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Why Is There an Italian Town…in Mexico?

Where Italy meets Mexico.

They might be 6,200 miles apart, but visitors to the quaint Mexican pueblo of Chipilo could be forgiven for thinking that they ended up near Venice, Italy.

But it’s not for the miles and miles of canals; those simply don’t exist. Nor is it for an overabundance of cats, Venice’s most famous four-legged residents; Chipilo is horse country.

If not for the usual tropes, then how did this small town of approximately 4,000 become a bustling hub of cheese and gelato and, more unusually, flourish as a linguistic anomaly?

Let’s flashback to 1880, to the Venetian village of Segusino, in the province of Treviso. Located along the Piave River and close to the towering peaks of the Dolomites, for generations, the picturesque spot was famed for its agricultural and dairy production. However, that same year the Piave River caused a devastating flood in the region, thrusting countless farmers into financial ruin.

Back in Mexico, President Porfirio Diaz was working hard to modernize the Mexican economy, in particular, its agricultural infrastructure. President Diaz and his cabinet were keenly aware that the Venetian region was known as a farming powerhouse. Moreover, it didn’t hurt that Italian farmers were generally Catholic and that their languages shared a similar Latin background. In other words, it was thought that due to these important shared customs and tongues, assimilation would be that much easier.

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This wasn’t the first time ranchers from the Italian peninsula had been officially tempted to pick up shop and contribute to Mexico’s economic growth–that dates back to 1857, to the failed colony of Cristo in the Mexican state of Veracruz. However, under Diaz’s administration, it would mark the first instance of the Mexican government paying for the farmers’ voyage across the Atlantic, as well as providing them with monies to use for establishing both a town and agricultural infrastructure.

The Mexican state of Puebla, upon hearing of this national plan, subsequently chose a tract of land close to its eponymous capital city of Puebla. The area was known as Chipilac, which in the Indigenous language of Nahuatl translates as “place of the whiner.”

On October 7, 1882, 38 families from Segusino arrived in Chipilac and established Chipilo, what would come to be known as the most authentically Italian place in Mexico. Although there’s a small park called Parco del Paese in the center of Chipilo, it’s neither a zócalo–a public plaza flanked by government buildings or a church–nor does it have a fountain or gazebo in the middle as a standard issue Mexican plaza often would.

Instead, there’s a small cafe, an event space called Casa Italia, and a little playground. However, due to the dominant role that Catholicism played in the daily life of Italians at the time, there is indeed the Church of the Immaculate Conception right across the street from the park.

Despite being less than 20 miles from the city of Puebla, Chipilo was still a bit isolated from the hubbub; furthermore, Venetian colonists were prohibited from marrying outside of that group. Consequently, today’s chipileños–the term for someone from Chipilo–have been able to successfully maintain their heritage and traditions while also proudly being Mexican citizens.

Interestingly, this also resulted in a curious linguistic mash-up between Vèneto, or Venetian, Spanish (the language of government and commerce in Mexico), and even a hint of Nahuatl. This language has also come to be known as Chipileño. Enter any restaurant along Chipilo’s primary thoroughfare of Avenida 16 de Septiembre/Avenida 5 de Mayo, and you could very easily hear locals code-switching between Chipileño and Spanish.

Ironically, even though Italian campesinos were lured to Mexico with the intention of helping improve agricultural yields, the area around Chipilo is arid and not particularly suitable for mass farming. Additionally, there were frequent tensions between the Venetians and the Indigenous Otomi people; these conflicts and the exasperation of some of the colonists caused nearly 60% of the original farmers to return to Segusino.

The families that remained in Chipilo persevered and ended up building one of the most prolific centers of dairy production in all of Mexico. Not to mention, with Mexico City being less than 100 miles away, they already had a massive market to supply. One specialty is a queso fresco cheese of Chipilo known as oreado. A blend of sheep/goat/cow’s milk, oreado has been made in the town for decades since it’s an aged cheese that didn’t require refrigeration at a time when that was more of a luxury.

Even in Mexico, a country full of elaborately decorated neighborhoods, vivacious events, and peerless cuisine, Chipilo is truly a distinctive destination. The next time you’re planning your trip south of the border, take a day to Puebla and Chipilo for a fascinating trip through Italian history, a freshly baked panino, and a spoonful or two of locally produced gelato.

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Bheckel169 February 22, 2023

I attended the University of the Americas located in Cholula, Mexico.  The school was 15 miles from Chipilo which is where I would buy my milk and cheese (string cheese).  This was in 1970-72 and the town was off the beaten path.  I was always fascinated with this town and it's unusual ethnic and cultural makeup and I would certainly recommend a visit.  Time for me to go back as well.