“He stated he looked like a frog: Tall, bulging eyes, dark skin, a grown torso and sort of small, fragmented shoulders”, related the Polish diplomat Jan Drohojowski before he realized he was meeting the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, face-to-face.
“From the outside, he already looked like an extraordinary human being. At the end of the day, I had convinced myself that Mexicans in general are extraordinary people”, he states in his book: Meksyk Bogów, krzyża i dolarów.
Along with Le Dôme, the coffee-shop la Rotonde, was largely known for hosting the Parisian intellectual soiréés of the interwar period in Montparnasse. If any artist was unable to pay, the owner would get another masterpiece for his collection as a deposit until the artist could come up with the money.
On those evenings in La Rotonde, Rivera and Drohojowski, as part of the intellectual elite, discussed almost every topic in one of those bohemian cafés.
History of the countries' relations
Nevertheless, the history of Polish-Mexican relations goes back to the 16th century, when Jan Dantyszek, an intellectual friar from Gdańsk, was sent to Spain to serve as a diplomat for Sigismund, King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1506 to 1548.Relations between the two countries were very good: Carlos I's brother from Spain; Fernando I, was married to Anna Jagiellon; daughter of Vladislaus Jagiellon, king of Hungary and Bohemia, and brother of Sigismund the Old.
Dantyszek built up a solid social network in Europe. Among others, he knew Martin Luther, Nicolas Copernicus and the conqueror of Mexico; Hernan Cortes, who sent letters to Dantyszek from the American continent.
The 19th century brought Polish soldiers to Mexico. After the unsuccessful November Uprising against Russia, many Polish political émigrés had to start their lives from scratch abroad in 1831.
For 123 years – from 1795 to 1918 – Poland was divided into three different territories that belonged to the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Hapsburg Monarchy of Austria.
Between 1846 and 1848, around fifty Polish soldiers located in the United States joined the U.S. army to fight against Mexico, which ended up losing that war and thus half of its territory.
An editorial in Dziennik Narodowy, a newspaper-in-exile, stated that this war was unfair and that the Polish people did not agree to be part of it:
It is the invasion of the strong against the weak.
Twenty years later, from 1863 to 1865, Polish soldiers returned to Mexico, serving during the Austrian-French intervention, a failed attempt by Napoleon III to conquer Mexico.
We can find out more about the circumstances of those years thanks to the memories of two veterans of the war: Konrad Niklewicz and Stanisław Wodzicki.
Although some of the Polish soldiers were forced to fight against the Mexicans, most of them were convinced that they were doing the right thing: they were anticipating Napoleon’s assistance in creating an independent Poland.
Only a few Poles realized that the situation that Mexico was enduring was in fact very similar to Poland’s. Some Polish soldiers were fighting against Mexico and others against Napoleon III; they were sent down to Mexico after the American Civil War to help defeat France.
Some of them identified with the Mexican republicans. Unhappy with the fact that only Germans were able to obtain higher ranks in the army, they switched sides and fought against the European interventionists. Others did the opposite and others committed suicide. Napoleon III resigned and Maximilian I of Mexico was executed in 1867.
Paderewski in Mexico
At the beginning of the 20th century, the famous musician and later politician Jan Ignacy Paderewski was invited by President Porfirio Díaz to Mexico to perform.
Although I did not speak Spanish at that time and we communicated with the help of an interpreter, he left a great impression on me. He was a human being that deserved attention. Order and prosperity prevailed in his government.
– the pianist wrote of Díaz in his memories.
According to historian Tadeusz Łepkowski, all of the Mexican press appreciated Paderewski’s performance, emphasizing that he was Polish, something politically relevant, taking into account that Poland was not on the map.
This event got a propagandistic meaning for the political opposition in Mexico: “This pianist and violinist has given us four concerts since 1884 and he is getting ready for the fifth one this year”, El hijo de el Ahuizote, a publication of the opposition, wrote on its front page in March 1900.
The statement was in fact a direct allusion to the dictator Porfirio's long stay in power. The cover of that edition showed a cartoon of a pianist entitled Porfiriowski in Mexico.
A statue of this emblematic diplomat and musician can still be found in Paseo de la Reforma, the main avenue of Mexico City, where the Castle of Chapultepec, the official residence of Maximilian of Hapsburg, is located.
The three-metre statue of Paderewski was made by the Spanish sculptor Miguel Baquidano Camps. It features the Polish eagle on his chest with its wings on both sides.
The sculpture was unveiled in 1945 at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. However, the Polish People’s Republic Embassy blocked the project to fund the statue, and it was not until the beginning of the 21st century that the statue was revealed at Paseo de la Reforma avenue.
Waves of immigration in the 20th century
There were two main periods of Polish immigration to Mexico. The first was in 1920s, when more than 2.5 million Jews fled Europe and the Middle East to escape discrimination.
