By Julie Etra
First and foremost, I want to thank my friend and fellow The Eye writer Linda Kelley for introducing me to Clara Valdes Hernandez, an excellent educator who focuses on Mexican culture and history, rather than grammar and phraseology, in her Spanish classes for her English-speaking students. Without Linda and Clara, I would never have known about this remarkable, unrenowned, and underappreciated Mexican. As a homework assignment from Clara, we were to watch the 2010 documentary Visa al Paraíso. Directed by Lillian Lieberman, a Mexican of Jewish descent, this documentary tells the story of Bosques, a Mexican diplomat, who saved approximately 40,000 Jews and Spaniards from execution by the Third Reich and Francoist Spain by issuing them visas to Mexico.
Bosques was born on July 20, 1892, in Chiautla de Tapia, Mexico, a mountain village in the state of Puebla. He died on July 4, 1995, in Mexico City at 102 years of age. Bosques was very active politically; at 17, he fought in the Mexican Revolution under the command of Aquiles Serdán (the first martyr/casualty of the Revolution), which began in Puebla. He was a staunch promoter of public education, a major tenet of the Mexican Revolution. Prior to becoming a career diplomat, he was a journalist and state legislator. In 1938 he oversaw the Mexican government’s newspaper, El Nacional.
Following the outbreak of WWII and the fall of the Spanish republic in 1939, Bosques was appointed Mexico’s Consul General to Paris, France, by then President Lázaro Cárdenas. Bosques was originally mandated to protect Mexicans trapped in Spain; as the Nazi onslaught became more apparent, his mission was expanded to save as many people as possible fleeing the Nazi horror and the fall of Spain to the fascist dictator Francisco Franco Bahamondein (aka Franco) and grant them Mexican citizenship. Cárdenas supported the Spanish republic against the supporters of Franco, who included Hitler and Mussolini. On March 18, 1938, Cárdenas signed an order expropriating the assets of nearly all of the foreign oil companies operating in Mexico, which were mostly American. Being preoccupied with implementation of this order, among other complicated aspects of governance, Cárdenas mostly left Bosques to his own devices to carry out his government’s wishes.
On June 22, 1940, France fell to Germany, and the Vichy government was installed. The Vichy government, in collaboration with the Germans, began rounding up Jews and deporting them to concentration camps. Although Bosques initially fled, he returned to establish the Mexican consulate in Marseille. He rented a castle and summer camp to house the refugees and claimed under international law that the property constituted Mexican territory and was therefore immune from Vichy governance and its policies. The Mexican government provided shelter, food, medical treatment, and even entertainment.
Bosques began issuing expedited visas to Jews, leaders of the Austrian and French Resistance, and Spaniards fleeing the fascist Franco regime. He exceeded instructions given to him by Cárdenas, as any refugee who approached him would get a letter from the Mexican consulate saying that he or she had a Mexican visa. Records are conflicting; some sources report that Bosques persuaded the Mexican government to send ships to the French coast to transport refugees to Mexico, but at the time Mexico had no ships and little revenue. Some refugees were sent to the French colonies in North Africa, mostly Casablanca, and from there took French ships to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean and then on to Mexico.
In 1943, German forces invaded and occupied the compound, arresting refuges awaiting departure to Mexico. Bosques and his family, as well as 40 consular staff, were later arrested by the Gestapo and detained as prisoners in Germany for a year. They were released after the new Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho imprisoned German citizens in Mexico and then arranged a prisoner swap, and Bosques returned to Mexico.
After the war, he served as the Mexican Ambassador to several countries, including Portugal, Finland, Sweden, and Cuba.
His heroism was never recognized during his lifetime. Recognition began in 2003, when the City Hall of Vienna, together with the Mexican Embassy and the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, dedicated a boulevard to Bosques. The “Promenade Gilberto Bosques” was inaugurated on June 4, 2003, with Bosques’ daughters, Laura and Maria Teresa, in attendance. In 2007 a photographic exhibition in his honor was presented at the Jewish and Holocaust History Museum in the Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City; the exhibit traveled to Xalapa, Veracruz, in 2008; in that same year, the Anti-Defamation League honored Bosques with its Courage to Care Award. In Visa al Paraíso, Ms. Liberman interviews 16 people, among them his daughter, people whom Bosques saved, and historians.