Italian Mexicans

views updated

Italian Mexicans



Identification. People of Italian descent living in Mexico have, since the late nineteenth century, become generally assimilated into mainstream society. Their identity rests on the common experience of migration from Italy in the late 1800s (a period characterized by a more general Italian diaspora to the Americas under the pressures of economic transformation and the process of unification into a nation-state in 1871) and the establishment of communities, primarily in central and eastern Mexico. Most of these immigrants were from northern Italy, with a majority coming from the rural proletariat and farming sector in Italy. Once in Mexico, they attempted to establish themselves in similar economic pursuits, especially dairy farming. Italian Mexicans share the migration experience, speak a dialect of Italian, eat foods that they consciously identify as "Italian" (e.g., polenta, minestrone, pastas, and endive), play games that are Italian in origin (e.g., boccie ball, a form of lawn bowling), and are devoutly Catholic. Although many Italians now live in urban Mexico, many more live in and strongly identify with one of the original or spin-off communities that are almost entirely Italian in composition. These individuals still stridently claim an Italian ethnic identity (at least to a non-Mexican outsider) but are also quick to note that they are Mexican citizens as well.

Location. Italians in Mexico reside primarily in one of the rural or semiurban original communities or their spinoffs. Members of these communities tend to live in residential isolation from surrounding Mexican society (see "History and Cultural Relations"). It is important to distinguish among three types of Italian Mexican communities. First, there are the larger, original communities, or colonias (i.e., Chipilo, Puebla; Huatusco, Veracruz; Ciudad del Maíz, San Luis Potosí; La Aldana, Federal Districtthe four remaining communities of the original eight), populated by the descendants of poor, working-class Italian immigrants. Italian Mexicans still form tight-knit ethnic collectivities within their original communities, but population pressure and a circumscribed land base in these "home" communities have resulted in fissioningthe establishment of a second category of newer, spin-off or satellite communities composed of people from one of the original colonias. These include communities in and around San Miguel de Allende, Valle de Santiago, San José Iturbide, Celaya, Salamanca, Silao, and Irapuato in the state of Guanajuato; Cuautitlán, México; and Apatzingan, Michoacán. Third, there are a small number of anomalous communities, such as Nueva Italia and Lombardia, Michoacán, that were established by wealthy Italians who emigrated to Mexico after the 1880 diaspora and established large agricultural estates known as haciendas.

Demography. Only about 3,000 Italians emigrated to Mexico, primarily during the 1880s. At least half of them subsequently returned to Italy or went on to the United States. Most Italians coming to Mexico were farmers or farm workers from the northern districts. In comparison, between 1876 and 1930, SO percent of the Italian immigrants to the United States were unskilled day laborers from southern districts. Of Italian immigrants to Argentina, 47 percent were northern and agriculturists.

The largest surviving colonia in MexicoChipilo, Pueblahas approximately 4,000 inhabitants, almost a tenfold increase over its starting population of 452 people. Indeed, each of the original eight Italian communities was inhabited by around 400 individuals. If the expansion of Chipilo, Puebla, is representative of the Italian Mexican population as a whole, we might infer that in the late twentieth century there are as many as 30,000 people of Italian descent in Mexicoa small number in comparison with the immigrant Italian population in the United States, Argentina, and Brazil. It is estimated that 1,583,741 Italians emigrated to the Americas between 1876 and 1914: 370,254 arrived in Argentina, 249,504 in Brazil, 871,221 in the United States, and 92,762 in other New World destinations. Italian emigration policies from the 1880s through the 1960s favored labor migration as a safety valve against class conflict.

Linguistic Affiliation. The vast majority of Italian Mexicans are bilingual in Italian and Spanish. They use a mixture of Spanish and Italian to communicate among themselves but only Spanish with non-Italian Mexicans (unless they wish not to be understood by, for example, a vendor in the market). The ability to speak el dialecto (the dialect), as they refer to it, is an important marker of ethnic identity and in-group membership. MacKay (1984) reports that in all of the original and satellite communities, an archaic (late nineteenth-century) and truncated version of the highland Venetian dialect (as distinct from standard Italian) is spoken.

