exposing cycles of positive and negative sentiments toward Arab immigrants, the importance of the immigrant networks that...