Talking history: The American Benevolent Society turns 140

In a far corner of the Panteón Americano, the grave markers are sunk like worn teeth beneath the pines and jacarandas. Names hint at the cemetery’s history: C.A. Ryan, Albert C. Osborne, Frank Duffy.

A 1970s era scrapbook records ABS events like the Cherry Pie Festival, its anniversary celebration, in honor of George Washington’s birthday.

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Barbara Franco talks about her life in Mexico during the 60s and 70s, from Embassy events to working with the Lacandón and Chamula Indians in Chiapas.

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Diana Anhalt expresses how the move to México enriched her life.
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The groundskeepers tell of chain-rattling ghosts, and how Americans imported their tradition of cemeteries covered in grassy lawns, though now the graveyard is mostly dirt and concrete tombs.

Inside the cemetery office you’ll find the records for those who are buried here: some include provenance, last place of residence, and cause of death.

The American Benevolent Society took over responsibility for the Panteón in 1906. The Society itself was formed in Mexico City in 1868 by the US Consul and a board of wealthy American businessmen to look after their less fortunate brethren – the Civil War veterans, ne’er do wells, and hard-luck cases who needed a hand.

They gave loans, and assisted cases of abandonment, desertion, and illness They paid for return passage to the US, and they made sure Americans had, if nothing else, a decent burial.

The ABS continues reaching out to Americans in need.

“Most of our patients are a little nuts,” says ABS Executive Director Barbara Franco.

Franco, who has a Mary Poppins air of sense and sensibility, is as candid about the general eccentricities of her work as she is tightlipped on individual details. Cases generally involve financial support, cleaning services, and eventually, burial. But “every single [case] has a twist.”

Indeed, in the ABS records there once existed the detailed minutes kept by the Society’s first Secretary, a Major Gorsuch. When historian Bennie Mayes began to compile the society’s history from 1868-1968, Gorsuch’s “frank revelations” were deemed unfit for print, and it was recommended that the file remain sealed another hundred years.

Some colorful examples of the Society’s outreach are on the record, however. President Porfirio Díaz attended a “theatre circus” benefit for the American Hospital (now the ABC Medical Center), founded by the Society. A “Mrs. M.” needed a $7 USD loan from the ABS in 1946 to return to the States, after she had already pawned her gold teeth. A “Mr. K.,” once a “successful mining engineer,” was cared for in his final days before being buried for free at the cemetery.

When President John F. Kennedy visited Mexico City in 1962, a “Bill Z.” was held by the Secret Service for throwing a note into the Presidential car during a parade. The Embassy called the ABS. Turns out Bill had once “implored the ABS to help him” find a “missing sweetheart” and was asking the President for the same assistance.

***

Shauna Leff enters the basement to the nose-twitching smell of must and cool air. Before her lies a clutter of boxes, wheelchairs, computer hard drives, blue filing cabinets and bookshelves.

A 30-year-old with contagious energy and a tiny nose piercing, Leff is ABS’s youngest board member and the organization’s selfdescribed cheerleader. With the 140th birthday celebration fast approaching (to be celebrated February 20 at the US Ambassador’s residence), she’s digging for photos to use in the anniversary video.

Leff is spearheading the ABS’s Story Archive Project. Like NPR’s StoryCorps and the BBC’s digital Telling Lives project, Leff is recording expat interviews to preserve the stories of the older generation —stories she hopes will raise the institution’s profile and engage the new generation of Americans in Mexico. So far, Leff has recorded 10 interviews on professional audio quality equipment. It’s expat history as never heard before.

Former ABS president Vicky Silvan, 83, and her husband Len tell of how they met, painting the scene at the Hotel del Prado, the popular expat hangout that crumbled in the 1985 earthquake.

Author Diana Anhalt’s childhood memories of the 1950s take listeners through Polanco cornfields, down a Paseo de la Reforma still traveled by burros and horses, and to the Pyramids back when you could still dig in the rubble and take home pre-Colombian artifacts.

Leff asks how her life changed by moving here. Anhalt’s voice cracks on the recording: “It gave me another language, it gave me another culture … and it gave me the gift of life.” A pause. “You know it’s funny, Shauna, I never realized how much it moves me until I started talking about it.”

John Maxim, 73, writer, former actor, and a retired arts critic, will celebrate his 40th anniversary in Mexico this year. In his interview, he talks about his masterpiece: a novel forty-seven years in the making and not yet published. He gives thanks for the ABS Health Day and the bookshop at Union Church. He is writing volume fifteen of a journal that he’s been keeping since 1973: “it is a social record of my time in Mexico, when it became the largest city in the world.”

“I’m absolutely delighted [to be recorded for the Archive project] because as I say, I’m a nobody,” he says in his stage diction. “You know, words are forever, whether they are written or spoken.”

And so, the ABS forges into the 21st century, offering comfort, alleviating pain, and recording the normal and remarkable lives of the American community in Mexico.

For more information on the Story Archive Project, and on the ABS anniversary celebration, please call their office at (55) 5540 5123.

 

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