History and Cultural Relations

In the late 1800s Italy was undergoing considerable political and economic change and upheaval. The northern part of the country was controlled by an industrial bourgeoisie. Rural sharecroppers were pushed off their land and forced into urban industrial centers as poorly paid and erratically employed wage laborers. This political and economic turbulence resulted in large numbers of poor Italians seeking what they perceived as refuge through migration to the Americas. Hence, the period beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the early twentieth century was marked by heavy Italian emigration to the United States, numerous South American countries (especially Argentina and Brazil), and, to a far lesser extent, Mexico and Central America.

Italians were contracted in Italy in the 1880s by agents representing the administration of General Manuel Gonzalez, a puppet president appointed by Porfirio Díaz; the majority arrived in Mexico between 1881 and 1883. The Mexican government sold them land and provided them with some other resources, including seed, farming implements, and one year's living subsidy to support them before the harvest of their first crop. Their communities were disbursed throughout Mexico in the central and eastern states of Puebla, Morelos, the Federal District, and Veracruz. After 1884, the final year of González's presidency, the official policy of contracting with foreign immigrants was halted in practice and left to the control of private contracting companies, although the actual immigrant legislation was not reversed until 1897. These companies helped establish other Italian communities in Michoacánthe Cusi and Brioschi families, for example, established haciendas in Nueva Italia and Lombardíaand also brought over immigrants to work on railroad construction and other economic activities, including 525 Italians employed in agricultural wage labor on the coffee and sugar plantation of Motzorongo in Veracruz.

The Mexican government's motive for contracting with foreign immigrants to populate rural Mexico was related to Porfirio Diaz's desire to provide a model to help modernize the Mexican peasantry. He opted to do this through the infusion of European immigrants with agrarian backgrounds but who were also oriented toward capitalist market relations and who sought to develop their own agricultural enterprises. Italians were particularly sought after because they were Catholic and had a Mediterranean cultural background that would, it was thought, help them relate to Mexican society and eventually become assimilated into it. The immigration project, however, was a failure. Its result was the formation of a number of socially isolated communities of Italians in Mexico.

Since the 1930s, the original Italian communities in Mexico have been going through a fissioning process because of population pressure and a small, circumscribed land base. This has resulted in an interesting contrast between old and new communities, especially in terms of their differential constructions of ethnic identity. Chipilo, Puebla, established in 1882, is a largely self-contained community in terms of basic resources and infrastructure (e.g., it has schools, banks, markets, a church, etc.), in which there exists a collective ethnic solidarity marked by the importance of group action to obtain or defend benefits beyond the reach of individuals.

One benefit of Italian Mexican ethnicity is economic: the people of Chipilo can be considered a middleman minority because they controlled the local dairy industry, from direct milk production through processing and marketing, through two community-based dairy cooperatives. In the 1980s these cooperatives were bought out by large dairies in Mexico City. A Chipilo dairymen's association, however, still thrives and supports the interests of the community's farmers. Another type of benefit is political. The community is attempting to become designated as a municipal seat, primarily on the basis of its unique economic and cultural composition.

This contrasts markedly with the construction of identity in the satellite community of La Perla de Chipilo, Guanajuato, established in 1963, where there is no evidence of ethnically based political or economic alliances. La Perla is a small community of twenty-seven dairyfarming households and is far from being self-contained. Initially physically isolated from other Mexican communities by dirt roads and a lack of transportation, La Perla became connected to the outside world in 1972 through the construction of a paved highway into nearby San Miguel de Allende. People must drive to town to go to the market or the bank or to attend church, their children must attend Mexican schools, and, in general, most of a household's important economic and social ties are with non-Italian Mexicans outside the Community. Italian identity does, however, have economic implications in that it provides a rationale to justify the existing inequality between Italian Mexican farmers and the Mexican wage laborers working for them.

This construction of a highly individualized ethnic identity and outward focus in satellite communities such as La Perla forces the question of assimilationthe transformation of identity toward decreasing perceptions of distinction from the larger Mexican population. Individuals who live outside of Italian Mexican communities rarely teach their children Italian, prepare Italian foods, or engage in other "ethnic" activities. Satellite communities such as La Perla may be transitory places that have been just isolated enough to maintain a distinct Italian identity. This level of identity maintenance may become increasingly problematic as more children go to Mexican schools and spend the majority of their time in Mexican society and as young men marry Mexican women (although this is not considered the ideal, at least by the parental generation) because of a lack of marriageable Italian women in their satellite communities.


