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 Michoacán—the Cusi and Brioschi families, for example, established haciendas in Nueva Italia and Lombardía—and 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 assimilation—the 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.