The second wave of immigration occurred in 1943, when Mexico received almost 1,500 Poles who had been exiled during World War II.
Between 1928-1929 there were around 3,500 Polish citizens living in Mexico, of whom 95% were Jewish. They were shoemakers, tailors, bakers, and painters, and many received Mexican citizenship quite quickly, making Mexico an attractive destination.
During Porfirio Diaz's government, Jewish immigration was seen as positive for the country and its people, since Jews were considered hard workers.
Poles-in-exile find their home in Santa Rosa
In 1943, Mexico and Poland experienced one of the events that has left a mark on their bilateral history: 1,434 Polish refugees found their home in Mexico, after fleeing from terrible experiences that forced them across the whole world, from Siberia to Iran, Karachi and Australia.
In 1942, Manuel Avila Camacho, the President of Mexico, signed an agreement with the Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile, General Władysław Sikorski, offering assistance to Polish refugees in temporary camps in Iran.
We were greeted with music, flowers and the open, loving arms and hearts of the Mexican people.
– one of the victims said.
We were in the arms of friends, friends that we had never met before.
– recalls one of the testimonies from the archives of the Kresy-Siberia virtual museum.
The building in hacienda de Santa Rosa located in Leon Guanajuato was not sufficient for the size of the Polish community, so new buildings had to be constructed: a school, a hospital, a swimming pool, a dentist and gardens.
Much of the help was sent from the United States, the Polish government-in-exile and the United Kingdom. In 1947, only eighty-seven went back to Poland, others to the United States and Canada, and very few stayed in Mexico.
The last two years have been fruitful, and two documentaries about this historical event have been released in Mexico – Santa Rosa: Odyssey in the Rhythm of Mariachi, produced by Piotr Piwowarczyk and Sławomir Grunberg, and From Poland to Santa Rosa, after One Thousand Days, directed by Alejandro Hurtado de León and Berenice Sánchez Luna.
From Poland to Santa Rosa… is based on interviews with two Polish women who stayed in Mexico: Valentina and Franka. The first came while she was a child and the other married a Mexican man. Valentina still remembers how the corpses of dead exiles were thrown into the sea during the journey on the USS Hermitage, a US navy transport. She was 4 years old at the time.
Last year, the story of the children who lived in this hacienda as written by Berta Hiriart was also brought to the stage in Mexico with the play If You Don’t Tell it, Who Will Know? directed by Ewa Piotrowska.
Hacienda de Santa Rosa now functions as an orphanage for Mexican children.
Where does “ale meksyk” come from?
It was right in the interwar period that Polish publicists started to frequently visit Mexico and saw it through “imperialistic eyes”, recalls Drohojewski. Ciudad de México was also introduced to the Polish language in its English version: Mexico City, an Anglicism that prevails in the Polish language to the present day.
Back then the Polish language acquired the colloquial expression ale meksyk, synonymous with disorder, an equivalent of Polnische Wirtschaft in German: “I remember from my youth, a cafeteria in my home town that was named Klubowa”, answered Jan Miodek, a renowned Polish linguist to my request about the meanings of meksyk.
And still everybody went to meksyk. So don’t be especially surprised of the meaning of Mexico as confusion.
Katarzyna Wyrwas, a sociolinguist from University of Silesia in Katowice, sees this phenomenon as something rather normal in the Polish language. She quotes the linguist Władysław Lubaś, who stated that in colloquial language there is a rich vocabulary related to negative values and emotions.
It is surely not only a characteristic of the Polish language, but human thought In general.
– Wyrwas argued.
Other than disorder or confusion, the word meksyk, with small m, has acquired several positive meanings such as a “good grade”, a “pause between classes” and a “school party”.
Mexico and Poland: closer than ever
For the first time in seventeen years, all the scholarships that the Polish government offers to Mexican students are being used in the 2014-2015 academic year.
Since the cultural-educational agreement was signed, only two, three or even only one out of the seven scholarships were given per year.
– says Diego Dewar, current cultural attaché of the Mexican Embassy in Warsaw.
Furthermore, around one hundred Mexicans started to learn Polish last year just in Mexico City. Three new courses of the Slavic language were opened at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Amapola, a civil organization, and at the Polish Embassy.
For the first time in fourteen years, a Polish delegation of the “Polish-Mexican friendship group” made an official visit to Mexico earlier this year to meet members of the parliament of Mexico, intellectuals, artists and business people from the Mexican Polonia.
After five years of the Feria de las Culturas Amigas, a three-week festival of handicrafts, art, and cultural expressions of ninety different nations in Paseo de la Reforma, Poland finally had its own stand last year, offering Polish food and information about the country to its visitors.
On the other hand, Mexico has not gone unnoticed by Polish citizens. In 1997, in the first edition of the kid’s drawing competition Este es mi Mexico, targeted at Mexican children abroad, received more than three hundred drawings from Polish children that argued for a relationship with Mexico.
