In 1868 a group of U.S. citizens living in Mexico City ate cherry pie together on George Washington's birthday. That was the start of the American Benevolent Society, a mutual aid organization to assist fellow U.S. citizens in distress in Mexico. Current members are putting the final touches on their 145th anniversary celebration. Yes, they will serve cherry pie at the event too.
Founded just three years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, the American Benevolent Society (ABS) raised funds through social events to respond to the needs of widows and orphans, repatriate bodies of U.S. citizens who died in Mexico, help with medical emergencies, and finance emergency trips back to the United States.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit with Barbara Franco, Executive Director of the American Benevolent Society. She told me "we still provide those same services. People from the States with those kinds of problems want and need help in English. Our work really hasn't changed much, except for the way we go about doing it. Instead of making arrangements to travel by train or boat we arrange travel by plane and purchase the ticket online. Our work doesn't change because people and their needs don't change. Circumstances don't change."
The ABS also helps people of other nationalities through their own similar organizations. "If you don't know what to do in a crisis, we're a good place to start. We can direct virtually anybody to some kind of help either through us or by finding them the help they need. We provide medical services through the ABC Hospital which we founded 125 years ago in an effort to not become a burden on the Mexican health system."
There are new needs U.S. citizens are facing for which they are seeking assistance from the ABS. One is that of retirees from the States who need assisted living but cannot afford it. Another is Mexicans who went to the U.S. and acquired citizenship, or have children that are U.S. citizens, and have returned to Mexico but cannot use the U.S. Medicare coverage to which they are entitled. The ABS is working with other organizations around the world to get the Medicare law changed. "We could take care of people better if they could receive their Medicare benefits in Mexico."
Another emerging group is made up of very young children born in the U.S. to Mexican parents. Now with reverse migration, these children face problems registering for public schools and government services in Mexico. As Franco described, "They are U.S. citizens, but a sort of undocumented foreigner in their own 'cultural country.' There are also children who are a little older without documents from either the U.S. or Mexico. They were taken to the U.S. by their parents when they were very young and nothing was done about their papers. Others in their twenties don’t have the Spanish with which to function in Mexico, but they don't feel comfortable in the United States. We do what we can."
"What we can" includes legal and immigration work and advice, scholarships, and medical and psychological care. Franco summed it up as "a lot of refuge. We consider ourselves a soft place to land in English in Mexico City."
Not all its work deals with distress. The ABS hosts special events and classes open to the community. It is also collecting oral histories of expatriates of all nationalities. We are invited to record our stories on professional audio equipment assisted by an experienced interviewer. According to their website, "Interviewees reflect on the past, imagine the future, and taken together present a collage of expatriate voices that speak about love, survival, immigration, culture, community and the challenges and joys of cross-border life."
An additional commendable aspect of the American Benevolent Society is that it funds close to 90% of its expenses with the income from two enterprises, the American Cemetery and the American Bookstore.
The bookstore is located adjacent the Union Church on Reforma in the Lomas de Chapultepec section of Mexico City. The ABS is not affiliated with the church, it merely rents space there. In addition to selling books, the bookstore provides a welcoming, friendly place for those who need that type of space.
Donations fill in the financial gap with many of them coming from people who have received assistance from the ABS when they were in need. Marvelous.
Those who sign up for a moderately priced individual or family membership are offered the satisfaction of supporting a good cause and the invitation to an elegant reception on George Washington's birthday. Yes, for cherry pie.
Speaking about those who have preceded her, as well as those with whom she has the privilege of working, Franco said "There are many, many functions that we serve, however I think it is the quietness of the American Benevolent Society that in many ways counts the most. No fanfare. No waving flags or beating on the chests or anything of that sort. It is just the constant, always there, quiet good work."