Italian Mexicans - Orientation
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 District—the 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 fissioning—the 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 Mexico—Chipilo, Puebla—has 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 Mexico—a 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.