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Chronicle of a chronicle foretold: Positivism and immigration

28 July 2019

In a way I feel like Doctor Frankenstein, sewing together bits and pieces of the corpse of my original book into something new and alive. Attempting to resurrect Gods, Gachupines and Gringos in a more robust version, I had written various parts here and there while recovering from my accident (and the long dreadful aftermath). As mentioned, I don’t see it as a financial windfall, but if it is to get published, I0m resigned to doing it on the cheap, although to do a half-way decent job, I will be needing to outsource a few tasks to professionals who expect to be paid. Donations are always appreciated, though what is posted here is creative commons, and other than expecting attribution, free for the taking.

Positivism and immigration

Porfirio Díaz may have presented himself (and largely remained) a simple soldier from Oaxaca, but when it came to his advisors and cabinet, his choice fell on the era’s elites: with the singular exception of his former girl-friend, the Zapotec entrepreneur, Juana Catalina Romero, he was surrounded by rich, well-born white men, While honest and well-intentioned for the most part, were out-of-touch with the masses. Díaz’ “think tank”… los cientificos (the scientists) … were, to a man, influenced by the then “modern” philosophy of Positivism.

  At its most basic, the Positivists said that all human knowledge is based on the logical interpretation of natural events. In other words: What you see is what you get. Having fought both the clerical party in the Reforma, and the monarchists during the French intervention, the new elites of Porfirio’s generation naturally gravitated to a school of thought that no longer depended on either tradition or divine revelation for guidance. However, Positivism lost something in translation when it reached Latin America.

Porfirio was the great nationalist hero who had heroically fought against the French, but Positivism was for the most part a French import. Positivism had first developed in France, and Latin American intellectuals largely depended on French writers for their own understanding of the new thinking. Positivists’ experience of the world being that of France, Porfirio depended on men who saw their former enemy as the source of not only the best thinking of the time, but as a nation to emulate if they wanted to turn their weak nation into one that could fend off further foreign intervention… from, among others… France!

The cientificos, like other Positivists, had adopted the best of the new scientific thinking from Europe, as well as some of the worst. Misreading Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in which “survival of the fittest” meant the survival of a species in a given place meant the successful breeding by those individuals who had best adapted to their environment to mean that those human cultures that were the most “advanced” were the “fittest”: the French, naturally, seeing France as the ideal of an advanced culture. Quite logically, the cientificos could cite statistics showing that European workers were more productive than Mexicans, not noticing the Europeans were better fed, housed, and clothed than their own people, and that western Europe was highly industrialized fifty years earlier, in large part thanks to natural resources imported from colonial possessions and countries like Mexico. All factors that were overlooked by “Social Darwinism”: France and western Europe were thriving because the people were more “developed”. The cientificos saw was “whitening” the population as an imperative for national development.

Realistically, they knew the “criollos” were a shrinking minority, and – although they gave thought to preserving “traditional values” when attempting to recruit Irish and Italian migrants (both from Catholic nations, with the Italians having priority, being seen as having a “Mediterranean” culture closer to that of Latin America) – they were less interested in preserving the Church and tradition than in whitening the “Mexican race”.

With the United States on its northern border, however, Mexico would be an “also ran” in the 19th century contest for attracting new immigrants. Both countries had large tracts of “undeveloped” land (meaning, often as not, populated by indigenous people who weren’t engaged in exploiting the land for export agriculture or mining) but the United States, having a stable economy, and better transportation into these open territories, was better able to attract the European immigrants. Mexico had to settle for what they could get.


Having been the first nation to outlaw slavery, black slaves in what had been Mexican Texas had freeing themselves by heading south before the American Civil War. After the war, the U.S. army occupied the former slave-holding states until 1876. When the troops withdrew, the former slaves lost most of their new economic and civil rights as citizens. African-Americans—especially those with farm management skills—were also welcome during the Porfiriate.


Despite the cientificos, in common with other positivists, contention that the “white race” as the most advanced, they supported William Henry Ellis, a Texas businessman born a slave, and his plans for founding colonies for former black slaves who wanted to leave the United States. The plan, meant to foster the Mexican cotton industry, fell apart mostly because Ellis was too good a salesman. To raise the funds needed for both settlement and paying moving expenses for the would-be colonists, he naturally changed his “pitch” depending on what might appeal to the particular interests of whatever financial backers he hoped to interest in the colony. To those who supported racial segregation, he sold the Mexican colonies as a way of ridding the country of African-Americans. To those sympathetic to the former slaves, he sold it as a way of giving people a chance at an independent livelihood. And to those who were still set on annexing Mexican territory into the United States, Ellis sold it as a way of “infiltrating” people whose first allegiance would be to the United States. The latter, when reported to the Porfirian cabinet, was the end of Ellis’ colonization plan.

Langston Hughes as a young man

Still, individual African-Americans were drawn to Mexico. Langston Hughes, the African-American poet and essayist, was the son of a Toluca factory manager. Hughes Senior, despite having a university degree, was unable to find professional work in the United States because of his race. In moving to Mexico, the elder Hughes was not only able to use his education, but, he hoped, provide a better future for his son. The poet later noted ironically that as an African-American he was sometimes forbidden entry to segregated facilities that would admit him when he said he was “Mexican”; and that some places forbade Mexicans, but not African-Americans, and some forbade all “non-whites”.

African-Americans and later Afro-Caribbean migrants, were for the most part accepted into the Mexican culture, despite the “colorism” expressed by the “cientificos” and still noted today by the small (less than 2 percent of the general population) number of Mexicans who define themselves as “Afro-Mexican”. Less fortunate were Chinese and Korean migrants.

Small numbers of Chinese had been living in Mexico since the 16th century: mostly merchants or sailors who had emigrated by way of the Philippines. In the United States, Chinese railway workers had come south as lines expanded into Mexico. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888 in the United States prevented further Chinese immigration north of the border, Chinese immigrants already in the United States could not send for their families, and Chinese migrants, both direct from China and by way of the United States, settled primarily along the northern border. Seen as outsiders, and often financially better off than their neighbors (Foreign railroad companies, having depended on Chinese labor in the United States, paid Chinese workers more than native-born Mexican workers) they were resented, leading to some ugly racist incidents that persisted into the 1930s. With the Yucatan sisal industry dependent on the dirty, back-breaking work of reluctant Mayans, and even more reluctant convict labor, employers recruited landless peasants from Korea.

This is not to say that the cientificos simply gave up on encouraging European immigration, only that … outside of the Italian colonies in Michoacán. attempts to attract large colonies of Europeans who would easily assimilate into Mexico never completely succeeded. Europeans who assimilated were single men who arrived on their own, for the most part Spanish (which until 1898 included Cubans), and German (and German-American) businessmen or farmers… including one Joseph Fox, born Fuchs, in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1865. Having gone nearly bankrupt in the Depression of 1896, Fox had enough capital to buy a farm in Guanajuato. His grandson, Vicente Fox Quesado, would be elected President in 2000.

While never assimilating (or, in any real sense “whitening” the general population), two large scale immigrant settler communities continue to thrive in Mexico. And led to re-imagining of Mexico as a safe haven for persecuted minorities. Ironically, both came from countries considered havens for the persecuted: Mormons from the United States, and Mennonites from Canada.

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