I want to take you back nearly 80 years, to Mexico City in 1939, when Lázaro Cárdenas, a revolutionary-turned-politician, sat in the president’s seat and made a decision that no other president in the world would make.
Across the Atlantic, the Spanish Civil War had come to a brutal end. The Republicans had fallen. General Francisco Franco had risen to power, backed by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Half a million Spanish refugees, Republican sympathizers, began la retirada, their long voyage of escape from Spain. Most crossed the Pyrenees into France, many by foot, where they were often met with political hostility and left in French refugee camps to await their fate.
It wouldn’t be long before rumors would start to swirl: the French government wasn’t sympathetic to anti-fascists. There were threats of sending the refugees back to Spain, where Franco’s repressive regime would surely punish them in the most draconian of ways.
(Not much later, when France would fall to Nazi Germany, this is exactly what would happen to many of the refugees that hadn’t been able to find an escape route out of France. Others would be sent directly to German concentration camps.)
And so, back in the Americas, Mexico’s President Cárdenas made a decision: he would grant asylum to these Spanish refugees. He would open his arms and Mexico’s borders, and they would come.
This week, deep in Mexico’s National Archive, far into reading this history through letters and telegrams and newspaper bulletins, I stumble upon a new folder: a collection of telegrams sent to Cárdenas by Mexican citizens in protest of the Spanish refugees’ arrival.
Their reasons for protest were varied, but largely familiar to twenty-first century ears: the refugees were generally bad people; they threatened the country’s sovereignty; they threatened the country’s patriotism; they were militants, radicals; they would take local jobs; they didn’t deserve the nation’s resources when the nation’s citizens themselves were suffering.
A handful of reasons were less familiar and more alarming: the Spanish were communists; they were Jewish; they were racially superior and thus likely to surpass Mexicans in every way.
How easy to judge, even 80 years after the fact. How easy to feel anger at these telegrams of protest, not just on behalf of the Spanish, who were war-struck and exiled, but for all refugees who found themselves in the horrible nightmare that it was (is) to be exiled: unable to return home for their home no longer existed, unsure where to go next, wondering if any country would open itself to them, stuck in a pattern of waiting.
How easy, too, to know now that the concerns expressed in these letters and telegrams were by and large unfounded. In retrospect, we have perfect vision; we argue with the upper hand. No, the Spanish exiles didn’t overthrow Mexican sovereignty. They didn’t introduce communism to the country. Generally speaking, they didn’t prove to be dirty or dangerous.
Instead, these refugees came and established themselves. They started businesses. They opened restaurants. They founded schools. Many, though not all, were intellectuals and academics back home, exiled from a country that no longer valued scholarship, and so they established colleges and universities, among them the College of Mexico, one of the best institutions of higher learning in the country today, and one that has served to educate thousands of Mexican and Spanish descendants alike.
We could make an argument in opposition to those who protested the Spanish exiles’ arrival. But we would be choosing to argue with those long dead. And so our better option is to try to understand them.
Imagine how it would have been to live as a Mexican citizen in 1940: just two decades after the end of the Mexican Revolution, the country still in a period of upheaval.
Perhaps, if you were a Mexican citizen in 1940, your father or mother, brother or sister, or you yourself would have fought in the Revolution. Possibly you would have lost family members or loved ones in the conflict. Depending on where you lived, it would be likely that you now would struggle to find work. Perhaps you wouldn’t be able to afford to send all — or any — of your children to school, and if you could, it would be likely that you would find their school profoundly inadequate.
And if you were a Mexican citizen who lived in one of Mexico’s southern regions — regions more rural, more remote than the country’s cities — you would have seen less benefit from the Mexican Revolution and, farther back, more damage from the Spanish Conquest. Maybe the promises of the Revolution, promises that now seemed broken, would be still too fresh in mind for you. Maybe the brutal history of the Spanish Empire would live fresh in your bones.
Maybe you would have read in the newspapers about the spread of communism overseas, and maybe it would have frightened you. After all, the stories you read were frightening — the newspapers were political and polarizing. They were owned by wealthy oligarchs: right-leaning fascist sympathizers. And they told one story: a story of fear of foreigners, socialism, liberalism and Judaism.
In these circumstances, it is imaginable, maybe even understandable, that your fears would be stoked, that you would think that everything that you had worked for, everything that you had lost, and everything that you needed was threatened by the arrival of these foreigners, foreigners with beliefs and values, culture and language different from your own.
