The Lebanese in Mexico:How and Why They Got Here

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

The Lebanese began arriving in Mexico even before Lebanon existed as its own country. Its official geographic identity started in the late 1400s, as the Emirate of Mount Lebanon, part of the Ottoman Empire. Mount Lebanon was home to multiple religious groups; leaders of the emirate came from different groups over time, but no one seemed to like each other, much less the Ottoman (Turkish) governors, so there were several uprisings. France first (1860) became an interested party in the area when they came to the rescue of Maronite Christians being attacked by Druse Isamites. (Lebanon would become a French protectorate when the West divided up the Ottoman Empire after World War I; it would win its independence in 1943.)

In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, connecting Europe with the Far East and causing the Lebanese silk industry to collapse. Thus it was, in 1892, that the first Lebanese immigrants arrived on a French ship sailing from Beirut. Over 100,000 Arabic speakers – mostly Lebanese – arrived between then and the 1930s; they settled mostly in the Yucatán and along the Gulf of Mexico, with some moving out across northern Mexico. Although the Lebanese made up only 5% of immigration in the 1930s, they were responsible for about 50% of immigrant contributions to Mexico’s economy. If you go to the harbor in Veracruz, you will find the Plaza of the Lebanese immigrant, which contains a statue dressed in 19th-century Lebanese garb. There are copies of this statue elsewhere in Mexico and around the world, but the one in Veracruz is matched by one in Beirut – the starting and ending points of the Lebanese diaspora in Mexico.

Perhaps the most noted Lebanese citizen of Mexico is Carlos Slim Helú, born on January 28, 1940. Multi-billionaire business magnate Slim made his money mostly in telecommunications. In 1989 President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexico’s first economist president, embarked on a program of economic modernization that included privatizing telecommunications. In 1990, Carlos Slim put together a partnership that bought a controlling interest in TelMex. Nowadays, building on his fortune – he was the world’s richest person in the early 2010s – Slim is more known for his philanthropy, if not for the Soumaya Museum in Plaza Corso in Mexico City (there is an earlier one [1994] in Plaza Loreto). Slim built it in 2011 in memory of his wife Soumaya Doumit, who died in 1999.

As Maronite Christians, the Lebanese brought with them a favorite religious figure, the “miracle monk of Lebanon,” Charbel Maklouf (1828-98). Maklouf, a hermit thought to be responsible for miracles of healing; although he was not beatified until 1965 or canonized until 1977, he arrived in Mexico with Lebanese immigrants in the early 1900s. Saint Charbel is fairly popular; people adorn his statues with listones, long ribbons with requests for miracles or intercessions written on them, accompanied by a drawing of a cedar tree. Lebanese Muslims built the first dedicated mosque in Mexico in 1989; the Suraya Mosque is located in the city of Torreón in Coahuila.

Perhaps the most delectable Lebanese contributions to Mexican culture are culinary. While the meat on the spit is more likely to be pork or goat, not lamb, don’t we all crave tacos al pastor (shepherd tacos) or tacos árabes (Arab tacos)? Lebanese culinary influences are probably strongest in the Yucatán, where the Lebanese first arrived. Eggplant and potatoes, legumes such as chickpeas and lentils, lamb, yogurt, onions, and olive oil, not to mention mint, oregano, cinnamon, and cumin, are all used in Mexican adaptations of Lebanese cuisine.

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