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The Near Total Assimilation of Tampico’s Lebanese Community

posted on: Jul 11, 2022

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

While enjoying the luxury of our resort hotel, Club Maeva Miramar, I asked numerous members of the staff if they knew of any Arabs living in Tampico – an important Mexican petroleum port, slowly building up its tourist industry.  Finally, one of the guides asked me, “Are Arabs and Lebanese the same people?   The Lebanese here are a wealthy group, and they have a fine Centre.  But all the ones that I know never mention Arabs and say that they speak Lebanese.”  “This is a true negation of oneself”, I thought to myself.

The guide gave us the address and we phoned and made an appointment to meet some of the members of the Centro Libanes (Lebanese Centre).  A few days later our taxi let my wife, daughter, and myself off at the Centre, located in the heart of Tampico.  Patricia Said, who was our contact, had made arrangement for us to meet the President of the Centro, Odette Salum, and Enrique Nader, one of the few club members who spoke Arabic and knew the history of the Lebanese community in Tampico.  With our limited knowledge of Spanish and the limited English of the Centre’s staff, it was a relief to know that because of Enrique, we could be able to record a part of the story of Tampico’s Lebanese.

Soon we were dining with Patricia Said and Enrique and his wife Loris conversing about the history of the Lebanese in Tampico.  Enrique arrived in Tampico when he was only 3 years old with his father, Henri Abu Nadir who held the position as the Honorary Consul-General for Lebanon for many years.  Enrique’s wife Loris, whose father was Lebanese and Mother Mexican, took part in our discussions while we nibbled on dish after dish of Lebanese mazza (appetizers).

What we noticed the first time we looked at the menu was that the only Lebanese or Arab dishes were offered under the mazza section and that all the main entrees and desserts were international dishes.  The Lebanese, proud of their food which in reality is part of the Arab Middle Eastern cuisine, had, for us it seemed, only kept it as a symbol of their past.  Yet, the names of the dishes had been distorted beyond recognition.  Tahini had become hina; kubbah – kipe; and labanah – jacoma.  The assimilation of their food had, I was to find out, kept pace with their almost complete melting into Mexican society.

From the three hours conversation with Patricia, Enrique and Loris as well as the information supplied to us later by Patricia Nasrallah, we became familiar with the history and life of the Lebanese in the city.  At the turn of the 20th century, the Lebanese villagers in the Shouf area in Lebanon looked, in the main, to three areas in the Western Hemisphere to which to immigrate – Florida, Brazil and Mexico.  They began to immigrate to Tampico at the very end of the 19th century and, in the main, the migration ended in 1920s – the era when the city was booming, due to the petroleum industry in the city.  

Like Arab immigrants to both North and South America, the majority, at first, peddled clothing and trinkets, then moved on to open their own shops.  They did not take part in Mexican political life and were, in the main, interested in making money.  By the time the first generation came of age, a good number of the families had become wealthy and were later to become instrumental in contributing to the building of the Centro Libanes.

More than 50% of these families originated from Deir al-Qamar in the Shouf region in Lebanon and over 90% were Maronite Christians with a sprinkling of Antiochian Orthodox and a few Muslim families.  Today, their descendants are Roman Catholic, and some do not even know from where in Lebanon their forefathers originated.  

In Tampico today, there are between 400 and 450 families, descendants of these early immigrants, who represent the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations.  Today, one finds in Tampico such family names as Abi Rashid, Attiyah, Bouramah, Bourani, Faris, Fayyad, Khouri, Mansur, Moses, Nadir, Nasrallah, Nemr, Qaddur, S’aid, Salum and a number of others.  

In the early 1970s, the Lebanese in Tampico built the Centro Libanes to which most of the families belong.  They have been constantly expanding their Centre ever since.  Today, the Centre is valued at some eight million dollars and has become a well-known structure in the city.  Back at our hotel when I told one of the staff that the Tampico Lebanese had a luxurious centre, he smiled, “Why shouldn’t they!  They’re all rich!”

The Centre is mainly a social club, where its members come to eat, drink, and socialize.  It incorporates a fine bar and restaurant.  Currently, construction is almost complete on a new structure built in an arabesque design, adjacent to the main building, which will house the restaurant.   The Centre’s large hall is rented out for parties and weddings and any one can rent the hall or eat at the Centre’s restaurant, but only the members can use the remainder of the facilities. 

It is a great meeting place for the young where they can come to socialize with each other. During the early period of migration, almost all the Lebanese married from each other. However, today, even with the socialization of the young at the Centre, some 50% marry other Mexicans and the percentage is gradually increasing.  

After the first generation, unlike their father’s era, their offspring were not satisfied in being businessmen and just making money.  They gradually expanded their horizons.  Today, 95% of the community’s working members are in the professions – a good many are architects, doctors, engineers, lawyers, as well as government officials and politicians.  

The engine of assimilation has almost fulfilled its task – only 10 in the community still have some knowledge of Arabic.  All the community members consider themselves Mexicans, of Lebanese descent.  As for the Centro Libanes, it is a club for Tampico’s Lebanese elite, but this takes in almost all the community.  As for its purposes, according to Patricia Nasrallah, the main task of the Centre today is to preserve the Lebanese culture and its traditions.