Source: Carlos Martínez Assad

How far is Mexico from Lebanon?

The distance between Mexico and Lebanon suggests that relations between both countries should be squandered. However, geographical distances do not always indicate  remoteness and there is always the possibility of having close relationships with a country that appears to be far away. This is the case of Lebanon and Mexico.

As World War II came to an end, there was a wave of migration from Europe to other continents. Countries such as Syria and Lebanon were invaded by European countries, which caused the displacement and migration of entire families to different parts of the world, one of which was Mexico.

At the time, Mexico was already known for its multicultural identity. It also stood against interventions in the Middle East, creating a friendly environment for the families who sought refuge from the violence there. This is exactly  why, “the Lebanese population before 1950 was established predominantly on the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, in the ports of Tampico and Veracruz, as well as in the Yucatan peninsula, given the oil boom of the 1930s. In turn, the Palestinian and Syrian groups settled in cities in the north of the country such as Monclova, Saltillo and Monterrey” (García, 2005: 107). Eventually, these cities became the new home to Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Armenian families.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Mexico also witnessed the arrival of immigrants from various other nationalities which included French, Italian, American, Japanese, German and Chinese immigrants. Furthermore, among the five waves of Arab immigration Mexico experienced, the arrival of Christian families was a lot more common. This, however, didn’t deny the presence of Jewish and Muslim families which had arrived too. Such populations were attracted by the dominant religious freedom and the protection to exercise the same.

Even though, Mexico experienced the arrival of immigrants and refugees from different parts of the world, the Lebanese immigration case was exceptional for several reasons. In 1945, the diplomatic relations between both countries were officially established, with the exchange of ambassadors: Miguel Aleman by the Mexican delegation and Joseph Aboukar by the Lebanese. However, before the establishment of political-diplomatic relations, an exchange of social relations existed since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Mexico announced itself in favor of the immigrant families and has worked to defend their identity. While refugees in other countries lacked the opportunity to call themselves “Lebanese”; in Mexico, they were given the opportunity to adopt the political identity that best represented them. Likewise, “these groups began to enroll in the social, political and economic dynamics of Mexico participating in the development of commerce, letters or national politics” (García, 2005: 108). Some families changed their names for the Spanish version; for example, from “Maryam” to “María”, and others adopted different names with the intention of better assimilating in the Mexican society.

Due to language barriers and the mercantile traditions of the Lebanese, they were mostly inclined to participate in commercial activities. This included the creation of restaurants and textile companies, as well as participation in the agriculture and mining industries. Yet,what was even more interesting is that despite the Lebanese constituting less than 5% of the foreign population in Mexico in the 1930s, they owned more than 50% of economic activities in the country.

A clear example of the integration of the Lebanese community in Mexico is one related to Carlos Slim Helú, a businessman born to Lebanese refugee parents. Helu is said to be one of the richest men in Latin America and the world. He was born in 1940, and studied Civil Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In 1965, at only 25, he founded the real-estate “Group Carso”, which today is one of the largest and most important conglomerates in Mexico and Latin America, controlling a vast range of companies in the commercial, communications, and service industries.

Despite the geographical distance that separates the two countries, the relationship between Mexico and Lebanon still stands strong. Today, there is a Lebanese community of over half a million people, who have come to form a good part of the Mexican society. The community as such was able to create businesses, build relationships and eventually families with Mexican nationals as well as participate in numerous spheres being the political, social, cultural and commercial.

I would certainly hope that both countries would sustain the said healthy and strong relationship as means to enhance the wealth that both countries already have to share.