After this wonderful experience, the contest opened to the children from all over the world and Poland has always had at least one champion.
– says Monica Velarde, former attaché of the Mexican Embassy.
Part of the reasons for the visit was to request the participation of Mexico in demanding the liberation of the Ukrainian Nadiya Savshenko, who was captured and sent to Russia in June last year. David Pérez Tejada, a member of this group, said the parliament is already working on releasing the position of Mexico in that regard.
The number of Polish artists, scientist and intellectuals of the Mexican Polonia is quite big. Mexico has been home of the dramatists Sławomir Mrożek and Lech Hellwig-Górzyński, and the violinists Henryk Szenryng and Zbigniew Paleta, whose daughter is married to the son of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, president of Mexico from 1988 to 1994.
In comparison with the Polish immigration, Mexico on the other hand, has had a very modest number of artists and intellectuals in Poland.
There are many interesting projects occurring in Mexico like Czuj Czuj, a group formed by a small number of young Polish people and a child who interacts with Mexican youth during workshops of emotional education or a recent documentary: Dom Warszawa-Meksyk, that shows the life of Polish people living in Mexico City and Mexicans living in Warsaw.
- Jennifer Jaksel Rivera Lara. Three years ago Poznan's Grand Theatre gave a contract to the former soloist principal ballet dancer in Mexico.
- Gerardo Beltrán, a well-known Mexican professor from the University of Warsaw and a poet. He has brought Polish literature to the Spanish-speaking world by translating Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz and Wisława Szymborska, along with Abel Murcia.
- Sergio Pitol, a Mexican who worked as an attaché of Poland in the 60s. He has also done an extensive work translating many writers of different epochs into Spanish. He is considered one of the few Spanish-speaking experts on Polish literature.
- David Toscana is a Mexican writer living in Poland whose recent work published in Spanish La ciudad que el Diablo se llevó, portrays the destruction of Warsaw and the search of its identity after 1945.
- Maja Zawierzeniec is a Mexicanist. She funded the organization Bocian & Nopal. She is collecting the work of young Mexican artists in order to analyze their evolution.
- Justyna Olko, vice-dean at the faculty of Artes Liberales of the University of Warsaw. She is in charge of a 1.3 million Euro project that aims to revitalize the Nahuatl language – the language of the ancient Aztecs before the conquest in 1521. Her team is one of the biggest in the world with seven teaching members and around thirty new Nahuatl students each year.
- Jerzy Hausleber is considered the father of race-walking in Mexico. For almost forty years after his arrival in 1966, Hausleber trained Mexico’s best race-walkers – Olympic & world champions.
- Elena Poniatowska, an indirect relative of Stanisław August Poniatowski. She is collecting information and writing about the history of her ancestors. She is considered one of the most important activists and journalists in Mexico.
- Grzegorz Lato, although he lived in Mexico for just one year, many Mexicans still remember his performance as a member of Atlante, a Mexican football team.
- Daniel Zorzano, a musician and producer living in Warsaw. He is a formal viola da gamba player and specialist on historical bass instruments and interpretations of baroque music from Koninlijk Conservatorium in the Hague and in the CNSM-Lyon.
- Lourdes Estrada, born in Guadalajara. She came to Poland in 1984 and studied with Stefan Gierowski in the Academy of Fine Arts. She has her own gallery and painting studio in Konstancin-Jeziorna.
- Susana Mrożek, Author of the book: Mexico from the Kitchen which describes the influence of Mexican’s history on its cuisine. She is the widow of Sławomir Mrożek. Among other places they lived in Nice, Kraków and Mexico. They lived in the Hacienda in Santa Rita Tlahuapan, close to Puebla in Mexico.
- Guillermo Chavez Vega: a painter and muralist born in Guadalajara, Mexico. He painted the Mural of Benito Juarez and Tadeusz Kościuszko, heroes of freedom in both countries. The mural was painted at Benito Juarez school in Warsaw
- Juan Carlos Cano, born in Chihuahua, he won last year’s edition of Voice of Poland.
- John Paul II, the first Polish pope. Mexico was one of the countries that he visited the most. The main square in Mexico City hosts a monument made with more than 7 million keys donated by the Mexican People.
- Marek Keller, an artist, collector and Juan Soriano’s life partner. They met in the 70s at Sergio Pitol’s house in Paris. He befriended distinguished Mexican writers such as Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. Loyal to his partner, he created a park in the suburbs of Warsaw were the public can admire Juan Soriano's sculptures.
- Mariachi Los Amigos, a Mariachi band of working to promote Mexican culture and traditions in Poland since 1998.
- Victor Campos Leal is a tenor opera singer, who has worked as a soloist of the Wrocław Opera since 2012.
Author: Alexis Angulo