The Italian Mexicans are primarily known for their participation in the dairy industry. In fact, a well-known line of dairy productsChipilo Brandwas once produced exclusively by one of the dairy cooperatives owned and operated by farmers in Chipilo, Puebla. These farmers have been small-scale capitalist producers since their arrival in Mexico, producing primarily for a market but always retaining some production for household consumption. In the late twentieth century over 75 percent of the households in Chipilo, Puebla, receive all or part of their income through dairy farming, and virtually all of the inhabitants of La Perla de Chipilo, Guanajuato, gain their income through some aspect of dairying. Farms have herds ranging between 10 and 125 head of cattle (an average of between 25 and 50 head) that are supported by the intensive (often irrigated) cultivation of alfalfa and maize. Many farms use mechanized milking techniques and other forms of technology in their enterprises. Most households are involved in dairying, but they also tend to have multiple income streams; many of their members are considerably educated and are employed in various types of jobs. Nevertheless, the identity of Italian Mexican communities is still anchored to dairying as a way of life. In fact, many of the satellite communities established since the 1930s formed so that community members who could not farm in Chipilo, Puebla, owing to a lack of available land, could pursue a dairy-farming career elsewhere. Although the Chipilo, Puebla, community might be considered to have been, at least in the past, a type of middleman minority, satellite communities tend to be made up of independent farmers who do not participate in ethnic economic or political networks either within or outside the community.


Italian Mexican marriage, residential practices, and kinship system generally conform to those of the larger Mexican society: they are characterized by serial monogamy, bilateral descent, a mixture of patrilocal and neolocal nuclear and extended families, and partible inheritance.

Marriage. Serial monogamy is the common form of marriage among Italian Mexicans. The Catholic church has strong sanctions discouraging divorce. Should a couple divorce, neither individual can remarry with the benediction of the church. Should a spouse die, however, individuals are free to remarry. Among the parental generation of Italian Mexicans, group endogamy is strongly viewed as preferable to exogamous arrangements. In original communities, such as Chipilo, Puebla, the great majority of marriages are endogamous. In the satellite community of La Perla de Chipilo, Guanajuato, on the other hand, of seventy-five marriages between 1963 and 1988, 52 percent were exogamous and 48 percent endogamous. Typically, when a woman marries a non-Italian Mexican, the couple resides outside of the community, but an Italian Mexican man is likely to bring his non-Italian bride to live in the Italian Mexican community.

Domestic Unit and Inheritance. The Italian Mexican household is a locus for the reproduction of a rather widely cited Latin American and Mediterranean household ideology that emphasizes hierarchical, patriarchal authority. Gender is a major form of inequality within households, and there is a visible gap in status between sons and daughters that is created and maintained by differential access to farm resources and inheritance. Although ideally inheritance is partible, the reality is that sons but not daughters, who are expected to marry and be supported by their husbands, compete for the inheritance of all or part of the farm (i.e., de facto patrilineal partible inheritance). Sons' bargaining power within the household for resources, and ultimately inheritance, is conditioned by their age and location within the domestic cycle. As sons get older, they start their own petty businesses raising pigs or goats for sale, generating extra spending money for themselves but also demonstrating their entrepreneurial skill to their father. Those with the most skill are likely to enhance their bargaining power and receive the favor of their fatheran especially important factor in determining who will inherit the family farm.

There is a second aspect to understanding households that is generational. Through the 1960s, households tended to be large and extended, often with ten to twelve children and multiple generations. This has created problems of inheritance and succession. In the 1970s mechanization began to be adopted by many of these large households, effectively "squeezing out" older sons (especially those who were married and had started their own families and who were, consequently, costly for their father to support), whose labor was replaced by that of younger sons and machinery. Younger sons were more likely to be working on the farm when the father reached retirement age (around the age of 60 to 65) and thus to inherit the estate (these conditions therefore favored a type of ultimogeniture).

