National Day celebrations tend to have a special meaning for expats everywhere.
It is a time for remembering their ethnic identity and rekindling their patriotic pride for their homeland.
For U.S. citizens in Mexico, it is a time to celebrate their love of their country, even if they do not always agree with the policies of that country’s government, and to reflect on the fundamental values of their nation’s constitution: freedom, democracy and equality for all.
And while observances of the Fourth of July in Mexico City have varied greatly over the years, U.S. citizens here have never forgotten the essential meaning of the day.
Perhaps the earliest U.S. Independence Day celebrations in Mexico date back to the late 1860s, when the first flood of “gringos” heading south of the border began to settle here as investors, businessmen, refugees and carpetbaggers.
According to a Bennie Mayes’ “History of the American Benevolent Society, 1868-1968,” an unpublished compilation of that organization’s founding records, “the end of the Civil War in the United States in 1865 released capital for foreign investments” which brought outside speculation and entrepreneurs to an “awakening Mexico” direly in need of transportation and other infrastructure services.
“Along with the heads of these wealthy development agencies came the inevitable hanger-ons, exploiters who lost their shirt, laborers who lost their jobs, dependents who lost their health,” Mayes wrote.
And it was then and for them that the American Benevolent Society, or ABS, was first founded on Feb. 22, 1868, to “provide comfort, support and goodwill” to these otherwise displaced U.S. souls.
Although the historical records are somewhat blurred, it seems that the ABS organized an informal, family-style Fourth of July celebration that same year for “all Americans living in Mexico.”
That U.S. Independence Day observance almost immediately became an annual event for the then-quite small and very tight-knit U.S. community living in Mexico City.
In most cases, the observance consisted of a traditional-style holiday picnic, with hot dogs, hamburgers and heartfelt renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In 1873, the ABS officially changed the wording of its charter to state that it “would be not only a means of charity to the suffering Americans among us, but a bond of union among all Americans in Mexico.”
As such, it was decided that Thanksgiving balls and summer Fourth of July picnics would be part of the organization’s duties to serve the U.S, community living here.
As the number of U.S. citizens here grew, so did the number of organizations accommodating and linking them, and in 1946, the American Society, or Amsoc, was born to “build social bonds between U.S. expats living in Mexico and serve as an umbrella institution for the various nonprofit associations and societies with ties to the U.S. community”
Amsoc quickly became the main social entity for the U.S. community here, and eventually took over responsibility from the ABS for organizing the annual Fourth of July celebrations.
By the 1970s, the U.S. Independence Day festivities had become a full-fledged extravaganza, with the U.S. ambassador offering patriotic speeches and the American School Foundation presenting colorful parades of Boy Scouts, cheerleaders and football teams to mark the occasion.
These massive Independence Day celebrations were almost always held on the American School’s Colonia Las Américas campus, and evolved into an opportunity for the heads of U.S. corporations with investment here to reach out to their fellow citizens and promote their products with stands and exhibits in a gala setting that would win them both media coverage and public admiration.
Whether it was financial problems, logistical concerns or simply the inevitable disintegration of a single social association uniting U.S. citizens in what had become the largest metropolitan complex in the world, Amsoc’s annual Fourth of July extravaganza finally ceased to exist in the mid-1990s.
The ABS and other organizations, such as the Newcomers Club (now the International Women’s Club), immediately took up the slack and began organizing their own U.S. Independence Day celebrations across the city.
In the last few years, there have been several attempts to reunify those events into a single Fourth of July party, but the results have not been particularly successful, and as a rule, most of the above-mentioned associations now celebrate the day with their own members and friends.
Last week, U.S. Ambassador to Roberta Jacobson hosted an early Fourth of July celebration at her residence, and during his speech, she spoke about “the extraordinary principles” upon which the United States was founded, including the inalienable right to live under democracy and in freedom.
“Today, more than ever, we reaffirm these key principles to guarantee prosperity and security not only of us, Americans, but also of every human being in the world,” she said.
She also spoke about the strong historical and cultural bonds that united the United States and Mexico, not only commercially and economically, but also in the realms of politics, science, education, technology and the arts.
Jacobson said that, despite inevitable disputes that may arrive between two close partners, the United States and Mexico are both committed to democracy and other core values, and that they will always move forward hand-in-hand along “an important and transcendent pathway” of democracy and shared prosperity.
However you choose to celebrate U.S. Independence Day this week, may the “Fourth” be with you.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].