By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Back in the year 1868, Mexico was a chaotic place.
Having finally achieved independence from Spain – after 300 years of harsh colonial rule – just 45 years earlier, and, immediately after that, enduring a three-year, European-imposed monarchy, the country was still experiencing the rollercoaster effects of nearly a half century of sorted political tug-o-wars and military power struggles that left it vulnerable to an attack by its northern neighbor in 1846 that would force it to cede almost half of its sovereign territory.
Fifteen years later, Mexico was invaded by the French, ostensibly to collect on defaulted loans of the liberal government of the young nation’s liberalist new president, Benito Juárez, but in reality to try to restore a European monarchy.
Meanwhile, to the north, the United States was embroiled in a gruesome Civil War that would tear that country apart and lead to the deaths of nearly 700,000 people.
When the fighting finally ended north of the border, the imposed monarchist rule of Maximilian collapsed in 1867 and Juárez was reinstated as president.
And with war’s end in the United States, countless disenfranchised U.S. soldiers – mostly from the Confederate side, but also many Unionists – headed south to Mexico to find work in the country’s then-fledgling mining and railroad industries.
Shell-shocked, socially adrift and cast into a society of which they did not know the culture or language, things did not always go well for these Civil War veterans.
Many of them ended up sick and penniless, with no real family or support system to turn to in their new homeland.
It was against this backdrop of political change and economic transition that a small group of U.S. residents in Mexico decided to found an organization that would look after the interests of these unsettled American workers and other disadvantaged U.S. expats with a philanthropic safety net that would provide them with essential medical care and financial aid as needed.
Thus was born the American Benevolent Society (ABS), which from its very conception has sought to serve U.S. citizens and others in Mexico in times of difficulty through both moral and economic assistance.
One hundred and fifty years later, the core mission of the ABS has not changed, although its activities and means of providing for its wards has adapted to current realities.
Over the last century and a half, the ABS has established a cemetery to provide for families of deceased U.S. citizens, helped found the world-renowned ABC Medical Center, established a used bookstore which doubles as a friendly hub for community interaction, organized annual health fairs and important holiday events, set up adult education classes, initiated a meals-on-wheels program for homebound persons and, most recently, worked closely with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to help undocumented, dual-citizen children get the paperwork and documentation they need to be able to study and assimilate into both U.S. and Mexican society.
The American Benevolent Society has helped out families in times of war (Mexico suffered its own horrific Civil War from 1910 to 1920), earthquakes, floods and other disasters.
It has served as an umbrella organization for numerous other U.S. altruistic and social entities in Mexico and has worked closely with the U.S. Embassy to help Americans living here to register to vote, get access to Social Security benefits and orient citizens in distress as to their rights.
Last Thursday, Feb. 22, the ABS celebrated its 150th anniversary with its traditional Cherry Pie Festival at the residence of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson.
Officially established on the birthday of the United States’ first president, George Washington (who, through an unsubstantiated story about his youth has, over the years, become associated with cherries), the ABS’ Cherry Pie Fest serves not only as a celebration for the organization’s anniversary and annual general meeting, but as a palpable reminder of the fundamental ideals and values of the society’s mission.
During the event at Jacobson’s home, ABS president Bill Biese and ABS executive director Barbara Franco – both of whom were formally recognized for their unflinching service and dedication to the community – outlined briefly the society’s history and objectives, a chronical that was later elaborated on by ABS board members Nancy Stich and Mark Alexander, whose generous contributions were likewise acknowledged. (Alexander was the recipient of the ABS’ 2018 Cherry Pie Award for Service).
Also recognized were Frances Huttanus, who was given the Herbert E. Wallace Lifetime Community Service Award along with Biese, Pedro De Koster and Genny Mosser.
The American Benevolent Society’s offices are located inside Union Church at Paseo de la Reforma 1870 in Lomas de Chapultepec, and are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The ABS operates a nonprofit used book store called Caza Libros which is also located inside Union Church, at Paseo de la Reforma 1870 in Colonia Lomas de Chapultepec. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The ABS also operates the American Cemetery, located at Calzada Mexico-Tacuba 1175 in Colonia Argentina Antigua (tel: 5399-3645).
For more information, call the American Benevolent Society office at 5540-5123.