The youngest generation of married sons has smaller families (two to five children) and can now rely on machinery as well as the increasing use of wage labor to replace household labor.

Socialization. Early socialization takes place within the home. Parents tend to be strict with their children, often disciplining them physically. Children are taught to speak Italian as well as Spanish. In original communities such as Chipilo, Puebla, schools are staffed by Italian Mexicans, and classes are often conducted in Spanish and Italian. In satellite communities such as La Perla de Chipilo, Guanajuato, children must go to nearby Mexican towns to attend school. Formal education is attaining increasing value. Many Italian Mexicans go well past the mandatory six years of education, and a large percentage attend high schools and universities.

From an early age, children are socialized to accept an occasionally blurred division of labor: boys do farm chores, and girls learn domestic tasks. Older adults report, however, that prior to the adoption of mechanization in farming, women frequently did the milking and field work during critical stages of planting and harvesting.

An important rite of passage for boys and girls around 10 years of age is their first communion in the Catholic church. Another rite, the quinceañera, is celebrated on a girl's fifteenth birthday. It introduces her to the community as a marriageable woman and displays her family's wealth. The main ritual is a lavish feast hosted by her relatives. This modern custom is gaining popularity in mestizo areas of Mexico where the standard of living is improving. Both of these rites have religious dimensions and serve as opportunities for establishing broader kinship ties through compadrazgo; they are also social occasions marked by a fiesta, or festival.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Although there is considerable diversity within Italian Mexican communities, Italian Mexicans are generally recognized as being successful and affluent farmers. Many are leaving their rural, homogeneous communities and moving to larger urban centers. Some continue to farm, but others have entered an array of jobs. In large Italian Mexican population centers, such as Chipilo, Puebla, there are community centers that provide a venue for social activities such as wedding receptions, baptismal and quinceañera celebrations, and the like.

Italian Mexicans have no formai social or political organization, although there is a concerted effort in Chipilo, Puebla, to obtain designation as a municipality, a move that would provide money and other state resources. Additionally, the farmers of Chipilo are organized into a community-based dairymen's association.

Social Control and Conflict. Italian-Mexicans participate in the Mexican legal system to resolve disputes and conflicts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Italian-Mexicans follow Catholic doctrine. A number of important rites of passage center on the Catholic church: baptisms, first communions, quinceañeras, weddings, and funerals. Larger Italian communities also celebrate the holy day of their patron saint, a festival that is likewise marked in Mexican communities.

Burial in a local campo santo (graveyard) is the common mortuary practice of Italian Mexicans. Unlike their Mexican counterparts, Italian Mexicans do not observe the annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on 1 November. They do, however, hold novenas (a series of prayers) to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of an individual, and occasionally in subsequent years as well. This ceremony is led by a close female relative of the deceased who "prays the rosary," a call/response prayer ritual that is primarily attended by other women, with men participating at the margins or standing nearby socializing.


Glantz, Susana (1974). El ejido colectivo de Nueva Italia. Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Público; Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Klein, Herbert S. (1983). "The Integration of Italian Immigrants into the United States and Argentina: A Comparative Analysis." American Historical Review 88(2): 306-329.

McDonald, James H. (1991a). "Small-Scale Irrigation and the Emergence of Inequality among Farmers in Central Mexico." Research in Economic Anthropology 13:161-189.

McDonald, James H. (1991b). The Emergence of Inequality among Capitalizing Family Farmers in Mexico. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International.

MacKay, Carolyn J. (1984). "The Veneto Dialect in Chipilo, Mexico." Texas Linguistic Forum 23:123-133.

Schmitter, Barbara (1984). "Sending States and Immigrant MinoritiesThe Case of Italy." Comparative Studies in Society and History 26:325-334.

Vadala, Titta, and Piera Rella (1984). "Sociological Literature on Migration in Italy." Current Sociology 32:143-174.

Zago, José Augustin (1982). Breve historia de la fundación de Chipilo. Mexico City: Imprenta Venecia.

Zilli, José B. (1981). Italianos en Mexico. Jalapa, Veracruz: Editorial San José.

Zilli, José B. (1986). Braceros Italianos para México. Jalapa, Veracruz: Editorial San José.