It is imaginable that, given this fear, you might be compelled one day to write a letter or a telegram to the president of your nation, to register your protest against the entry of these so-called “foreign elements”.
This fear is a universal emotion, and it is understandable. It is not wrong, either, to want to protect your family, to want to provide for them. It is necessary.
But fear is also powerful, and it can turn nasty, especially when it gives birth to ugly triplets: nationalism, xenophobia, and racism.
In Mexico in 1940, even had you written this letter of dissent to your president, your fear would not have been the strongest emotion to prevail. For you would be writing to a president with a moral conscience, who had already resolved to do right by these refugees, who would make his contribution to the global crisis that was the Second World War in one way that he could: by opening his borders, by creating channels for asylum that were swift and efficient, personal and humane.
He would encourage these refugees to write to him directly with their asylum requests — petitions that arrived straight to the desk of his personal secretary and that received responses in a matter of weeks, and which he would follow with letters, signed personally: Please grant XYZ person a visa pasaporte.
Over and over President Cárdenas would write these letters, or he would have his cabinet staff assemble long lists of Spanish names, hundreds or thousands of names at a time, typed on carbon paper in bright blue or red ink: Please grant all of the following individuals visa pasaportes.
And then Cárdenas would work with committees of Spanish exiles to set up economic development programs — in agriculture and fishing and electrical engineering — so that these Spanish exiles could not just live but thrive. And he would pay for these programs using gold that had been shipped out of Spain during the Civil War, that he would refuse to return to Franco’s fascist regime. He would do this to take a stance, and he would do this so that he could fund these programs in a way that didn’t solely rely on the treasure chests of the Mexican people.
No, they wouldn’t be perfect, these projects. There would be politics and in-fighting, as there always is when money is involved. There would be lower-level immigration officials who disagreed with these policies and made it their business to make the process of entry unnecessarily trying for these Spanish families who had already suffered so much.
But the president would set a tone, culturally, of acceptance and warmth. He would write personal letters of welcome as these battered people arrived at the nation’s ports. He would meet with their committees and say I’m here to serve you, as people do in Mexico when they seek to show their utmost respect.
And he would do this because he was the president and a humanitarian, a leader with a backbone, a moral compass, and an intelligence that would be revered for decades to come. And he would do this because this is what we must look to our leaders to do: to lead us through periods of terror and fear, to show us how to live up to our expectations of our own greatness, and to motivate us to be our better selves — less hateful, less fearful, more kind, more generous. For this is a large and resource-rich nation, and there is enough for everyone.
This actually happened. Within three years, 25,000 Spanish refugees entered Mexico to begin their lives anew. This happened because Cárdenas was a leader with a moral compass and a humanitarian impulse, and though his own people petitioned him to close the borders, and though the press dragged his name through the dirt for it, he stayed the course, and he opened the ports, and he wrote personal letters of welcome.
But this also happened because he wasn’t alone in his humanitarian impulse. It’s true that Cárdenas was protested for his sympathy for the refugees and attacked as weak in the press. But he was also celebrated for his act of generosity and for the dignity it offered a group of people in the midst of a crisis of human suffering.
And this also happened because Cárdenas wasn’t alone in his humanitarian action. As the President worked the formal levers of executive power to grant visas and develop economic programs, other Mexican citizens worked informally, through social networks and party affiliations, to offer asylum to Spanish refugees — efforts not so different from those we have occasionally seen today.
Now, in the history books, Mexican children read pridefully about this humanitarian gesture. Undeniably it is a story more complex than what they learn, just as it is a story more complex than what I have depicted here. That complexity, that nuance, is the thread that I am committed to following while I am here.
Nonetheless, there is still this that is true: this week, alongside one folder of protest letters and telegrams, I find another archive, this one bigger — a collection of letters, from home and abroad, praising Cárdenas for his generous spirit and humanitarian action.
How proud we are to be Mexican, his people wrote. How true it is now that Mexico is one of the greatest nations in the world.
Destry Maria Sibley is a freelance writer, media producer, and educator. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, she will develop a podcast to share the stories of the Niños de Morelia, a group of child refugees who fled the Spanish Civil War and settled in Mexico in 1937. You can follow her year in Mexico on Instagram or Twitter.