Mexico’s American Dreamers: 1846-2013

By Andrew Konove, Ph.D. (Yale University)

This past July 4th, CNN.com posted a story by Patricia Soto and Beatriz Rubio called “Searching for the American Dream in Mexico.” The piece explores how thousands of undocumented young Mexicans, many of whom have lived in the United States since childhood, have given up waiting for the passage of the DREAM Act and returned to Mexico. These ambitious teenagers and twenty-somethings have worked hard to build better lives than the ones their parents left behind in Mexico but have found that their undocumented status has made access to higher education either impossible or prohibitively expensive. Now they have gone back to Mexico—either voluntarily or after being deported—to start over in country many of them barely remember.

Mexico has long been a place where immigrants—and not just Mexican ones—have turned when their dreams failed to materialize in the United States. One of the most notable cases of north-south migration occurred during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, when hundreds of U.S. soldiers deserted their posts and crossed the Rio Grande to join the Mexican army. These men formed their own unit—know as St. Patrick’s battalion, or los San Patricios. As their name suggests, most of the deserters were of Irish descent, but the battalion also claimed a number of men from Germany, Italy, and England. Many Catholic immigrants to the United States, particularly the Irish, who began to arrive in large numbers after 1820, found the country less welcoming than they had hoped. Anti-Catholic sentiment, stoked by the swelling population of low-skilled Irish laborers, was high, and sparked deadly nativist riots in Philadelphia in 1844 that burned several Catholic churches. The U.S. Army was a particularly inhospitable place for Catholics in the 1840s, with some men viewing the war as a crusade—a means of bringing the virtues of American Protestantism to the moral wilderness of Catholic Mexico.

Mexican generals appealed to the frustrations of Catholic immigrants north of the border by offering them sanctuary in a country where they would be treated as brothers, not infidels. In Mexico, General Antonio López de Santa Anna wrote in an 1847 English-language broadside aimed at attracting deserters, “there is no distinction of races” or slavery—only liberty. The Mexican government also offered the deserters land—at least 320 acres, and considerably more for officers. Mexican officials used the very language of the American Dream—freedom, tolerance, and abundant land and resources—that had originally drawn Europeans to the United States.

Like the young people profiled in the CNN story and the San Patricio soldiers, my own relatives viewed Mexico as somewhat of a second choice. Fleeing Russia after the 1917 Revolution, but finding it difficult to enter the United States after it began restricting immigration from Eastern Europe, my grandmother’s family immigrated to Mexico City. They spent over a decade there, amongst extended family from Russia and the Ukraine, and lived in relative comfort. But my great-grandfather was determined to pursue his dreams north of the border. He brought his family to the remote town of Broken Bow, Oklahoma, where he, a lawyer in Russia, and my great-grandmother, a pharmacist, worked at unskilled jobs for the rest of their lives. While they struggled, their relatives in Mexico City prospered, with one of my grandmother’s cousins building a large and successful national paint business.

U.S. history offers countless immigrant success stories; but we tend to overlook the people whose dreams did not come true here. It would be difficult to quantify how much talent, and how much wealth, the country has lost during periods of inhospitable policies or generalized intolerance. The people who braved costly and often dangerous journeys to get here—men and women who took enormous risks to pursue the religious and political freedom and economic opportunity that have long been synonymous with America—are not likely to wait indefinitely for the country to make good on those promises.

Andrew Konove received his Ph.D. in History from Yale University in May 2013. His dissertation, “Black Market City: Street Vending and the Challenge of Governance in Mexico City,” examines the development of Mexico City’s informal economy from the 18th century to the present.

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